The concept of a paved path connecting local communities is going back to the trailhead.

Sisters District Ranger Kristie Miller took the community conversation back several steps in a letter to Deschutes County Commissioner Alan Unger last week (see the full text with the online version of this story at www.nuggetnews.com). After gathering public input, Unger submitted a letter to Miller urging her to consider restarting the process to evaluate a paved trail from Sisters to Black Butte Ranch.

Miller informed Unger that she will not be taking on an environmental analysis for that path immediately.

"I understand that this might not be the first step you may have been hoping for," Miller said in her reply to Unger's letter.

Instead, Miller proposes to start a "preliminary review" of a paved trail - which essentially rolls the concept back to a starting point.

"Due to the multi-year community dispute over a paved path in Sisters Country, I want to be sure that I hear from the community exactly what options are on the table to consider and exactly why we should do it," Miller wrote. "My goal would be to have an inviting process where the public can attend an open workshop to provide their input on what type of location of trail(s) they desire, recommendations for future trail management actions, and to define who might be interested in participating in the process."

In an interview with The Nugget, Miller expressed appreciation for Unger's efforts in querying the community.

"I really think he's done a nice job showing strong community support, which is what we were looking for," Miller said.

Strong for what remains the question Miller hopes to answer through resetting the community discussion.

Unger provided Miller with copies of every letter, email and petition he received in his survey of the community. Opinions vary, from those who want to build the trail as proposed between Sisters and Black Butte Ranch; those who are interested in paved paths, but not necessarily in that configuration; those who do not want to see a trail terminus at Black Butte Ranch; and those who oppose any kind of paved path in the forest.

Miller said that she is willing to look again at the original configuration, but she wants to allow for other potential options as well.

"I just want to make sure it's the right thing for us - us being the community - at this time," she said.

"There's strong support for something in the community," Miller said. "And people are supportive of having trails that connect in the community."

So, the Forest Service will try to get a clear community consensus for what and where. And it's going to take some time.

Miller's course of action will push the funding cycle for a full environmental analysis back into 2017. If an EA can be funded, it would take about a year to complete. Then, the project itself would have to be funded. So there are many hurdles to cross, and the earliest trail construction could begin would be late 2018 or early 2019.

Unger indicated to The Nugget that he is satisfied with Miller's plan.

"I'm OK with this being a 2017 project and I'm looking forward to helping her (Miller) with some of the outreach that she wants to do," Unger said. "We have maybe a little bit more healing ... there's room for more discussion, so why not have that first?"

Miller says she will look for help from academia or a professional planner to ensure that she does not have any perceived undue influence on the project.

"My expectation is that this would be the first step towards an environmental analysis that will provide Sisters Country with a supported trail, or perhaps trail system, that most people can support," Miller wrote.

The reset will commence with a trails forum in the spring, hosted by Deschutes National Forest.

Unger told The Nugget, "I want to thank Kristi for a reconsideration of this trail and her interest in all trails. Bringing in a third party to facilitate a discussion on the purpose and need will help define and narrow the NEPA analysis to save money and time. I plan to support her process and help where I can."