Trail would run from Badlands to Owyhee
by Samantha White
Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), was present during the Community Response Team meeting (held April 2) to introduce a proposal to designate the Oregon Desert Trail as a National Recreation Trail (NRT).
Fenty began his presentation by providing a brief overview of ONDA.
Founded 25 years ago, ONDA is a Bend-based association with more than 4,000 members and supporters.
According to its website, ONDA “exists to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert.” The site states that the association’s “dream” is to “see millions of acres of beautiful and ecologically-vital public lands permanently protected.”
ONDA was instrumental in the creation of the Steens Mountain, Oregon Badlands, and Spring Basin wilderness areas. And, according to its website, ONDA maintains “diligent efforts to enforce conservation laws to protect sensitive wildlife.”
About the Oregon Desert Trail
After introducing ONDA, Fenty explained the association’s initiative to obtain NRT designation for the Oregon Desert Trail.
He said the trail, which spans from the Oregon Badlands Wilderness in Central Oregon to Lake Owyhee State Park near the Oregon/Idaho boarder, would be an asset to communities throughout Oregon’s High Desert, creating non-motorized recreation opportunities (such as hiking, boating, horseback riding, and biking) on public lands without disturbing sensitive wildlife areas or areas that are culturally-significant. Fenty said the trail would also incorporate “some of the most scenic and historic” sites in the area.
According to ONDA’s website, the Oregon Desert Trail “links existing trails, old Jeep tracks, historical wagon roads and cross-country navigation, and is accessible at different points by bicycle, horseback and raft, in addition to foot. Some sections offer easy walks along well-marked paths. Other areas require GPS [Global Positioning System] skills, significant outdoor experience and serious preparation, particularly for water sources.”
Fenty said volunteers hiked the area in different seasons to help identify potential routes, as well as fence lines, water sources, and recreational activities.
ONDA’s website states that, “Thanks to thousands of volunteer and staff hours, the guide material, maps, GPS tracks and waypoints, and town information are now available for you to create your own Oregon Desert Trail adventure.”
Fenty said he hopes the people who hike the trail will serve as an asset to nearby communities by patronizing businesses in nearby towns. He added that he hopes the towns will also be an asset to hikers.
The trail transverses Deschutes, Lake, Harney and Malheur counties. Starting from the west, it begins in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness and meanders through Diablo Peak, Fremont National Forest, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain, the Pueblo Mountains, and the Trout Creek Mountains, before ending in Lake Owyhee State Park.
Fenty added that, although the trail was featured in The New York Times and Outside magazine, it’s still a “work in progress.”
National Recreation Trail designation sought
On Nov. 8, 2013, ONDA submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, requesting NRT designation for the Oregon Desert Trail.
According to the BLM’s website, NRTs may be designated by the secretary of the interior or the secretary of agriculture “to recognize exemplary trails of local and regional significance in response to an application from the trial’s managing agency or organization.” Once trails are designated, they become part of America’s national system of trails.
Fenty said ONDA is reaching out to communities and businesses located along the trail’s route to better understand opportunities and challenges associated with the proposed NRT designation.
He then began accepting questions from the audience.
A rocky relationship
One member of the audience expressed suspicion regarding ONDA’s motivation for developing the trail.
“I think ONDA is taking on this whole project to recruit people to its legal work,” she said.
Fenty said ONDA’s goal for developing the trail is to “connect people to public lands.”
However, he acknowledged that the association has been involved in environmental litigation.
For example, ONDA pursued litigation that, ultimately, impeded the Echanis Wind Energy Project that Columbia Energy Partners proposed for Steens Mountain. During the delay, available tax credits expired, threatening the financial feasibility of the proposed project.
Another member of the audience asked, “Why do you think the community here should support an effort by ONDA?” He added, “I see your history as being obstructionist.”
Fenty said ONDA has been involved with projects in this community before. For example, he said ONDA assisted with the development of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
Regarding the trail, Fenty said, “I would hope that people could judge the project on its merits.” He added that, “It would have been easy to push [the trail project] off to another group,” but said he thinks the project could create an opportunity for cooperation.
Another audience member asked how many roads would be closed to motorized vehicles if the Oregon Desert Trail becomes designated.
Fenty said the trail uses roads that are not typically accessed by motorized vehicles.
However, the audience member said that he, and many other local people, drive vehicles that are capable of accessing these rugged roads.
Kate Marsh asked whether the trail crosses private land.
Fenty replied that some routes are on county roads that cross between private property, but said the trail sticks to public land.
Marking the trail
Marsh also asked whether signs will be posted along the trail.
Fenty suggested limiting signs to the trail’s various staring points, posting just enough to let hikers know they are on the right track.
Barbara Cannady said she didn’t understand the point of designating the trail.
“You can advertise that there is a trail,” Cannady said, “but why do you need to have a designation that can have negative impacts?”
Fenty said the NRT designation requires input from organizations and individuals outside of ONDA, adding that he thinks this input will improve the trail and make it more of an asset to nearby communities.
“Ultimately, the product will be better,” Fenty said, adding that, “They are everyone’s public lands, not just ONDA’s.”
Search and rescue
Fred Flippence asked whether ONDA has considered the resources that may be needed from rural communities, adding that increased hiking will put pressure on local search and rescue operations.
“We don’t call Salem to find someone who is lost,” Flippence said. “We call the local sheriff.”
Fenty said, “These are the kinds of questions we are working on.”
Another audience member expressed concern about how the trail could threaten economic development opportunities in the future.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said, explaining that, for example, highly-valuable, rare earth could be discovered along the trail’s route. He added that, once the trail is designated, he doubts ONDA would be willing to give it up.
Fenty said this is a legitimate point, but added that much of the trail passes through areas that already have special designations.
However, the audience member said he was concerned about the areas that will be newly-designated to “connect the dots” between established trails.
Another audience member said he has hiked several trails, and a lot of them really helped the communities that were close to them.
“By and large, hikers are good stewards of the land, and they spend money in the community,” he said.
But Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols disagreed.
Nichols said, in the 35 years that he has lived near a designated trail, he has only seen two hikers use it.
Fenty replied that the Oregon Desert Trail would connect these existing trails into a “cohesive view of Oregon’s High Desert.” He added, “I think there is evidence that this can be an asset.”
However, he admitted that he cannot know who will use the trail.
Tonya Fox of Training and Employment Consortium (TEC) attended the meeting to announce that TEC offices in Harney and Grant counties will be offering classes to prepare participants for Microsoft® Word certification testing.
Fox said, once participants received certification, they can sign up on Microsoft’s website where employers can find them and offer them higher-paying jobs and positions in larger companies.
Classes are two days a week, for four weeks. The classes are free, but the certification test cost $100. Some test sites may also charge a testing fee.
Fox said TEC also offers self-paced classes for anyone who wants to learn Microsoft® Word, but doesn’t want to take the certification test.
She added that TEC hopes to add certification training classes for other Microsoft® Office programs in the future.
Participants must be 18 years or older and register with WorkSource Oregon.
Christine Nelson of the Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corporation (GEODC) attended to discuss the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) update.
According to GEODC’s website, CEDS “is designed to bring together the private and public sector in the creation of an economic roadmap to strengthen and diversify regional economies.”
Harney County belongs to a seven-county region, which also includes Gilliam, Morrow, Umatilla, Wheeler, Grant and Malheur counties.
Nelson encouraged everyone (community members, business owners, civic organizations, economic development organizations, etc.) to provide input regarding economic development in the region.
Anyone interested in providing input can complete a survey online at: http://www.geodc.net/ceds/2014-survey.