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The Welcome Wagon: Forest welcome center gets a cool reception, county resort planning update 

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The Forest Service, an agency whose primary job is managing timber and recreation on our public lands, is used to being in the position of "damned if you do and damned if you don't." Anyone who has ever worked for the agency can tell you that environmental groups, the timber industry and other interest groups pull the Forest Service in about 100 different directions at any one time. But the latest dust-up over a local Forest Service initiative may have even caught the agency by surprise because it seems, at least outwardly, so benign. Specifically, the Deschutes National Forest Supervisor's Office recently unveiled a plan to construct a new welcome center to help the more than two million annual users of the local forest better navigate the area. The center, which is proposed to be constructed off Century Drive using federal funds, would include about 25 parking spaces, plus a couple of RV slots, bathrooms and all the requisite signage and literature that visitors have come to expect from similar welcome centers.

But the plan isn't setting well with a sizeable contingent of locals, including the Forest Service's own Recreation Advisory Committee (RAC), which has sent a letter of objection to the plan and is preparing to appeal the government's analysis by the end of the week if the supervisor's office in Bend doesn't change direction.

The RAC isn't the only organization fuming about the plan, local user groups including the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (the area's largest mountain biking lobby), the Tumalo Langlauf ski club and local tourism agencies Visit Bend and the Central Oregon Visitor Association (COVA) have all voiced concern that the current proposal is a missed opportunity to enhance the recreational experience in the forest for locals and visitors alike. Chief among the concerns is that the "welcome" center is too far from Bend, roughly five miles west of town on the Cascade Lakes Highway at the intersection of Forest Road 41.

The criticism dovetails with the larger vision that folks like Sally Russell of the RAC have for the welcome center, which they see as a taking-off spot for hiking, biking, recreation-based shuttles and a functional space for meetings, weddings and all manner of uses. That's a stark contrast to the more modest vision of a 1,300-square-foot "Canadian-lodge-style" welcome center outlined in the Forest Service planning documents.

Russell, who serves as the Deschutes County Coordinator on the RAC, said the Forest Service recently reached out to discuss the project. However, she said the agency has been reticent to solicit public input on the plans from some of the user groups that it partners with on many of its most popular initiatives, including trail grooming and maintenance.

But unless the Forest Service, which couldn't be reached for a comment about the project, starts backpedaling, Russell said she and others are ready to push back on a proposal that they say is insufficient and unnecessary in its current drive-up-and-grab-a-brochure-six-miles-into-the-forest configuration.

"What we're saying is stop and reconsider. We're suggesting they should go back to the drawing board," she said.

County Board to PC: "No Thanks"

Speaking of well-laid plans. The Deschutes County Commissioners gave what is essentially a vote of no-confidence last week to the destination resort mapping plan developed by its own planning commission. Commissioners voted last week to overlook most of the recommendations made by the planning commission when it referred its destination resort recommendation to the three-member county board earlier this year. The planning commission was reviewing the county's resort map as part of a board-directed effort to "clean up" the resort map by removing properties that were de facto ineligible for resort development because of other land-use restrictions. The planning commission took a different approach, expanding the areas where resorts could be cited to include irrigated farmland, platted subdivisions and recommended doing away with a plan to remove most of the properties currently mapped but otherwise ineligible from the long-term plan - in other words, the very basis of the work.

The county board of supervisors opted instead to retain the current restrictions while adding a grandfather clause that would allow property owners who are currently "mapped" but recommended for removal by county staff to "opt in" on the revised map by sending a letter to the county. (The planning commission had advocated an "opt out" approach that county staff and commissioners viewed unfavorably.)

"[County commissioners] were really adamant about taking those designations off the map. I want to believe that even with the grandfather clause, we won't see very many requests," said Peter Gutowsky, a long-range planner who has been working on the update. Gutowsky said he expected the total number of acres eligible for resort development in Deschutes County to shrink significantly as a result.

The flip side of the process is that the county will also temporarily open up the map for new applications; something that it hasn't done since it first adopted the map in the 1990s. So far the county has received little, if any, interest from property owners, but some working close to the resort industry say it's possible that some land around Sunriver could be added. The commission is set to vote on the new map proposal on Monday, June 7. Meanwhile, property owners seeking to add land to the map will have until September to make application to the county, provided the county adopts the new rules next week.

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