I thought there must be a way to tap the full recreation potential of Central Oregon and create a model that could be replicated in other parts of the country. So, two years ago I asked recreation leaders in Deschutes County to look at how recreation could add value to its recreation assets, creating the strongest possible engine for economic development.
-- Sen. Ron Wyden on the floor of the U.S. Senate, December 23, 2009
The recreation leaders in Deschutes County who Wyden was referring to are the members of the Deschutes County Committee on Recreation Assets, a group that the senator - known to be an outdoor recreation enthusiast himself - convened in October of 2007. Since then, the committee has been instrumental in spearheading an effort to connect the region's bike trails, and although this roundtable of business owners, recreation group leaders, parks district board members (among others) was originally envisioned to convene for a little less than a year while it evaluated the region's recreational needs, the committee has remained intact, now operating to support other organizations that share its mission to improve recreation opportunities in the region.
Nearly three years later, the committee, which doesn't answer to the county, as its name might suggest, but rather is an independent organization, is still going strong and proved instrumental in the conception of the Three Sisters Scenic Bikeway, a project that would connect Central Oregon's cities with bike paths. But the committee now faces the first real test of its influence as the group lobbies to send the Forest Service back to the drawing board on a proposed welcome station on Century Drive. The fight, which has been brewing behind the scenes for months, is now publicly surfacing after the committee filed an appeal on the Forest Service preliminary plan, essentially starting what could be an all-or-nothing-test of wills and political influence for the fledgling committee.
The Forest Service, which plans to fund the project mostly through a federal highway grant specifically meant for scenic byways, says that the welcome station will provide locals and visitors with a jumping-off point as they enter the national forest. The committee, however, joined by recreational groups and tourist officials, says otherwise.
The proposal calls for a roughly 1,500-square-foot "Cascadian rustic-style" building (although the decision notice on the project originally referred to the building as a "Canadian-style" structure, something the agency now says was a typo) located five miles up Century Drive and surrounded by a drive-through-style parking lot built for around 30 cars and as many as five RVs, that would be meant for short-term visitation use. The building itself, according the Forest Service's proposal, would also be a place where the thousands of locals and tourists who travel the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway each year could pick up recreation permits and maps to the area's multiple lakes and campgrounds. The price tag is right around $1 million.
But what seems like a win-win for the Forest Service and the local community, which relies heavily on summer tourism to bolster the regional economy, has turned into a tug of war between the federal agency and this committee.
On June 2, Sally Russell, who represents the Committee on Recreation Assets submitted a six-page appeal letter to the Forest Service in which she outlined a bevy of reasons the group opposed the welcome station. But one need not read past the first bulleted point in the document to fully grasp the committee's position. "The facility, as designed, is not needed," the appeal states. There are also some suggestions as to how a welcome station could be beneficial, such as ensuring the building would be open to a larger variety of uses. But the appeal digs deeper than this - stating that the Forest Service is putting this welcome station ahead of other projects, like parking and trail connectivity efforts, pointing at more significant misgivings that the committee has with the Forest Service.
"I think the thought process [behind the appeal] is that the building's usage is so narrow for the amount of investment going into it," says Russell, "We felt that conceptually it came from a corner where there wasn't a lot of public awareness."
Russell's name is probably familiar to many Central Oregonians, especially those who travel within the region's sizeable outdoor recreation circle. She founded the Cascade Chainbreaker mountain bike race and the Big Fat Tour, in addition to running the Cascade Cycling Classic for a few years. Outside of the cycling spectrum, she's also served on a few Deschutes County advisory boards and at one point helmed the Cascade Festival of Music. Now, she's mostly focused on raising her two daughters while serving as the volunteer coordinator (taking up administrative responsibilities previously held by a Wyden staffer) for the Committee on Recreation Assets and its eight-member board.
While Russell has some harsh criticisms of the proposed welcome station, she and her committee will be sitting down with the Forest Service to discuss the appeal on Friday, July 2. A formal meeting is part of the Forest Service's appeal process and Robin Gyorgyfalvy, the scenic byways leader for the Bend-Ft. Rock Ranger District, says that the aim of the meeting is to see if differences between the agency and the appellant can be ironed out. But with the appeal stating that the problem is the project itself, an easy solution may be hard to come by easily. Should the meeting not bring a solution, the issue will go to Deschutes National Forest supervisor John Allen for a decision by the end of July.
