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With recommendations due soon, a recap of Forest Park saga

Posted by on September 29th, 2010 at 11:59 am

Tour of Tomorrow
Director of Portland Parks
Zari Santner.
Sunday Parkways NE-68
City Commissioner Nick Fish.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish and the Director of Portland Parks Zari Santner are due to release their recommendations on bicycling in Forest Park sometime in the next week or so. The announcement will come 19 months after the issue of how to improve bicycling in the 5,000 acre park was first put on Fish’s radar. The journey to this point has been messy and difficult for people on all sides of the issue. In the interest of bringing you up to speed on the issue, here’s my recap and thoughts about how we got to where we are today…

Back in February 2009, with a citizen-led effort to spur momentum on improved bike access in the park taking off, Commissioner Fish stepped up and gave the community hope that off-road cycling would get better sooner than later. He told BikePortland he was, “committed to finding ways to significantly expand our current inventory of singletrack trails.”

19 months ago Fish said, “I think there is a need and there is a demand [for more trail access] and my job is to see how we can make that happen. I’m not interested in delaying this.”

But since that time it has become increasingly clear that Fish might not have fully appreciated the complexity of the issue he was wading into and his implied promises will most likely not be fulfilled. A citizen committee set up by Fish and the Parks Bureau he oversees has been an exercise in frustration for nearly everyone involved.

Those against more biking in the park felt burned that Fish had already made promises (to open existing and/or add trails for bikes) he couldn’t keep. Those in favor of more trail access felt they were being unfairly maligned by people who they say simply don’t want to share this public resource. What should have been a civil debate about how we use and take care of Forest Park, turned sour.

The waters of this debate were further poisoned by the discovery of an unauthorized trail that was made by mountain bikers in an ecologically sensitive section of the park. That story got a lot of attention in the media and responsible cycling advocates who do not condone illegal trail building were forced to defend themselves.

“An in-depth report on Forest Park published by the influential City Club of Portland likely put the nail in the coffin of any chance of Fish being able to keep his promises.”

Despite Commissioner Fish’s insistence that the illegal trail would not derail efforts to improve trail access options in the park, it clearly did. Parks Director Zari Santner spoke emotionally at a committee meeting just a few days after the discovery. She called the illegal trail “a tragedy” and said that nothing should move forward until “strategic management policies are in place.”

An in-depth report on Forest Park published by the influential City Club of Portland likely put the nail in the coffin of any chance of Fish being able to keep his promises. That report hammered the City of Portland for neglecting the park and not doing more to maintain its ecology and manage a vast increase in users over the years. The City Club also characterized off-road bicycling’s potential impact on the park’s ecology in a way that was called out as being unfair and misleading by several trail advocates.

Two recent surveys commissioned by Portland Parks (one just released a few weeks ago) show that the community (not just people who bike) wants more trails and more places in Forest Park where bikes can enjoy them. But any decisions on this prickly issue — like many here in Portland — will likely come down to politics.

Citizen activist and member of the Forest Park Off-Road Cycling Committee Frank Selker, the man whose grassroots plan launched back in December 2008 got this issue back onto the City’s front-burner, had an op-ed published in The Oregonian earlier this week. Selker emphasized the same point he’s been hammering on throughout the process — that Forest Park needs all the help it can get and excluding thousands of Portlanders from enjoying it, and becoming stewards in the process, simply does not make sense.

Selker’s tone in the piece is not optimistic about the impending announcement from Commissioner Fish and Parks Director Santner. He writes:

“I’m concerned that without factual merit and despite a majority favoring more options, cyclists will continue to be excluded from the park’s trails. More delays for “studies” and throwing a few bones to cyclists in other parks won’t change the basic reality.”

In the next few days, we should find out more about how and if the “basic reality” of off-road cycling in Portland will change.

— Read our previous coverage of this issue here.

*Despite the City Club’s assertion that off-road cycling http://www.imba.com/resources/research/trail-science/natural-resource-impacts-mountain-biking

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  • rwl1176 September 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Fish is “committed to finding ways to significantly expand our current inventory of singletrack trails.” because if he doesn’t Portland could have the disctinction of being the FIRST city to lose the coveted “Platinum” Status from the League of American Bicyclists. Portland scored VERY low in the catagory of Natural Surface Trails, (singletrack) but the super high marks in commuting and recreational road riding made up for that. Officials at LAB stated 2 years ago Portland MUST improve in the singletrack catagory, or they stand to lose Platinum next time the certification process happens.

    Portland Parks has to provide more, or they become the bad guy here.

