A diverse group of stakeholders in the Walla Walla Valley — including Umatilla County and the city of Milton-Freewater — is nearly ready to unveil its master plan for developing new hiking, biking and other non-motorized trails across the region.
After three rounds of public outreach, project leaders expect to release a draft version of the Blue Mountain Region Trails plan later this winter, striving to boost outdoor recreation and connectivity between local communities.
The project area is limited to northeast Umatilla County, along with neighboring Walla Walla and Columbia counties in Washington. Planning is focused exclusively on public lands and existing public right-of-ways, but may also consider easements with willing landowners.
Bob Waldher, Umatilla County planning director, said the plan also takes into account sidewalks and bike lanes within city limits. The goal, he said, is to adopt a region-wide blueprint that will lay the groundwork for future trails projects and make it easier for municipalities to apply for grant funding.
“Unless you have a plan, a lot of these grants for trails are not available,” Waldher said. “We haven’t even attempted to apply for trails grants because of that.”
Inspiration for the Blue Mountain Region Trails plan can be traced back to Community Council, a nonprofit organization based in Walla Walla that gathers residents to study broad, regional issues such as food insecurity and reducing gang membership.
In 2015, Community Council issued a 25-page report on how to enhance outdoor recreation. One of the committee’s recommendations was to “connect the public to communities and landmarks via a network of trails in the region,” a proposal that caught on quickly with local planners.
Mary Campbell, executive director of Community Council, said the proposal has garnered support from cities, counties, ports, health departments, state and federal natural resource agencies, the Walla Walla Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“It’s been a really huge collaboration,” Campbell said. “The synergy was just there. It was really exciting.”
With that kind of support, Campbell said they were able to apply for and receive a technical assistance grant from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program in October 2016.
Dan Miller, who works as a community planner with the RTCA in Portland, was assigned to work with the Blue Mountain Region Trails group and provide expertise. Miller said the Park Service was initially very excited about the project application, and he was thoroughly impressed by the level of public involvement.
“I’ve been doing this type of work since 2000, and this is one of the more impressively attended and participated processes that I’ve seen,” Miller said. “They’re doing a really good and comprehensive job, and the communities seem to be embracing it.
“I’m fully confident there will be action from this planning process,” Miller added.
The first round of public input kicked off Jan. 30 through Feb. 2, with a series of four meetings held in Milton-Freewater as well as Dayton, Walla Walla and Burbank in Washington. Campbell said the group received nearly 1,000 suggestions regarding potential trails connections throughout the region. At least 80 people signed in at the meeting in Milton-Freewater, she said.
A second round of meetings was also held May 1-4 at the same locations to refine and prioritize projects in the plan. A third and final public comment period was held online through October, with comments ranging from missing sidewalks to a multi-use trail connecting Dayton and Waitsburg.
Closer to Milton-Freewater, Waldher said the project area does include Harris Park, which is managed by the county public works department. Waldher said the county may consider building equestrian facilities at the park, making it easier for horseback riders to park their trailers and access trails.
Waldher said residents also discussed routes connecting Milton-Freewater to Walla Walla, the Blue Mountains and the Columbia River.
“We like to say Umatilla County is a great place to live, work and play, and if we have more of that infrastructure it can help maintain that overall quality of living,” he said.
Outdoor recreation and trails are not only key to public health, but to the region’s economic health, Waldher said. He pointed to the growing trend of “agritourism” in Eastern Oregon, including a new farm loop between Pendleton and Milton-Freewater developed recently by the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association.
A similar planning process for trails is now underway on the west end of Umatilla County as well, Waldher said, bringing together city leaders in Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.
“Ideally, we’d like to do something similar in the west part of the county,” he said. “I think it could be a real asset to the overall quality of life.”
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