In 1978, Karen Smith took a temporary job managing the Bear Creek Greenway. The little trail then ran about three miles, much of it under the freeway viaduct in Medford.

In 1978, Karen Smith took a temporary job managing the Bear Creek Greenway. The little trail then ran about three miles, much of it under the freeway viaduct in Medford.

When Smith left the job in 2008, the greenway stretched from Ashland to Central Point and had become one of the jewels of Southern Oregon.

Smith says that's testimony to the power of private persons, various interest groups, local, state and federal governments and foundations, all working together.

"The county led, and all the communities participated," Smith says. "But one of the most important things to understand is it's not a project that could have been done by governments alone."

Or without Smith.

"There are so many things that came together," says Jenna Stanke, the county's current greenway coordinator, who replaced Smith in 2008. "But she's the one who comes to mind."

In 1973, Al Densmore, now a Medford City Council member but then a young state representative, introduced the bill that created the Bear Creek Greenway. That was the same year Oregon took a pioneering step in land-use planning, creating the Land Conservation and Development Commission and establishing a structure for statewide planning that became a model for many other states.

The visionary greenway measure also passed, and the county began acquiring land from the creek's source near Ashland to a spot northwest of Central Point where the creek flows into the Rogue River.

The greenway now winds along Bear Creek from Oak Street near the dog park in Ashland through parts of Talent, Phoenix and Medford to Central Point near the Jackson County Expo, where there's a small gap. Those communities and the Rogue Valley Council of Governments provide $66,000 a year to maintain and improve the trail.

A paving project next fall will fill the gap and leave an unbroken chain from Ashland to Central Point. Acquisition of the final link was cleared when the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in February approved the swap of a .15 acre right of way owned by Naumes Inc. with a county-owned .12-acre section nearby.

The land lies between Bear Creek and the Family Fun Center, and the deal effectively realigns the trail. There was no financial impact. The final section will follow the creek before cutting down to Peninger Road and joining an existing section near Upton Road.

The nearly 20-mile-long path was a dream for more than a century, although work on it goes back "only" four decades. In 1899 Jackson County levied a $1.25 tax on bicycles to pay for a path. The entries are still there in old tax records. Since 400 bicyclists paid the tax, it must have raised all of about $500. But the plan never came to fruition.

In the 1960s, when the county park system was growing, planners envisioned "an emerald necklace" stretching from Emigrant Lake near Ashland to the Rogue River. Then, when the Oregon Legislature approved plans for a greenway trail along the Willamette River to the north, it sparked a surge of enthusiasm for a similar trail in Southern Oregon, and county commissioners set aside the first land for the greenway.

Smith worked with the communities along the trail to get the greenway included in the land-use plans that cities and counties were required to prepare by the 1973 land-use law. There were bumps on the way, with some people complaining that they didn't see why the county needed a trail running along a creek. Smith explained that it wasn't just a trail, it was a green space in a growing urban corridor for different kinds of recreation and wildlife habitat, too.

"There was some disagreement," Smith says. "But everybody put it aside and worked together."

In 1980 the greenway added the section centered on Lynn Newbry Park in Talent. The nonprofit Greenway Foundation was set in 1986 up to receive donations and promote the trail.

"The first few years concentrated on land acquisition," Smith says.

In 1994 The Rogue Valley Equestrian Trails Association (then the Bear Creek Greenway Equestrian Association) began efforts to add a natural-surface trail from the Pacific Crest Trail above Ashland along the Greenway to the Rogue River.

A trail segment runs from Blackwell Road past Expo Park to Table Rock Road, and another runs from Lynn Newbry Park just off Interstate 5 in Talent to the wranglers arena near Ashland. The group has worked with the Medford parks department to plan more sections of equestrian trails.

By 1999 three sections of the greenway were complete. A 2-plus mile section connected Pine Street in Central Point with Railroad Park in north Medford, a 3.4-mile section in Medford ran from Railroad Park south to Barnett Road, and a 5-mile section ran from Suncrest Road north of Talent to Ashland.

Each phase involved working with city governments, land agencies, interest groups, foundations, engineering and environmental concerns, not to mention state and federal law on historical, anthropological and botanical issues. It turned out that Smith, a generalist who had a degree in general studies with a minor in social studies, was the right fit.

"Every phase was a learning curve," she says. "We just chipped away at it."

A 2010 survey of 164 greenway users found that most used the pathway for exercise, and most were older. Pollsters interviewed people at different points on the path at different times of day. Sixty percent of the visitors said they visited the greenway for exercise, 15 percent said they were commuters, and 13 percent were there for recreation.

Respondents rated the path's overall condition between fair and good on a five-point scale. Bumps caused by root growth under the pavement were the biggest complaints.

One of the final obstacles to completion of the greenway was Barnett Road, the only place greenway users had to confront city traffic.

Most Medford City Council members had favored a $1.9 million underpass at Barnett Road, but that option was fraught with property, environmental and safety problems.

The $2 million pedestrian bridge over Barnett Road at Highland Drive finally opened in September of 2010. A ramp running parallel with Barnett was added when officials worried that other designs would take too much space out of the dog park at Highland and Barnett.

More than $200,000 has been chipped in for work on the trail in the last five years by the communities involved, Stanke says, and that's been leveraged with $1.7 million in state and federal transportation and recreation grants. And countless volunteers work to maintain the trail and pick up trash, ranging from area schoolchildren to Medford and Central Point Mormons.

An ongoing project to remove invasive vegetation such as Himalayan blackberries and plant native species can seen near the bridge over Bear Creek and the greenway at Main Street in Medford.

Salmon and steelhead have returned to the creek along with otters, beavers, herons and eagles. Native birds use the greenway for nesting, raising their young and as a refueling stop for spring and fall migrations.

"I love that it's home to critters," Smith says.

Plans for a Rogue River Greenway to link up with the Bear Creek Greenway and continue to Grants Pass have set the stage for a bigger dream. The Rogue River Greenway Foundation was incorporated in 2004, and the grand opening of the first paved mile was celebrated in August 2007. Meanwhile, there's that green necklace from Central Point to Ashland.

"It's not that I was brilliant," Smith says. "I just kept at it."

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at