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  • Andrew Seger September 29, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Ugh this whole process has turned out so poorly. And with plenty of blame to go around on all sides.

    Hopefully the singletrack plans on the eastside greenway park thing wont be turned into an excuse for doing nothing in forest park. I’m not a mountain biker, but I can see the two are not interchangeable at all.

    It really seems like there shouldn’t be a huge conflict, for all the years I lived in Ashland mountain bikers and other trail users seemed to coexist quite well. Yes, the population is much larger here, but still.

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  • Sasquatch September 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    The status of Forest Park in terms of its health and sanctuary from urban bustle is more important to me than some “platinum status” conferred by the League of American Bicyclists. I’ve biked everywhere allowed in FP for over 23 years for recreation and commuting. It suits me fine just the way it is. I also regularly run and hike there, and I’m glad I can avoid speedy cyclists. When I do encounter a cyclist illegally riding a single-track pedestrian trail, it becomes difficult to pass one another. During the mud season, bike tires acclerate wear, tear and erosion on the trails.

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  • cyclist September 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Jonathan: “The City Club also inaccurately characterized off-road bicycling’s potential impact on the park’s ecology, without citing any evidence to back up their claims.”

    You should be holding yourself to the same standard that you’re holding the City Club to. If the City Club needs evidence that additional bike trails will cause ecological damage, then you need to provide evidence in order to assert that the characterization is innacurate. Most people are going to take for granted that the link contains proof that the City Club was wrong, all it contains is a single sentence from Tom Archer where he says, “There are sustainable ways to accomodate bicycles in the park… All users have an impact.” That’s no basis for claiming the City Club’s assessment was wrong.

    I strongly encourage you to either remove “inaccurately” from that sentence or actually provide evidence that City Club is wrong.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 29, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    cyclist,

    thanks for the comment. i appreciate your feedback, but this is an editorial piece, not a study put together by a team of researchers with the intent of influencing public policy. there’s a very big difference IMO. that being said, I’ll consider editing out the “inaccurately” part because I think the sentence makes the same point without that word. thanks.

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  • cyclist September 29, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Jonathan #5: Regardless of the amount of resources you or the City Club has, it’s the height of hypocrisy to accuse the City Club of coming to a conclusion without any evidence while doing the same thing yourself in the same sentence. You don’t get to have it both ways, if you think that coming to conclusions without proof is a problem, then you should hold yourself to that standard, at least in the article where you level the charge.

    I do hope you take my earlier suggestion. If you don’t have time to find research that backs your finding just remove the evidence-free assertion you’ve made. Either that or remove the critique about the lack of evidence in City Club’s report.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 29, 2010 at 3:17 pm

      cyclist,

      After thinking about your feedback and re-reading a few things, I decided to make some changes to that part of my story. “Inaccurately” was not a good choice of words and I regret using it. I still think City Club portrayed biking in a way that wasn’t fair and did so without backing it up, but “inaccurately” wasn’t the best word to use in that situation. Thanks again for the feedback.

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  • f5 September 29, 2010 at 3:42 pm
  • wsbob September 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    This summary story, aside from the point that ‘cyclist’ #4 and #6 raised seems to me to be a fair account of how discussion relating to proposals for further introduction of single track for off-road biking in Forest Park has gone.

    I’ll just point out that the following opening to a sentence in the story, doesn’t seem accurate to me:

    “… Those against more biking in the park…” maus/bikeportland

    As I understand the situation, rather than people simply objecting to ‘more’ biking in FP, it’s the type of biking being proposed that they’re objecting to…biking on single track.

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  • Lisa September 29, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    I fail to see how Frank Selker’s hysterics and drama about “excluding thousands of Portlanders from enjoying Forest Park” have any merit.

    Mountain bikers are not excluded from Forest Park. They may not like the options for riding in Forest Park but they are hardly excluded.

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  • Frank Selker September 29, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    The City Club report is truly inaccurate regarding certain allegations of violations of the Forest Park Management Plan. They did not fully understand the plan and the process, and I suspect they mistakenly repeated what others told them in that regard.

    I would describe their assertions of damage as not supported by most research, and thus also inaccurate. I learned, in communication with City Club committee members, that they were unaware of research on the topic. The person on the commmittee who might be most technically qualified told me “I had never heard of single track prior to being on the committee.”

    They had essentially no expertise about a subject which was tangential to the reports focus. Instead they relyied on their interviews with partisans and their own “common sense.” I hope that all of their reports’ assertions are not constructed on such flimsy foundations.

    Lisa,
    Would you mind if you were allowed everywhere in FP…except the trails? Quite ironic for me to be accused of hysterics and drama after those meetings and what opponents wrote.

