Pilot Butte has long been a beacon for Bend. First used as a navigational landmark to draw early settlers to the area, and in later decades as a source of volcanic rock to add some grip to icy winter roads, Pilot Butte was donated to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in 1927 in the memory of Terrence Hardington Foley. More recently, it has become a favorite running path and a must-stop for tourists to capture its 100-mile panoramic views of the Cascade Range and Central Oregon.
But the enthusiasm that locals and visitors alike have for the 400-foot bump on Bend's east side—to the tune of nearly 1 million visits per year—is not matched by Oregon State Parks budget allocations. According to Park Manager Susan Bethers, who oversees Pilot Butte, Tumalo, and Cline Falls state parks, the butte only receives about 10 percent of the High Desert Unit's funding.
She stresses that the figure is just an approximation, but even accepting a generous margin of error, it's clear that Pilot Butte receives a much slimmer slice of the fiscal pie than parks with many fewer annual visitors or with less acreage. By comparison, Tumalo State Park is twice Pilot Butte's size, but only sees a third as many daytime visitors. And at Cline Falls State Park, acreage and attendance are even smaller; the 9-acre park gets about 260,000 annual visitors.
"Of course bigger parks, they're going to tend to be first on the list to get bigger projects done," Bethers explains, adding that parks that bring in money through day use or camping fees tend to rank higher. But there is no charge to use Pilot Butte State Park. "Every park in my unit could use more funding and attention," continues Bethers, "and I think every park manager would probably feel that way."
To make up the gap between funding and needs, community groups historically have donated funds, supplies, and labor to bring improvements to the butte. Terry Foley, Pilot Butte Partners (PBP) board chairman, and grandson of the man for whom the butte was purchased, says that group has accomplished a number of lasting projects, including the Foley Monument, construction of a ramp to improve accessibility and the seating wall at the summit, and landscaping the parking lot island.
"In general, all of our parks get a lot of help from volunteers, and so Pilot Butte is no exception to that," Bether says. "We have park hosts there, we have worked with individuals and groups like the Pilot Butte Partners."
However, she admits that with such a small office—two park rangers are the only other year-round staff— the High Desert Unit's ability to manage volunteers is limited. No matter how competent and passionate volunteers are, staff time is still required to supervise projects.
"It would be amazing if we had a park ranger stationed there or if we had unlimited funds to deal with things there, but we do the best we can with the budget we have," Bethers explains. "Sometimes we can't get something done that we would really like to."
But some of the park's most vocal advocates say that Oregon Parks is creating unnecessary barriers to volunteering and securing financial and other community support. Bill Smith, one of the founders of the Pilot Butte Summit Seekers and husband to "The Butte Lady," says his group submitted a request to Bethers last October outlining a host of projects the group wanted to complete and pitching a grander vision for the park's future.
In the proposal, he outlined goals including repairing and maintenance of existing amenities, restoring the park's natural beauty, and adding new amenities to serve a growing interest in developing Pilot Butte's potential as a "fitness park." But he also acknowledges the barriers to accomplishing these goals—the changing role of the park, budget limitations, cumbersome rules for volunteers, a sluggish project approval process, and a lack of long-term vision.
"We're aware that the climate today is much different than in the past," Smith writes in the proposal. "The days of informal collaboration between staff and citizens resulting in amazing accomplishments will never return."
Rather, the relationship between Oregon Parks and would-be volunteers has become strained. Smith blames poor communication, and says that breakdown has caused some park regulars to think the worst.
"Opinions vary greatly," he says. "Some believe that OPRD thinks the park is an economic burden to the State Park system as a whole, others say OPRD doesn't seem to care about the needs of the majority of visitors and/or wonder why a park with such high visitation is so poorly maintained. Still others note the absence of park staff and what they believe is a lack of enforcement of park rules."
Smith continues, "While these opinions—and many others—may be misguided, there remains a problem that can only be fixed by better communication and corresponding action."
What a majority of park visitors want, he says, is a park that draws on the already popular fitness uses of the butte and expands on them, to create a vibrant destination for people interested in getting exercise outdoors.
"The thing that resonates most among visitors is the fitness park concept and, especially among the people using the trails, that's what Pilot Butte is," Smith says. "Yes, it has a great view when you drive to the top, but five months out of the year you can't do that. When you can, it's far from the most popular activity."
Smith says he sent his lengthy and detailed plan to Bethers, who responded by informing him that the OPRD has a new policy for volunteer groups. Rather than diving into their pet projects, he explains, they must now go through a two-year waiting period in which they focus on existing park priority projects.
According to Bethers, there isn't a new policy, per se, but there has been talk of a trial period of sorts before signing a formal Adopt-A-Park agreement with a group. However, she can't speak to the Pilot Butte Summit Seekers' proposal because she says she doesn't recall receiving it.
"Nobody has come to me and had a detailed conversation about it," Bethers says, adding that perhaps she missed the email. While Smith doesn't know whether Bethers ever read the proposal, he says she responded to his initial note and exchanged a number of emails over the subsequent months. It was in these emails she described the new policy.
In the meantime, wheels are in motion both on the staff side—with plans to erect signs discouraging visitors from using rogue trails, which causes erosion—and the volunteer side.
And, a third volunteer group, Save Pilot Butte, recently began organizing around a desire to protect and preserve the butte. The group describes itself as "a like-minded band of nonpolitical citizens focused on bringing public awareness to the deteriorating condition of Pilot Butte," with the goal of "rally[ing] public support and [making] it possible again for people, businesses, and organizations to make Pilot Butte a shining example of Bend at its best."
To help advance those goals, the Pilot Butte Summit Seekers host their annual Summer Celebration June 20. The daylong event is free and includes the annual Simply My Best fundraiser, in which participants receive pledges for the butte based on how many times they reach the summit in one day. The celebration will also include children's activities, tai chi demonstrations, pet tricks, and music by Evan Egerer.
Pilot Butte Summer Celebration
Saturday, June 20, Pilot Butte State Park