Oregon Wild, an environmental group that touts its commitment to preserving wilderness and old-growth forest, has expanded its mission. It now seeks to kill urban trails.

On the group’s behalf, a legislative committee has introduced a bill that would prohibit Bend’s park district from building a footbridge over the Deschutes River at the edge of the city’s urban growth boundary. The bridge, for which district voters approved funding in 2012 with the support of local environmental groups, would allow those using the Deschutes River Trail east of the river to access Forest Service trails on its west side.

The bill, HB 4029, is a retread of legislation that died during the 2017 session. That bill, HB 2027, was sponsored by Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, and it was supported enthusiastically by Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, and a handful of his constituents living in pricey riverside homes near the bridge site. At the center of it all was Tim Phillips, a riverside homeowner, a generous Buehler campaign donor and a state Republican Party luminary.

The addition of environmentalists to the cause has created “a bipartisan coalition” to kill the bridge, Oregon Wild Wilderness Program Manager Erik Fernandez gushed in an op-ed he submitted recently to The Bulletin. And if it’s bipartisan, it has to be good, right?

HB 4029 is evidence to the contrary.

The bill’s supporters argue that a footbridge has no business on this stretch of the Deschutes, which is designated as a state scenic waterway. The underlying law restricts certain kinds of development, at least temporarily, along protected stretches, and this particular part of the river carries an unusual prohibition on bridges. But the laws restrictions are, by design, not absolute. Rather, the law creates a one-year “timeout” for certain uses — a footbridge, for instance — during which the state and property owner may try to work out their differences. If they can’t, the property owner can proceed as planned as long as the improvement satisfies other applicable regulations.

Without this flexibility, the Scenic Waterways Act would amount to a massive taking of property value.

It’s easy to understand why the wealthy owners of riverside homes near the bridge site would support HB 4029. They’ve bought their pieces of paradise, and they’d like to maintain its exclusivity. Building a bridge here, after all, would allow people living in neighborhoods directly across the river (including mine) to access an extensive trail system on federal land much more easily than they can now.

The determination of environmental groups like Oregon Wild to kill the bridge is puzzling. Just years ago, a number of local environmental groups voiced support for the trail connection. But now, Oregon Wild and allied groups see the bridge as the first push down a slippery slope. “Any proposal to undo public lands or river protections is a red flag for the conservation community,” Fernandez wrote in a statement to The Bulletin in January. Never mind that allowing a bridge here following a year of deliberation wouldn’t undo protections in the least, as this is the way the act is supposed to function.

What’s puzzling isn’t Oregon Wild’s fear of a slippery slope. Rather, it’s the project the group has chosen to spotlight as a threat. The footbridge would cross an urban stretch of river, connecting dense neighborhoods with well-tracked federal land used locally as an off-leash dog area. In doing so, it would reduce the number of car trips those same users make to access the same land. The best route to the west side of the river is circuitous and involves roads that are often congested.

HB 4029 does differ from its 2017 predecessor in two notable ways.

First, it directs various state agencies to work with Bend’s park district to find an alternate route between Bend and Sunriver. The provision seems to be intended to suggest that the people opposing the bridge are really, truly (wink) interested in helping to find a workable solution.

Second, it directs the state’s parks department to study three rivers each biennium and recommend rivers or segments for designation as scenic waterways. This provision is likely intended to satisfy key lawmakers who are reluctant to support “one-off” bills with little statewide significance. Not that this window dressing is going to fool anyone.

Nonetheless, the latter provision should make people living elsewhere in Oregon a little nervous. If extending Bend’s trail network to federal land by means of a footbridge is the sort of environmental atrocity Oregon Wild and like-minded groups hope to prevent by expanding the Scenic Waterways Act, cities across the state should get to work on their trail crossings before it’s too late.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.

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