After the Bend Park & Recreation District’s efforts to build a bridge across the Deschutes River stalled, the district is now looking to have a broader conversation about what the public wants from its trail system.

During a meeting Tuesday evening, the park district’s board discussed its takeaways from a study, prepared by The Mary Orton Co. on behalf of Oregon Consensus, that the district commissioned to review the challenges associated with the contentious effort to build a bridge a few miles upstream of Bend. The report, which was presented to the board in December, concluded the project was hindered by mistrust from advocates and opponents alike, and recommended a lengthy process to restore that trust before any discussions could move forward.

While the board members supported bringing stakeholders together, each of them supported a discussion beyond a single bridge, instead turning it into a chance to gather feedback on the future of Bend’s trail network.

“If we’re going to go to the trouble of developing a consensus, we want to have a consensus, if possible, on the entire process,” said board vice chair Ted Schoenborn.

The discussion represents the latest twist in a yearslong effort to build a bridge near Meadow Day Use Area on the Deschutes River Trail. In 2012, Bend voters approved a bond intended to fund such a bridge, along with several other large-scale park projects.

Advocates for the proposed bridge say it will link trails in that area of the river, particularly on the eastern bank of the river. However, opponents have argued that the bridge would displace wildlife living in the area and harm the quality of life for nearby homeowners.

The Oregon House of Representatives introduced two bills, one in 2017 and one in 2018, designed to stymie the park district’s efforts to build a bridge at the state level. Neither bill passed.

After the second bill was introduced last February, the park board adopted a resolution to bring in a third-party facilitator to find a path forward that would be agreeable for all.

The report characterized the situation as one built upon mistrust in all directions, and recommended the district invite people on all sides of the issue to meet in small groups, bring in a respected community member to lead discussions and nail down conclusive facts that both sides can agree on, among other suggestions.

Rather than staying focused on the bridge, board chair Brady Fuller said it makes sense to broaden the scope of the discussion to examine trail crossings more generally.

The district currently maintains around 70 miles of paved and unpaved trails, with an additional 20 miles planned or under construction, said Michelle Healy, planning and park services director for the district.

Board member Nathan Hovekamp said trails consistently rank as the highest priority for Bend residents. Going forward, the district could spearhead a discussion about better linking to trails managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, as well as leading discussions about existing trail projects.

Fuller even suggested removing the bridge from the district’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan, a sign that the district is serious about starting over on this issue.

“I think that sends a strong signal,” he said.

The project’s status remains to be seen. Executive Director Don Horton said staff will draft a resolution incorporating the board’s comments and present it at a future meeting.

Still, there’s reason to believe the bridge will remain a topic of discussion in the future.

“Not to be trite, but I don’t think we’re going to forget about the bridge,” board member Lauren Sprang said during the meeting.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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