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A better new year for the Bear Creek Greenway

This past year was a difficult one in many respects, but bad times often provide opportunities as well. So it is with our Bear Creek Greenway.

The Greenway is a wonderful resource, with streams, trails, and a line of green stretching from one end of the valley to the other. But that resource has been stretched thin by the homeless, invasive plants and the trash and concrete rubble that is a byproduct of how we live our lives.

The Almeda fire laid bare all these issues like a smack in the face. The destruction has rekindled our interests and hopes for something better. The discussion has been both hopeful and helpful. Local governments, organizations, schools, and the public have stepped up to take stock and help where they can. That is a good sign.

Numerous tasks lie before us, but I believe these three must be addressed to create a healthy and inviting Greenway.

First is the issue of the homeless. This is a vexing problem, but I have become hopeful that solutions are available and that our community is working toward them. Designated camping areas away from the Greenway, tiny house communities and the like are critical steps forward. Homeless camps on the Greenway are a potential source of fire ignitions, as well as a source of trash and stream pollution and an eyesore. But they also reflect a bigger problem in our society, and it is time that more of us help find safe and inexpensive living spaces for those in need.

Second are invasive blackberries. Dense blackberry stands had taken over much of the Greenway. They burned with great intensity in the Almeda fire. In a recent tour around Blue Heron Park in Phoenix, we could tell where the blackberries were by the deep white ash. The good news is that the fire burned back the surface blackberry vegetation. The bad news is that underground roots are sprouting up quickly and need to be controlled. There are many native plants that are better for fish and wildlife, less flammable, and less invasive than blackberries.

The third issue is creating a more fire-resistant landscape. We will not eliminate all fires from the Greenway, and some may be unstoppable if conditions that drove the Almeda fire repeat themselves. But we can do better. One option is to create occasional firebreaks by expanding parks, such as Medford’s Sports Park or Phoenix’s Blue Heron Park. Expanding these parks to the width of the Greenway would create fire-resistant nodes within the broader Greenway expanse. Think of some smaller versions of a Lithia-type park scattered along the Greenway. These expanded areas could be planted with the appropriate native plants, irrigated or at least made into mowable areas to keep vegetation controlled. This isn’t about changing the character of the Greenway, which is critical for fish and wildlife as well as people, but is about creating larger park areas along the Greenway where fire would not find the fuels for growth.

As each of these issues is confronted, we will need to work to maintain the solutions. Streamsides are places of rapid ecological change and they need our long-term stewardship. The New Year can be an inspiration for all of us to do better by this precious community resource.

Jack Williams, Ph.D., of Medford is a board member of the Rogue River Watershed Council and emeritus senior scientist for Trout Unlimited.