Recently, the City Club of Central Oregon hosted a forum on what’s next for Central Oregon’s Recreation and Tourism Assets. The discussion included a well informed panel about the role that recreation plays in Central Oregon’s tourism economy with a focus on Bend being a main tourism driver for the region. According to VisitBend, 2.2 million people visit Bend annually (which is likely a higher number if you consider the region), there are 8,840 jobs in central Oregon because of tourism, and the annual tourist spending is $526 million. An important role, indeed.
While there are distinct tourism assets, such as the Bend Ale Trail, golf courses, arts and entertainment events and venues, among others, the panel tended to be more focused on the recreation assets in the context of having access to nearby public land. In particular, there was significant discussion surrounding the impact of Bend’s growth on the quality of the recreational experience on nearby public lands.
Bend is growing as a city and will continue to grow, including an expanded four year university. As Bend grows, a vibrant trail and recreational system in the metro area will remain of vital importance. Accordingly, the cornerstone of Bend’s recreational access and quality could be the assets developed and managed by the Bend Metro Parks and Recreation District. The District manages 2,659 acres of land—1,531 acres of which are developed—manages 65 miles of trail, much of it along the scenic Deschutes River, and is currently implementing a $29 million bond measure to expand the community’s recreational amenities. This bond measure will fund numerous Deschutes River Trail connections and parks, including a whitewater park. The intended result is to allow for a fully connected trail from Sunriver to Tumalo State Park. Visitors and residents of Bend are and will be able to efficiently access these trails and parks and enjoy quality experiences without having to access public lands to receive the high quality recreational experiences. In addition, numerous events are accommodated through the metro parks system, which directly attract tourism dollars.
For trail systems located close in to town, such as Phil’s trail, where users value efficient access and quality trails, additional trail development within the system and on nearby public and private lands and directional improvements will help maintain quality user experiences as demand increases. However, particularly for these closer in trail systems, having a robust and beautiful metro trail system will be critical for addressing increased demand. For some users, the metro system can provide the same level of recreational amenity and thus reduce or mitigate increased demand on the public land trail system.
There is no doubt that many people will desire wilderness type experiences on the public lands. However, backcountry activities are typically only accessed by a much smaller number of visitors with the skills, desire and equipment to enjoy backcountry hiking, skiing, fishing, climbing or whitewater kayaking, among others. Nevertheless, additional amenities are in the process or planned for development on the national forest lands, including new trails, snow parks, a Cascades Mountain hut route and additional trails and amenities at the Mt. Bachelor ski resort. Fundamentally, however, the ability of the federal forests to accommodate increased levels of activity will be limited to ensure the protection of wildlife and habitat—for example, federal permits for events such as running and bike races contain participant caps. While a metro system is not designed to deliver wilderness type experiences, it is designed to provide access to recreational activities that may, initially, be out of reach for residents or visitors in the backcountry. Indeed, recreational access is a significant concern, particularly for lower income visitors and residents. Accordingly, the metro park system fills a recreational need that cannot be met by the public lands and also provides opportunity to lower barriers to access, by offering nearby amenities and training in a diverse set of recreational skills. In addition, the metro park system appears likely to continue to be developed in a manner that helps to accommodate race event venues thereby helping to mitigate some demand on the public trail systems.
Last, climate change may directly impact the recreational amenities available on nearby public lands. Adaptability and resiliency are important concepts for adjusting to the impacts of climate change. A robust metro trail system may very likely be a critical asset that will provide resiliency to our region’s recreational assets.
In summary, Bend’s tourism economy is intimately tied to high quality, trail and outdoor oriented recreational amenities. Focus can often be concentrated on the recreational system located on public lands as the driving force behind Bend’s recreation tourism economy. While there is no doubt the public land amenities, including a developed ski resort, offer world class recreation, it is important to consider how critical the Bend Metro Parks and Recreation District’s trail and recreation system is to providing access to outdoor recreation, to meeting recreation demand, and to supporting the quality of recreational assets in the region.