On Thursday, the three Democrats on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee did something for thousands of southwest Bend residents that their representative, Republican Knute Buehler, will not: It stuck up for them in the fight over a long-planned pedestrian and bicycle bridge crossing the Deschutes River.
On a party line vote, with two Republicans in opposition, the committee amended a piece of legislation engineered by Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, on behalf of Tim Phillips, a state Republican power broker and generous Buehler supporter. Whisnant’s bill, which cleared the Legislature’s lower chamber last month, would have imposed an ironclad prohibition on pedestrian bridges over a long stretch of the Deschutes in and near Bend — including the stretch that runs past Phillips’ house. Bridges are prohibited by rule under the state’s Scenic Waterways Act, but the act’s prohibition functions, by design, as a one-year waiting period rather than an outright ban.
Thursday’s amendment, supported by officials with Bend’s park district, would prohibit bridges by law within city limits, thereby precluding the bridge-related property condemnation Phillips claims to fear. Meanwhile, it would remove the scenic waterway prohibition on bridges at a location just outside the city preferred by the park district.
The result seems to give everyone what they want: Phillips and his neighbors wouldn’t have to worry about condemnation, which the district isn’t proposing in any case; and those of us who live in high-density neighborhoods across the river eventually might gain convenient access via the Deschutes River Trail to an extensive Forest Service trail system that is now a circuitous journey away.
As positive as Thursday’s development was, the newly amended bill is still a long way from passage, and the legislative session is drawing quickly to a close. Its chances surely would improve with enthusiastic support from Central Oregon’s entire delegation, led by Buehler, who represents the vast majority of those affected by this dispute.
But will he?
I asked Buehler’s office Thursday whether he supported the compromise hammered out in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Here’s his response:
“I do not support the amendment to limit protection of the scenic waterway. As I mentioned previously, both the Community Solutions study and subsequent decision by Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to prohibit a bridge over the scenic water area raise serious concerns. This follows an earlier ODFW decision rejecting the proposal. Subsequently, a host of other sensitive environmental, cultural and wildlife concerns have been brought to our attention. These issues need further vetting.”
Buehler’s response suggests two possibilities. One possibility is that Buehler’s a more ardent environmentalist than the three Democrats who control the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The other possibility is the anti-bridge push, which he supports, has very little to do with the environment at all.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.