Gyorgyfalvy, who wrote the initial proposal for the federal highway grant, says that while she understands the aim of the Committee on Recreation Assets, she feels there might be a failure of understanding when it comes to the purpose and parameters of the funding.
"This is not a recreation project, it's a byway welcome station," says Gyorgyfalvy, who goes on to say that the funding pertains specifically to scenic byways and not for uses like trailheads.
Russell acknowledges the fact that the funds have specific intentions and that the welcome station isn't necessarily taking funds from other projects, but still thinks the result will be a less-than-desirable facility.
"In some ways it's great that you're able to build it with funds that wouldn't normally [be available] to the Forest Service. If you look at that independently, that's a big coup. But it's still going to be meant for very limited use," says Russell.
The welcome station debate comes at a time when our local national forest is seeing more pressure than ever on its trailheads as users scramble for parking spots and access to a variety of recreational activities, which is why local groups, some of which are listed on the committee's appeal, feel the welcome station could be used to address some of these recreation needs. The Forest Service employees acknowledge some of the existing pressures and say they are working with user groups to address those concerns. And there is plenty of evidence to show that they are working to expand opportunities with projects like expanded biking trails around Bend and more winter parking in places like Kapka Butte. However the Forest Service maintains that in this case they have tracked down funds that would need to be used to maintain and improve the scenic byway, but that money doesn't extend to the parking and access improvements the committee and its supporters are asking for.
Another aspect of the appeal is the committee's assertion that there wasn't a chance for the community to provide input as to the location and scope of the project. Gyorgyfalvy, however, says that she was surprised by the reaction from groups like Visit Bend, which wrote a letter in March 2009 recommending the scenic byway be awarded a grant for a welcome station, were disappointed with the location but had not commented as such.
"We never had anything from Visit Bend or anyone else that said that they had a problem with the location. It was a pretty open process as to where it should be located. Our environmental assessment process was very open. I didn't see anything specific [pertaining to location] and we had more than ample opportunity for people to weigh in," says Gyorgyfalvy.
Visit Bend, executive director and CEO, Doug LaPlaca, says that if the Committee on Recreation Assets hadn't entered an appeal, his organization would have, based on the input process and proposed location, which is roughly five miles west of Bend near the spot where Forest Road 41 intersects the Cascade Lake Highway - too far from the population center in Bend, say critics.
"Visit Bend is not opposed to a welcome center and not opposed to appropriate development along the scenic byway," says LaPlaca. "But we are opposed to any development that doesn't result from community input."
LaPlaca adds that the proposed welcome station is indicative of a lack of planning on behalf of the Forest Service when it comes to improving the entry into the national forest. He says the Forest Service needs to work with the community on a master plan for how to proceed with projects like this.
"Once that planning process is established and incorporates the ideas and the needs of the community, then we will look forward to jumping on board and helping the Forest Service implement that master plan, and if that plan includes a welcome center, then that's fine," he says.
Although the Central Oregon Visitors Association, a regional tourist bureau, was listed on the appeal, the group has since dropped off. Three members of the committee, including Ruth Williamson, a current member and former chair of the Bend Metro Park and Recreation Association board of directors and a co chair of the Bend 2030 board, declined to endorse the appeal when it was delivered. In an e-mail circulated within the group, she wrote that the appeal could impact "efforts to cultivate a healthy working relationship" between the committee and the Forest Service.
Also, last week, Tammy Baney, Deschutes County Commissioner and member of the Committee on Recreation Assets, pulled her name off the group's appeal. Russell suggests that some of those who have pulled their endorsements from the appeal as a result of fear that coming out against the proposed welcome station could hamper their relationship with the Forest Service. On the other hand, Gyorgyfalvy believes that those who were not included in the initial appeal or who have since dropped off have done so because they have come to understand and agree with the welcome station project as it has been proposed.
Although there's plenty at stake here, including federal funding and perhaps the reputation of a unique and wide-reaching committee, the two sides have remained amiable throughout the process, with each saying they're willing to work together.
"Both parties want to understand where the other is coming from and both parties need to collaborate," says Gyorgyfalvy.