Paul Boswell is fed up with the Bear Creek Greenway because he said it is littered with homeless camps and garbage.
"I got really irritated," said the 68-year-old Medford resident, who rises early for what he describes as his eight-mile "military march" — 120 steps a minute with a stride of 36 inches. Boswell said he started avoiding the Greenway because he kept bumping into homeless people.
"My problem is I walk early in the morning, and that's when they come out and go to the mission," he said.
But law enforcement officials and some local residents say they believe the 18-mile pedestrian pathway is actually safer than it was in the past, though it still needs improvement.
"I think it is 100 percent better than it was three or four years ago," said Tim George, Medford deputy police chief.
Police now patrol the Greenway year-round on foot and by bicycle, he said. Volunteers in golf carts also keep an eye on the pedestrian walkway that follows Bear Creek.
Medford police were scheduled to conduct another sweep along the Greenway early this morning and will bring in crews later in the week to clean up the litter and illegal campsites.
In 2005, police responded to 24 calls on the Greenway. In 2006, when police stepped up their patrols after a 15-year-old girl was raped along the path, the number of calls jumped to 47. So far this year, the number of calls is 62, expected to hit 100 by year's end.
George said calls may have increased, but that doesn't mean the crime rate has shot up.
With increased patrols, officers are catching offenders in the act and issuing a majority of the calls themselves.
Some of the crimes they witnessed included trespassing, camping, assault, harassment, urinating, defecating or being intoxicated in public.
Contrary to what some people might think, the Greenway is a safe place to walk, George said, though he cautioned people need to be aware of their surroundings and shouldn't venture there after hours.
"I don't think you should be jogging up and down any street at three in the morning," he said.
George said other areas in Medford, particularly downtown near some nightclubs, have higher crime rates than the Greenway.
Boswell, who now walks along a pathway next to Biddle Road, said he has noticed that some areas thick with blackberry bushes have been cleared away, and two homeless camps near McAndrews Road have disappeared. But he views these as only stopgap measures.
"The homeless numbers are increasing rapidly," he said. "I don't think there's too much the police can do about it."
Rick Molatore, a Medford resident who rides his bike twice a week on the Greenway, said he has noticed an increased police presence as well as a quicker response time. A camp at Hawthorne Park was quickly routed recently, he said.
"I would say it is better," the 54-year-old Molatore said, comparing conditions on the Greenway before the sweeps began.
Molatore said that doesn't mean the Greenway doesn't have its problems, particularly with litter and the occasional obnoxious transient.
During the spring, he was cycling down a grade when he noticed a man who had just finished urinating. "It annoyed me when my bike tire went through it," said Molatore.
Sheriff Mike Winters said he believes the Greenway is safer than it was two years ago, finding fewer homeless camps in his recent aerial surveillances.
On a sheriff helicopter ride this week, the Mail Tribune counted about two dozen active and inactive homeless camps from Ashland to just north of the Jackson County Expo. In 2005, a sweep along the Greenway found 40 inhabited homeless camps.
Most of the camp sites seen this week had large piles of garbage, some of it strewn along trails. Shopping carts were dumped into the creek.
A couple of small marijuana patches were visible, but it wasn't clear whether they belonged to the homeless who had camps nearby or to someone else.
Winters said the number of calls to the Sheriff's Department about problems on the Greenway is down, from 31 in 2006 to 13 so far this year. The serious crimes also are down, with none reported so far this year, compared to four assaults in 2006, he said.
Winters said he's going to get Community Justice work crews out to clear away the campsites before the winter rains wash the debris into the creek, which flows into the Rogue River.
"Some people think we're mean for taking an enforcement action," he said. "But if they only saw the trash left behind from some of these things."
Central Point resident Brad Taft, who occasionally goes on walks with Boswell, said he's seen only minor improvements along the Greenway.
"It's not a place where a lot of people feel comfortable or safe," said the 65-year-old. Although other Greenway supporters say the pathway is well used, Boswell said he believes it could be used a lot more if there were better maintenance efforts and a bigger volunteer effort to locate homeless camps before the garbage gets out of hand.
"You can't just leave the blackberries in places," he said. "You don't need them so thick that there are places for isolated hobo camps."
Taft said he is comfortable walking the Greenway with someone like Boswell, but he wouldn't think of taking his wife down there.
"With my wife we drive down to Ashland, to Lithia Park," he said.
County Greenway Coordinator Karen Smith said the Greenway is taking a bad rap for all the social problems of our times.
"This is so unfair," she said. "It's not right to characterize the Greenway as a hazardous place."
On her regular visits to the Greenway, she sees lots of people, including couples, families and women, she said. Some of them even pick the blackberries.
"I see tons of people using it who are not stressed and not anxious," she said. "The more people use it the safer it is, the less hospitable it is for people who want to live in the brush."
Smith said there is a problem with garbage left behind from the camps, but she said that for a trail that winds through five communities, the crime rate is not as bad as people might imagine.
"In some people's mind it's a horrible scary place and that's just not the case," she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.