The Deschutes River has long been a focal point for the people of Bend. In years past, the sawmills positioned on and adjacent to the river were the centers of attention; today, those have been replaced by shopping and river recreation. What we didn't know—or didn't consider—back when those mills sent old-growth logs shooting down its channel was how all of our activities around this gem of a river were affecting the creatures big and small, that also inhabit its banks and stream flows. In the years since logging waned and environmental considerations waxed, we now know that allowing the drumbeat of human—and canine—feet to pound along the river's banks unimpeded can result in the loss of even more species than we have already lost to the cadence of human "progress."
In addition to federal, state and local efforts to preserve wildlife like the endangered Oregon spotted frog, Bend's own park district has been engaged in an effort to repair and restore the banks of this all-important recreational and ecological focal point for Bend. We are largely in favor of this process, as projects such as these ensure humans don't wreck everything that's good about a place before we have time to think about whether it's really best for us all.
Following a Bend Park and Recreation District staff inventory and assessment of river conditions in Bend, it found that on top of the designated 26 access points along the river, there are an additional 94 "rogue" access points created by river users. With one of the consequences of these access points being degradation of habitat, more education and outright closing-off of certain areas is needed.
Still, there's one part of BPRD's current Deschutes River Access and Habitat Restoration Plan that we'd rather not see implemented—and right now is the ideal time for us, and locals in general, to weigh in, since there's a survey open now through Feb. 28.
Among the items on BPRD's draft project list is one, listed as "high priority," for Columbia Park near downtown Bend. The proposal is to "close and revegetate the existing designated access point. Close downstream user created access point by replacing single rail fence with more protective fence to eliminate user created access and improve vegetation in flattened grass area." The thinking here is that by closing off access to the river at Columbia Park, fewer people will decide to bridge-jump into the river at that point. BPRD also alleges that because access will still be allowed across and up-river, at Miller's Landing Park, people in the area won't miss out much on accessing the river near there.
Keeping in mind that we support habitat and bank restoration as a whole, we do not support shutting down river access at this location, which amounts to limiting access in a core area of a city that is now experiencing even more of a population explosion than the steep upward trajectory it has seen since the mill days ended. Shutting down access to the river at Columbia Park—which appears to be used more often by locals than by tourists, and represents a more relaxed entry point to the river than the ones at the nearby McKay Park whitewater park or all the way across the river at Miller's Landing—seems more like a NIMBY effort to keep people away from this area than it does a genuine concern for bridge jumpers.
You don't have to be a COVID-cautious introvert to find yourself wanting, some summer nights, to take a dip or go for an in-town paddle, and to avoid the crowds at McKay or Riverbend parks to do so. If you're a local living on the west side, walking over the river to get in at Miller's Landing is also not ideal. Add in the fact that the Bend City Council has begun making efforts to severely limit parking in the Old Town area (a pilot program it wants to expand is currently underway), and it seems clear that NIMBYism may be creeping in for this area. Is this the type of un-welcoming city we want to become?
Sure, most Bendites will admit that wading through hordes of floaters meandering through Old Town is hardly the recipe for a peaceful afternoon—but as they are happening anyway, a downtown core area may be just the place for such things. As more floaters come, the better option for Columbia Park would be to plan a safe and reasonable access point that can account for the city's growth, and at present, serve as a lower-key option for those wanting one. And as for the bridge jumpers? Certainly there are barriers erected on other bridges that we can model something after, without completely shutting down access to the river.
Those wishing to weigh in on BPRD's proposed Deschutes River Access and Habitat Restoration Plan projects can do so through Feb. 28 at bendparksandrec.org/project/deschutes-river-access-and-habitat-restoration-plan/.