It's early afternoon on a bluebird Saturday, and the locals and tourists are out in force at the Virginia Meissner Sno-Park off Century Drive. Joseph Rodriguez is just coming off the trails, a pair of skinny skis in his hand.
He's been living in Bend since 1992, he says, "and it's grown a lot. We need to make our playpen a little bigger."
The playpen will become a lot bigger - about double in size - if the Tumalo Langlauf Club and the U.S. Forest Service get their way.
The club, which has been grooming and maintaining trails at Meissner for the past 11 seasons, wants to spend upwards of half a million dollars - generated through private, voluntary contributions - on a major expansion. Current plans call for, among other things, doubling the number of parking spaces, adding almost nine miles of groomed trails and building a 1,370-square-foot warming shelter.
But for skiers and snowshoers who prize the peace and quiet of a wilderness (or semi-wilderness) experience, a bigger playpen isn't anything to cheer about. One of them is Dale Neubauer of the Central Oregon conservationist group Wild Wilderness.
"Let's say you go to Meissner and you're looking for a casual ski down the trail, and you show up and it's been groomed, and you have your eight-foot-wide track and you have people zipping along it - that has altered your experience at that point," he said.
"I can appreciate both sides; I have two sons who are on the high school cross-country team. They go up to Meissner from time to time, and do benefit from those groomed trails. Likewise, though, if you go up there and you have a busload of 50 or 60 kids unloading for practice, your experience has been changed and you need to go somewhere else."
The Tumalo Langlauf Club ("langlauf" is German for "long stride") originally proposed tripling the amount of parking at Meissner, to 180 spaces. It also wanted to build a considerably larger warming shelter and light some trails for night skiing. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Deschutes National Forest where Meissner is located, has endorsed a scaled-back version with 120 parking spaces and no lighting.
The Langlaufers see themselves as providing a public service and an important recreation resource. (Meissner offers the only free access to groomed cross-country trails in Central Oregon.) And they think Neubauer and others who oppose the expansion are being unrealistic. Nobody, they argue, can reasonably expect a "wilderness experience" at a place that's only a 15-minute drive from a city of more than 70,000 and also draws tens of thousands of tourists a year.
"There's a small minority who don't want to see any additional development at Meissner, even though the population of Deschutes County has grown hugely," said Karen Benson, a member of the board of the Langlauf Club and a longtime Central Oregon skiing advocate. "I get all fired up about this because I've lived in Central Oregon for a very long time and raised my kids and grandkids here. They're always talking about wilderness experience. That is a heavily used urban recreation area there. People who go to Meissner, contrary to what Dale Neubauer says, are not going there for a wilderness experience."
Even more than the expansion of Meissner, Neubauer and other members of Wild Wilderness are worried about Forest Service plans to greatly increase snowmobile parking in the area. They argue that the Meissner proposal should be evaluated as part of the overall picture of recreational use of the forest.
Since 2004, the Forest Service has been planning to eliminate snowmobile unloading at the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park. Wild Wilderness thinks that's a fine idea - but at the same time the Forest Service wants to create a new sno-park at Kapka Butte, near the Sunriver turnoff on Century Drive, which the group says could double the number of snowmobiles using the area.
Dutchman currently has about 15,000 square feet of parking for snowmobilers. Wanoga, the other main Century Drive mecca for snowmobilers, has 90,000 square feet. The alternative for Kapka Butte favored by the Forest Service would create an estimated 120,000 square feet of new parking space.
The Forest Service claims that would translate to only 50 new spaces for snowmobile trailers, but according to Neubauer's calculations the total would be more like 100. At an average of three sleds per trailer, that would mean up to 300 more snowmobiles entering the area on any given day.
"The 2004 plan of Forest Service aimed to create non-motorized areas near Dutchman and Tumalo," Neubauer said. "Part of that decision was eventually to close off Dutchman for snowmobile unloading and build replacement parking at Kapka. Unfortunately it went from a group consensus to build a replacement lot into building a lot that will be bigger than all the current snowmobile parking capacity on Century Drive."
Wild Wilderness says there's already a big problem with snowmobilers venturing where they're not supposed to be, and things will only get worse if more of them crowd into the Century Drive area.
Most of the forest near Dutchman Flat has been closed to snowmobiles, but the machines can still use Trail 7, which runs along the western edge of Dutchman Flat, and a wedge-shaped "motorized snow play" area on the northwest flank of Tumalo Mountain. Neubauer and Wild Wilderness say snowmobilers frequently ignore boundary markers, and the only good solution is to close that whole area to motorized use.
Snowmobile enthusiasts charge that Wild Wilderness members really want to lock up the national forest and keep everybody but themselves out.
"If you want a wilderness experience, go to the wilderness," said Larry Riser, president of Moon Country Sno-Mobilers. "These sno-parks are too close to town to ever be wilderness-type recreation. ...
"Dale's program really is to eliminate all motorized use of the national forest. His second program is to eliminate all recreation use. He wants to lock it up. He wants it to be wilderness. That's the name of his organization - Wild Wilderness."
Not so, says Neubauer - but the Forest Service and the snowmobilers need to understand that skiers and snowmobiles don't mix, especially now that the machines have gotten so fast and powerful.
"The snowmobilers have always pushed for shared use," he said. "Maybe back in the '60s when snowmobiles had the power of a riding lawnmower it wasn't a big issue. But this machine here" - he pointed to a magazine photo of a snowmobile that boasts 225 horsepower - "that's quadruple the power-to-weight ratio of my Harley. When you try to imagine that among pedestrians, it's absurd."
The Forest Service will close the public comment period on the Meissner expansion plans on Feb. 25. After that, District Ranger Phil Cruz will weigh the comments and make a decision, which he expects to announce in mid-March. A decision on the Kapka Butte Sno-Park plans is considerably further off: The Forest Service is expected to unveil its environmental assessment in the fall, after which there will be a 30-day comment period.
According to Cruz, public input on the Meissner expansion so far has been heavy - and strongly favorable. "In my experience on the Deschutes - and that's 15 years - it's one of the most commented-upon issues that I've seen," he said. "The community support has been resounding."
Neubauer said Wild Wilderness can see a justification for expanding Meissner - and even for accommodating more of the detested snowmobiles - but the Forest Service needs to appreciate the value of less intensive forms of recreation too.
"What we've been after is for the Forest Service to look at the big picture for that whole area and recognize the value and need for undeveloped recreation, and recognize that when you develop things for some people, it's at a loss to other people," he said. "We do have more people wanting to snowmobile, we do have more people wanting to skate-ski. But I think parallel to that you're going to have more people wanting to have a simpler experience as well. As our society gets more congested, more erratic, more technologically driven, people do have a greater need to get away from it."
Neubauer recognizes that he and his group are outmanned and outgunned in the public opinion battle, and also are up against what he sees as the Forest Service's built-in bias in favor of development over wilderness protection. "The people at the Forest Service don't get compliments or awards or packs on the back for doing nothing," he said. "If they leave something alone for people who appreciate it the way it is, they don't get an award for that. If they get a grant and build a new sno-park and a new lodge, they can say, 'Look what we did.' So they have an inherent need to develop, especially if they can use somebody else's money."
Still, he said, he and Wild Wilderness are determined to hang in there and keep pitching.
"We are not at the point of litigation at this time, certainly, because you have to wait and see how things play out," he said. "In general we're continuing to try to educate the Forest Service on the value of undeveloped recreation, the need to evaluate the Century Drive corridor as a whole unit, not just piecemeal projects, and hope that in the end all user groups can have a positive benefit."