Making trails network in Bend area sustainable

The Bend Bulletin reports on an all-day event on planning the future of trails hosted by Deschutes National Forest .
By Hilary Corrigan
The Bend Bulletin

As the Bend area’s population grows, so does the area’s trail population — the hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and others who enjoy trails on public lands.

Stakeholders want to start planning now to ensure those trails are sustainable as more people use them for more activities. Deschutes National Forest officials hosted an all-day session last week in Bend, drawing about 100 people to the invitation-only event to start fleshing out what the idea of sustainability might mean when it comes to trails.

“This has been a long time coming,” Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust and a member of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission, said of the planning effort.

Deschutes National Forest Supervisor John Allen said he has been thinking about hosting such a gathering for a while to start discussions about the best ways to manage, maintain, locate and plan for trail networks as more people move to the region and use them. Trails connect people with their communities and public lands, contribute to Central Oregon’s culture and are part of the reason why people visit and move to the area, Allen noted.

But the added use adds pressure to trails.

They grow more crowded, parking lots fill up, waste gets left behind for Forest Service staff to pick up and vandalism occurs at sites. Allen also pointed to other pressures, such as more construction and development close to federal lands and trails; wildfires forcing more trail closures over recent years; more impacts on wildlife in the area; and conflicts among different trail visitors, including hikers, bikers, horseback riders and off-road vehicle users.

A Sustainable Recreation Strategy Summary earlier this year from the Pacific Northwest region’s national forests and other federal offices called for making bold moves in managing outdoor recreation, and it noted declining budgets, shrinking staffs, more visitors and a maintenance backlog, among other concerns. It called for developing partnerships, finding different funding options, identifying necessary skills for the workforce and developing economic analysis tools, among other actions.

What is sustainable?

Tuesday’s discussion centered around the idea of making the trails system sustainable — and what that concept might include.

“Sustainability, fundamentally, is about values,” said Matt Shinderman, a natural resources senior instructor at OSU-Cascades.

Deschutes National Forest District Ranger Kevin Larkin expects sustainability will entail considering those values at detailed levels, including the types of uses allowed on different trails — and whether dogs can be off-leash or not, for instance — and the associated trade-offs.

Chalfant sees sustainability as an attitude and awareness. “Thinking about it as our backyard,” he said of caring for public lands and trails. To Garth Fuller, The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Oregon conservation director and deserts team lead, sustainable trails cannot exist without resilient, healthy ecosystems for them to exist in.

“These trails represent how we interface with the natural environment in Central Oregon,” Fuller said.

Troy Hall, head of the Forest Ecosystems & Society Department at Oregon State University, emphasized the importance of knowing vegetation types and density, along with details about different soils, to determine the best locations to direct recreational activities. Sara Gregory, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, noted that certain animals return to the same areas at certain seasons and that human use may need to be curtailed for them.

Besides environmental values, the discussion also focused on social and economic values connected to sustainability.

Visit Bend, the city’s official tourism promotor, is taking a closer look at sustainability, said Kevney Dugan, who now works as the group’s director of sales and sports development but will soon take over as CEO.

Without tourism, the area would not have its same lifestyle and culture, yet tourism also brings concerns about high visitor traffic on trails and a need to determine which trail networks can handle such heavy use, Dugan said.

Others wondered whether businesses that profit from customers’ use of public lands — those selling gear and bikes, for instance — pay enough to help sustain those lands and their related trails.

Shinderman expects government agencies will need to work with more partners on sustainable management efforts because of the agencies’ lack of sufficient resources and the unlikeliness that they will get large amounts of federal money for such efforts.

Those public-private partnerships could involve different funding models and sources and different labor pools.

Allen noted that half of the Deschutes forest’s work is done through money Congress allocates and the other half relies on volunteers, fee collections and partnerships. That ratio probably will shift over time to rely more on the partnerships, he said.

Jean Nelson-Dean, a Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman, expects the trails event to prompt talks about how the trails system will look in the future.

“We hope this is just a catalyst to future community discussion,” Nelson-Dean said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,