The public is weighing in on a proposed paved trail that would run from Sisters to Black Butte Ranch.
The Forest Service has published an Environmental Analysis (EA) on the proposed project. An EA takes an in-depth look at potential impact on streams, habitat, plants and other environmental considerations, and discusses mitigation measures. The recommended alternative "would construct a 7.6-mile paved non-motorized multi-use path between the communities of Sisters and Black Butte Ranch... The predominant uses would be biking and walking/hiking. No horseback riding would be allowed."
According to the EA, "The Sisters Trails Alliance (STA) would construct and maintain the paved path under an agreement with the Forest Service. Construction is anticipated to occur within the next 5 years. The path would be 10 feet wide with a one-foot gravel shoulder on each side and constructed of asphalt."
The public comment period on the EA ends June 2. The EA is a necessary but preliminary step in the creation of a trail. The project, which has been estimated to total about $1 million in cost when it is extended to reach Camp Sherman, has yet to be funded.
Gary Guttormsen, president of STA, which paid for the EA, says the trail would extend a connected network between Crossroads, Sisters High School, Tollgate and Sisters. Those trails serve bike and foot commuters as well as recreational travelers.
"From Tollgate out to Black Butte Ranch would be more of a recreational project," he said.
Guttormsen noted that a paved trail was high on the list of desirable features when STA conducted community outreach several years ago to determine what kinds of trails the Sisters community wants. He notes that such a trail can be an attractive amenity.
"People just flock to this kind of project," he said. "It's also going to attract tourists and the money they spend in town. It's going to put us on the map as a place to come and take a really cool ride."
The project is not without its critics, especially people living in the Tollgate subdivision, near the route of the trail.
Steve Madsen has been a vocal critic of the project. He fears activity on the trail will disturb the wildlife he sees regularly out his back door.
"This morning we watched a coyote trotting by," he told The Nugget. "I think some of that is going to be lost."
He also questions the overall value of the trail.
"Why is all this money being spent for a minority of people when there are other things that need doing?" he queried.
Tollgate resident Greg Werts agrees.
"It seems like it's a lot of expense and disturbance of great habitat for the purpose of creating a trail that doesn't seem that necessary or is ever going to be used that much," he said. "For many, many months out of the year, it's going to be unusable because of the weather."
The Forest Service looked at but did not explore alternatives that moved the trail across Highway 20 or onto existing roads. Considerations of safety, quality of recreational experience and access led the Forest Service to dismiss these alternatives.
The agency did consider an alternative that would push the trail farther away from Tollgate and more toward Highway 20. The preferred alternative has an average distance of 241 feet from homes; the rejected alternative would have increased that distance to an average of 478 feet. That alternative was rejected because it would diminish the recreational experience.
Guttormsen thinks that the trail location won't be a problem.
"It's out there," he said. "It's way out there. It puts it quite a ways from the houses."
He said that, walking the route, "you have to really squint your eyes and really move your head around to even see Tollgate."
Another concern has been raised over STA's role as the party responsible for trail maintenance.
"I'm concerned about that, also," Madsen told The Nugget. "Who's going to take care of this thing, if it does happen? I don't want to see it fall apart back there, cause that's even worse."
STA operates under the umbrella of Sisters Park & Recreation District (SPRD) and cannot make any such commitments on its own. SPRD's board of directors has not committed to any action vis-à-vis the trail.
Michael Keown, who is managing the project for the Sisters Ranger District, told The Nugget that assigning responsibility to STA directly rather than as a subsidiary organization under the umbrella of SPRD "was not correct in the EA."
However, he noted, the EA only deals with the environmental issues; it does not obligate anyone to anything. A decision notice would still have to be signed and money secured to actually build the project.
"Simply signing it (the EA) does not automatically mean the Trails Alliance would be responsible for maintaining it. There would be several other steps in the journey," he said.
In any case, Guttormsen said, STA has maintained an extensive network of trails for several years without any difficulty or any concern being raised by the public or SPRD.
"We easily take care of the Peterson Ridge Trail," he said. "We go out and fundraise and we're very successful at it and we're the ones that do it."
He noted that any grant funding secured for the project's construction will also include allocations for sealing and maintenance.
The Sisters Ranger District will continue to take comments on the EA through June 2. Critics who establish standing through the EA public comment process will have the opportunity to meet with Forest Service personnel to discuss concerns.
"We'll all sit around the table and discuss face-to-face what the objections are," Keown said.
This meeting takes the place of an appeal process; litigation would be the next step.
"This is a brand-new process that the Forest Service started in the last couple of months," Keown explained.
There are strict commenting guidelines; for information contact Michael Keown, Sisters Ranger District, 541-549-7735.