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State of Oregon might lose “bikeway” designation for Metolius River route


bikewaysignlead
Detail of a signage plan for the
Metolius River Loops Scenic Bikeway.

Oregon’s Scenic Bikeway program is about to shrink by 7 percent.

Since becoming an official state program in 2008, Scenic Bikeways have become magnets for bike tourists. They pumped $12.4 million into Oregon’s economy in 2014. There are 14 officially designated routes promoted by the state’s tourism board as recreational attractions and economy boosters for the communities they pass through.

But one of them, the Metolius River Loops Scenic Bikeway, is likely to be dropped off that list for an odd reason: fear that it will attract too many people.

The Metolius route is nestled in the Cascade mountains of Central Oregon north of Sisters. Riders can choose from a series of loops on paved forest roads along Metolius River with the welcoming Camp Sherman Store as a home base. “Cyclists will enjoy beautiful views at the Metolius Fish Overlook, both placid and breathtaking glimpses of the river, peek-a-boo views of Mt. Jefferson, and find great educational stopping points for picnics and hikes at the Headwaters, the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery, and a variety of historical sites,” is how the description reads on the Oregon State Parks website.

While it’s a spectacular place to ride, its bikeway designation is superseded by the National Wild and Scenic River designation it earned in 1988. And that’s where things get complicated.

“There is an inherent conflict between the Forest Service Wild and Scenic Management Plan that does not allow for promotion of the area and the Bikeway Program that is largely based on promotion.”
— Alex Phillips, Oregon State Parks Department Scenic Bikeway Coordinator

In 2013 Travel Oregon asked the Forest Service for a permit to film a promotional video of the Metolius River Loops Scenic Bikeway (12 of the 14 routes have already been filmed). That request was denied because the Forest Service said the river’s 1996 management plan doesn’t allow for filming projects that, “advertise or promote in a manner that is likely to draw visitors.” The plan also specifically calls for limits on road congestion, which could go up if the area becomes more popular in cycling circles. Another issue was the signage that Oregon State Parks uses to direct riders along the route. The river’s management plan calls for, “a consistent sign theme with the goal of consolidating, minimizing visual impact and perpetuating a historic character.”

According to the state’s Scenic Bikeways Program Coordinator Alex Phillips, the Metolius route is the only remaining bikeway that still remains unsigned — even though it was designated in 2011.

The Forest Service’s denial of the filming request wasn’t the end of the bikeway designation; but it was the start of a conversation between them, Oregon State Parks, their Scenic Bikeways Advisory Committee, and local residents and business owners.

“When it was designated in 2011 as bikeway — with a letter of support from the Forest Service — no one knew how big and successful this program would be,” Phillips shared with us in an interview last year. And in an email to us this morning she wrote, “When scenic bikeways first began, we hoped for success, but we didn’t realize just how well the idea was going to work,” she said. “Bikeways fired the public imagination, and now each designation attracts public attention and a sparks a desire to visit.”

In that regard, it appears this particular scenic bikeway might become a victim of its own success.

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Phillips, who has been the bikeway program coordinator since it’s inception, seems resolved that she’ll soon have one less route in her portfolio. “There is an inherent conflict between the Forest Service Wild and Scenic Management Plan that does not allow for promotion of the area and the Bikeway Program that is largely based on promotion,” she wrote in a stakeholder email back in December.

That conflict was clearly spelled out in a June 25, 2015 letter to Phillips from the Forest Service. Here’s an excerpt:

“As you know, the Deschutes National Forest and Oregon State Parks Department staff have discussed ways to allow the two designations to live side-by-side without sacrificing either. In review of the Metolius River Loops Bikeway designation in the context of its consistency with land managememnt plans, we are finding that the WSR [Wild and Scenic River] and Bikeway designations are not complementing each other as desired. Some items which are difficult to reconcile with the WSR plan include reducing congestion and providing better traffic flow, managing singing to minimize visual impact and perpetuate a historic character, and not permitting commercial entities to promote the area to draw visitors.”

The letter also expressed concerns over “carrying capacity” of the area during the summer peak and it identified five roads (FS Roads 14, 1420, 1419, 1217 and 900) that are on the bikeway route but the Forest Service deems, “not designed for bicycle use” due to their lack of a shoulder, striping, speed limit enforcement, and safe sight lines.

The letter didn’t call for the bikeway designation to be stripped, but it made it clear maintaining it would be all but impossible.

Making things even more difficult for the bikeway designation is that some residents of Sisters and Camp Sherman have expressed concerns to the Forest Service about the proposed signage and the crowds it will attract.

Phillips has tried working with local proponents to iron things out. There have been several meetings to hash out a signage and promotional plan that would balance with the needs of the Forest Service plan. At a meeting last April, local bikeway proponents were given one year to finalize their plan. They’re set to present it at a meeting in April when the Scenic Bikeway Committee will vote on the designation removal.

The proponents will argue for a compromise based in large part on their belief that the Forest Service management plan is outdated and that management of the bikeway is possible. They say (in a draft we received) “due to the advanced age of the 1997 plan, it does not address the growth of, or impacts associated with, the road biking now popular in the area.”

It’s highly unlikely that the State’s Bikeway Committee will opt to pick this fight with the Forest Service. But even if the designation is removed, Alex Phillips says it’ll still be a great place to ride. “The mission of the Bikeways program is all about promotion and bringing more people into an area. If the designation is removed the roads will still be open to bikes. It would just not be in the Bikeway Program.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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