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  • cyclist September 29, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    f5 #8: The conclusion from that link says:

    Mountain biking, like other recreation activities, does impact the environment. On this point, there is little argument. But people often debate whether or not mountain bikes cause more damage to trails, vegetation, and wildlife than other forms of recreation such as hiking and horseback riding.

    The studies they cite indicate the mountain biking creates the same amount of damage as other trail uses. So if the argument is that some trails should be converted to singeltrack, that wouldn’t damage the park. If they’re advocating for new trails, then those studies indicate there will be a negative impact on the park’s ecology.

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  • BURR September 29, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    if you know and plan for trails to be used for single track, it’s not that hard to design and build to mitigate the impacts, that argument is a total red herring.

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  • cyclist September 29, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Burr #13: I don’t know anything about it, I was just quoting the scientific studies that were referenced by f5 #8. Nonetheless, I’d probably put more stock in those studies than I would in your opinion, unless you you have evidence to back up your claim.

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  • Andrew Seger September 30, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Both @BURR and @cyclist have excellent points. While no doubt building a single track trail has some (minimal) impact on the environment around it we should realize that forest park is not a pristine wilderness, and some level of human use is absolutely acceptable. We should always be balancing the needs of everyone in the Portland area to maximize the value of forest park. And that definitely includes the needs and desires of mountain bikers. Unlike @Sasquatch and @Lisa I think the status quo isn’t really satisfactory for mountain bikers and think that there are some reasonable, modest, steps we could take to satisfy the requirement for some nice single track trails in forest park without endangering or affecting anyone else’s experience in the park.

    In fact, I would argue that it would enhance everyone’s experience for the mtbs to have their own separated space from the general multiuse trails. Perhaps some sort of compromise where the city pays for planning and then the MTB community could pay for the building of the trails would be an acceptable compromise.

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  • Lisa September 30, 2010 at 5:45 am

    Frank # 11: Am I remembering correctly that you got up and dramatically walked out of at least two meetings because you were unhappy with the tenor of the conversation?

    Forest Park can’t be everything to everybody. It’s not that large a space. Mountain bikers currently have access. To have more specialized access, mountain bikers should be utilizing a regional approach to build out other areas.

    To answer your questions: no, I wouldn’t mind because there are myriad other places I can go. Forest Park isn’t the only place available.

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  • Brian September 30, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Lisa,
    That’s the kind of compromise we are looking for, thank you for understanding. If some pedestrian only trails (Maple, for example) became mtb only trails, this entire issue could be put to sleep. Mtb’ers with trail knowledge could work the trail to minimize impact, and the pedestrian crowd would still have many, many more miles of quality hiking trails at their disposal. That and we wouldn’t need to create more trails. A win-win.
    Cheers!
    Brian

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  • f5 September 30, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Lisa #16: As a cyclist who’s been following this diligently on the O-live and here on BP, this is what your line of reasoning sounds like to me, summed up:

    - Allowing bikes on trails in any conceivable fashion, no matter how limited, would undoubtedly pave the way for ATVs, Motocross bikes, cars, etc., etc.

    - Forest Park, the largest urban park in the US, ironically just isn’t big enough to accommodate bikes on trails

    - Finally getting past the status quo, and finally allowing a legitimate trail user-group and park care-stewards fair access is effectively ‘specialized access’ in your mind.

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  • Lisa September 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree, I guess.

    At any rate, it looks like I am far from the only one who feels this way.

    Nick Fish is now suggesting “Forest Park is not ready for an increase in off road cycling.”

    See OPB for this information.

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  • wsbob September 30, 2010 at 10:43 am

    The points Lisa #16 makes are plenty clear.

    As a ‘nature park’, or ‘natural area: That’s what the land representing Forest Park was long ago set aside to serve Portland residents and visitors as, and continues to regarded and loved as today. In addition to its function in offering a readily accessible experience unto the wonders of the natural world, Forest Park was set aside specifically for the purpose of offering people, wildlife, and plant life, a refuge from the city and its complexities.

    Vehicular traffic in the form of bicycles, threading their way over narrow trail in the park is exactly the type of activity that land for the park was set aside to offer people a refuge from. Parceling that land out to introduce off-road biking on single track into the park, runs counter to the park’s fundamental purpose.

    Something Lisa says that I make a note of, is her characterizing the park as “…not that large a space….”? As the size for parcels of land cities tend to be able to secure for that purpose go, 5000 acres is a wonderfully large parcel of land for the city to have designated for use a nature park.

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