Umatilla County has no shortage of outdoor space, but it does lack an interconnected network of trails to enjoy it.
That was a common theme at an Oregon Recreational Trails Advisory Council at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation Friday.
At the session, government officials, nonprofit leaders, and outdoor enthusiasts all bemoaned the dearth of accessible, well-maintained trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding in their own communities in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington.
“I was born and raised in Walla Walla but spent about 10 or 15 years in the Portland area where I found it much easier to recreate outdoors,” Walla Walla architect Jon Campbell said. “Which is flipped from what you would ordinarily think.”
But the seven-member council heard from people who are looking to change that trend.
The Blue Mountain Region Trails project is spearheaded by two Walla Walla-based organizations, and most of its proposals are centered around communities in Walla Walla and Columbia counties.
But the Milton-Freewater area and north Umatilla County are also included in the project.
Completed in 16 months ending in February 2018, organizers solicited input from the public as to how best connect these far-flung communities with non-motorized trails.
Based on the public’s suggestions, planners worked with officials from local, state, and federal governments to craft a document with 354 miles worth of trail ideas.
Andrea Weckmueller-Behringer, the executive director of the Walla Walla Metropolitan Planning Organization, said organizers only targeted public right-of-way for path projects, with projects ranging from improving or rehabbing an existing trail to creating a new trail altogether.
“Some are new,” she said.
“Others are small connections,” Weckmueller-Behringer said. “And the majority is infrastructure building for trails that have fallen into disrepair and that really need to be resurrected. Again, there’s already a lot out there and it’s just not well maintained.”
The plan includes several trail projects in Umatilla County.
East of Milton-Freewater, the Tiger Ridge Trail reconnection would reunite the West Creek and Tiger Ridge trails by clearing away brush and overgrown vegetation and relocating several areas of the trail to avoid soil and topography issues.
West of Milton-Freewater, the Ridge Route would use 26 miles of existing gravel road for a shared trail that would give hikers and cyclists a view of windmills before dipping north toward Wallula Junction in Washington.
The Stateline project would create a bike route on the Oregon-Washington border north of Milton-Freewater.
The plan establishes the ideas and even provides cost estimates, but actually obtaining the funding for each proposal requires the public agencies that manage these areas to find grants for them.
Project costs can vary depending on how much work each proposal requires.
For instance, the Tiger Ridge project has an estimated cost of $100,000 for clearing brush, reconstructing the trail, and performing an environmental review while the Stateline proposal could cost up to $1.5 million to widen the road and replace a bridge.
While the Blue Mountain Region Trails Plan hews pretty close to the state border, Umatilla County Planner Bob Waldher and Hermiston Parks and Recreation Director Larry Fetter sat in the audience with plans to bring a similar trail system to the west side of Umatilla County.
Waldher said the county and city governments are in the early planning stages to connect four west-side cities — Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield, and Echo — with a trail.
Fetter said walking is one of the most popular outdoor activities and it was about time that the area started offering locals some options.
A group of officials will meet Tuesday to discuss applying for a U.S. National Forest Service grant to help fund the planning stage, but Waldher said the trails could eventually connect with Pendleton and even the Milton-Freewater area through Blue Mountain Region Trails.