It might have been an offhand comment not meant for wide public consumption, but when you make a comment at a public hearing, expect people to listen.
According to media reports, state Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, let fly that the current bill aiming to ban a pedestrian bridge over the Deschutes River south of Bend would be "Whisnant's retirement gift." Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, is leaving the legislature following this 2018 legislative session. Last session, Whisnant raised the ire of a number of locals with his effort to stuff an existing 2017 bill with language that would have banned a pedestrian crossing on a portion of the Deschutes designated as a State Scenic Waterway, as well as a Wild and Scenic River.
This session, Whisnant tried to distance himself from a new bill that would go even further in banning a bridge forever—but judging by Clem's offhand comment, it's still Whisnant's bill. Want to watch the video of last week's legislative committee hearing to listen to Clem's comment? While that video is available online, the audio mysteriously drops out during that portion of the hearing. Thank goodness members of the press were in attendance.
We have weighed in before about how the whole legislative aspect of this ongoing Bridge Battle smacks of intrigue and hypocrisy. As we write this, the 2018 version of the amendment has had several proposed amendments and changes, and more are sure to materialize.
While we respect the environmental community and their efforts to keep wild areas wild, we recognize that the area slated for this particular proposed bridge is surrounded by giant homes—homes that have a great impact on wildlife. When we asked Erik Fernandez, Wilderness Program Manager for Oregon Wild—a group supporting the bill—about the conundrum posed by working to protect an area already so developed with large homes, Fernandez told us his organization didn't necessarily have control over the private lands adjacent to the river, but they do have the ability to work to protect public lands and an obligation to hold onto any level of protection they can muster.
We respect that sentiment—but in this case, we argue that a pedestrian bridge that allows users to cross the river, and to possibly commute via bicycle from Sunriver to Bend, would also be a more important asset for the overall environment. And, most of the trail that would connect the east side of the river to the proposed trail on the west side is already built. The apparent hypocrisy of using an environmental argument to protect NIMBY homeowners with large properties seems to be getting lost in political translation.
In short, homeowners with pockets deep enough to contribute large sums to legislators willing to bend their ear are making strange bedfellows with environmentalists.
And then there's the issue of local control. In this case, we believe legislation was not the right mechanism to approach this local issue. Local collaboration would be better than this no-name bill. Note, readers, that no Central Oregon legislator's name is on the current bill. No one's is, in fact.
In the local halls of government, city councilors and county commissioners are coming out in opposition to the new proposed bridge ban—a signal that perhaps local action and collaboration could materialize—that is, if this current bill goes nowhere.
We expect a better process from our legislators at home and statewide – one free of the sway of back-slapping politics and political influence. Bend Park and Recreation deserves accolades for this kind of planning and foresight. Instead, Central Oregon is being burdened with uninformed, ad hoc land use restrictions in the name of environmentalism. There are better ways to say goodbye to Rep. Whisnant.