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Public can shape future of Bear Creek Greenway

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Andy and Halie Peplinski walk along the Bear Creek Greenway at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix.
‘Envision Bear Creek’ survey open through May 6

Local officials want to know how people are using the Bear Creek Greenway — and what’s stopping them from visiting the walking, jogging, biking and horseback riding path even more.

Jackson County, cities along the path and the Oregon Department of Transportation all manage different parts of the Greenway, which stretches 18 miles from Ashland to Central Point. They’ve teamed up to survey residents about the Greenway’s condition and ideas for its future.

“I would like to see the public say what they want the Greenway to be like so they would use it more,” said Mike Gardiner, a Bear Creek Greenway Foundation board member and part of a community advisory committee for the path. “I’m a firm believer that the more people on the Greenway for recreation and commuting, the better. Some people don’t feel safe on the Greenway, or they’re not sure where it goes and how to get on and off it. We hope the public will fill in the blanks for what’s stopping them from using it.”

Residents can take the survey and learn more by visiting www.envisionbearcreek.com. The survey, which is available in English and Spanish, is open through May 6.

Online open house sessions are planned from 4-5 p.m. and 5:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11. Links to watch the sessions will be posted on the website. The second session will include live Spanish translation. People can learn about issues identified by the public and ideas for improving the Greenway.

People who’ve visited the path lately may have spotted signs inviting them to visit the Envision Bear Creek website and take the survey.

“To date, we’ve had over 800 survey responses. We would love to see triple or quadruple that. We want to get a good feel for what the public wants,” said Jackson County Parks and Roads Department Director Steve Lambert.

The survey asks people to list the ways they use the Greenway, from biking to work to bird-watching to skateboarding. They can say what they appreciate about the path as it is now, and list ideas for the future, such as improving safety, more work to fight invasive plants like blackberries and adding parking lots, more trail connections, restrooms, trash cans and water fountains.

The website includes an interactive map where people can flag trouble spots or say where they would like improvements.

Outside the Medford area of the Greenway, many of the comments so far focus on adding amenities such as trail connections and parking areas or improving the path’s asphalt surface. But many residents are concerned about safety in the Medford area. The natural areas of the Greenway have long been used by homeless people for illegal camping, and the area has been the site of crime and numerous fires.

“I would love to use the Greenway in this area and ride my bike to work, however I do not feel safe due to the crime/drug use in this area,” one person commented on the interactive map, flagging a spot near Hawthorne Park in Medford.

Flagging an area south of Medford, one user wrote, “From this point going south, the Greenway is pretty awesome. This is where I can turn my headphones back on and kick it into high gear! You feel like you’re safe sailing from here all the way to Ashland!”

Gardiner said concerns about safety are an issue.

“People don’t feel safe on some sections of the Greenway. Some areas get run down and there’s illegal camping and trash. There are some areas where people wouldn’t take their family on a family bike ride, or a single person might not feel safe riding through,” Gardiner said.

Goals of the Envision Bear Creek process include developing an initial project list of improvements and proposing options for governing the Greenway and financing maintenance and improvements. With the county, cities and ODOT all caring for different sections, there’s no unified plan for the Greenway.

People also have competing wishes for the Greenway. Some prefer a more natural setting with bushes and trees, while others are wary of fire risk or crime and want more areas mowed down.

The 2020 Almeda fire swept from Ashland to the southern outskirts of Medford along Bear Creek, Highway 99 and the I-5 corridor, destroying 2,500 homes and more than 100 businesses. Trees and vegetation along the Greenway, including massive thickets of invasive blackberries, helped fuel the fire.

Before the fire, the Rogue River Watershed Council removed six acres of blackberries near Blue Heron Park in Phoenix. Eradicating blackberries is tough, expensive work, said Brian Barr, executive director of the council.

“It’s very difficult to envision treating all the blackberries along Bear Creek,” he said. “The Almeda fire took care of 10 miles of blackberry removal — while wreaking havoc along the way. But it did get rid of the blackberries.”

Across all jurisdictions of the Greenway, Barr said a top priority needs to be fighting the return of the blackberries and encouraging the growth of native species such as cottonwoods, alder, dogwood and big leaf maple trees.

He said blackberry thickets not only create fire danger, they provide a hiding place for people who are up to no good. Thorny thickets also stopped Greenway users from getting closer to Bear Creek to view the stream, wildlife and fish.

“Fire safety is a big consideration. Public safety is a big consideration. People need to feel safe when they’re using the Greenway,” Barr said.

Even if future maintenance of the Greenway becomes more consistent, Barr said, the area will probably always have a mix of natural areas plus park-like areas with shorter vegetation.

Barr said he believes encouraging the return of native trees and plants can reduce fire danger and public safety issues, while also providing wildlife habitat and cooling the creek to improve water conditions for fish.

The city of Central Point is joining in the Envision Bear Creek process while also carrying out its own plan to create a new city park in a fire-prone area along the Greenway. In 2020, a fire in an overgrown swath of the Greenway adjacent to Central Point threatened the town.

“People were very scared the Greenway would catch on fire again," said city of Central Point Parks and Public Works Director Matt Samitore.

Central Point acquired land from Medford, Jackson County and ODOT to create a park where it could keep the grass low and remove invasive plants. If a fire does break out there, a grass fire will be easier to fight, Samitore said.

Central Point still needs to go through a public input process for the park, but it could include paths, a frisbee golf course, a dog park, a BMX track and improvements to ponds and wetlands in the area, Samitore said.

Although a separate process, Samitore said, he thinks the park’s development fits into the overall goal to improve the Greenway all along its length.

The genesis for the Greenway dates back all the way to the 1890s, when early bicycle enthusiasts dreamed of a bike path. Construction of the Greenway as it appears today didn’t begin until the 1970s. Segments have been painstakingly added over the years.

“The Greenway has been decades in the making,” Gardiner said. “We have a treasure in the Greenway, although if you go from one end to the other, some parts don’t feel treasure-like.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.