After years of contentious discussions about a proposed footbridge across the Deschutes River created deep divides on both sides of the issue, the Bend Park & Recreation District may face a long, arduous path toward spanning that divide.
During a meeting on Tuesday evening, the park district’s board of directors heard the findings from a report that described some challenges facing the prolonged effort to build a bridge several miles upstream of Bend. But the report also recommended a path forward. The report, prepared by The Mary Orton Co. on behalf of Oregon Consensus, concludes that disagreements over basic facts and a lack of trust between those for and against the bridge are the biggest challenges facing the project.
While noting that it’s far from a guarantee, the report recommends a long-term collaborative process.
“There were lots and lots of differences of opinion,” said Mary Orton, founder of the Bend-based consulting company, prior to the meeting.
The back-and-forth battle over building a bridge in the area near Meadow Day Use Area on the Deschutes River Trail goes as far back as 2012, when Bend voters approved a bond designed to fund several large park projects — including a bridge across the river south of town.
Orton’s report notes that all the locations studied for a potential bridge are within a stretch of river protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act. The report notes that the management plan for the protected section of the river prohibits new bridges.
Opponents of the bridge have argued it would displace wildlife and impact the quality of life for people living in the area. The Oregon House of Representatives introduced two bills, in 2017 and earlier in 2018, that would block a bridge across that section of river, though neither passed.
In February, after the second bill was introduced, the park board signed a resolution committing to bringing in a third party to help find agreement. Oregon Consensus was selected, and Orton came on board in late summer.
Orton met with 29 stakeholders, ranging from residents to environmentalists to Bend Mayor Pro Tem Sally Russell, to ask questions about the bridge and the process surrounding it. The interviews revealed deep divides over how a potential bridge would impact deer and elk using the area, access for off-leash dogs, homeowners living in the area and other key issues.
More than any specific issue, however, Orton said the interviews revealed significant distrust between proponents and opponents of the bridge, as well as toward the park district itself. Moreover, Orton said the interviews showed wildly divergent understandings of facts related to state and federal scenic regulations, the wildlife living in the area and previous efforts to build a bridge.
“Distrust and differences of fact are quite normal in these types of disputes,” she said prior to the meeting. “It really hits quite close to home, literally.”
Orton recommended inviting people on all sides of the issue to discuss the topic in small groups, possibly with a facilitator present. From there, the park district could bring in a respected community leader or group of leaders to help get people involved and get discussions moving without appearing biased, Orton said. Additionally, Orton suggested a joint fact-finding process to get people on all sides comfortable with the same set of facts.
If all of those steps are successful, Orton said a collaborative community group, involving the community leader or leaders, someone who can facilitate discussion and a group that includes people on all sides of the issue, could form. She said the group could expand its focus beyond the bridge itself, to examine underlying issues like river access in lower-income parts of town.
She said the situation fostered distrust on both sides of the issue that would need time to heal.
“I think if you try to do it in less than a year, it’s going to be very hard,” Orton said.
The park district’s board acknowledged the need for community engagement and added that it could make decisions on the proposals set forth at a future meeting.
“It’s difficult and bracing to hear some of those comments,” said board member Nathan Hovekamp.
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