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Interview with Commissioner Fish: Forest Park talks are “back on track”

Posted by on November 3rd, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Commissioner Nick Fish talks
Forest Park and “freak-outs”.
(Photos © J. Maus)

It’s been almost one year since citizen activist Frank Selker re-energized the issue of increased bicycle access in Forest Park. Since then his effort has sparked widespread momentum for the issue and now the City of Portland’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation has convened a committee to develop recommendations and move the issue forward.

However, last week two members of that committee made headlines when they voiced strong opposition to the idea.

Parks Commissioner Nick Fish has voiced strong support for creating more singletrack opportunities in Forest Park. Yesterday I sat down with Fish and his Natural Resources Policy Advisor Emily Hicks to see where things stand on the issue after the recent spate of headlines.

Fish chalked up the anti-bike sentiments expressed in the news to people who got “a little ahead of themselves.” At the Forest Park Single Track Cycling Advisory Committee meeting on Wednesday, Fish and Parks Director Zari Santner addressed the concerns. Fish says he now feels like the discussions are back on track. “People are taking a deep breath.”

Fish said he’s gotten a crash course in how volatile this issue can be and he encouraged all committee members to keep future discussions “at the table” (a reference to critics of more bike access who had circulated inflammatory emails to other committee members and to the local media).

“This is my first taste of seeing how charged this discussion can be… let’s not engage with these flame debates electronically… We’re at the first inning of a nine inning game, so everyone take a deep breath and let’s act accordingly.”

I asked Fish if his outlook and plans for the committee have changed since its outset (the initial idea was to figure out how and where more bike access could happen not if it would happen at all):

PUMP's Forest Park mountain bike tour

Currently there is only
1/3 mile of singletrack in
Forest Park.

“No. What I think has changed is that there’s been a misunderstanding. People brought their own fears to the table and we had to clarify the scope of the committee, to make clear again that we’re asking this group to develop recommendations, that no decisions have been made and we’ve asked them to follow the mandate of the Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan — which specifically talks about cycling — but has within it a balance between recreational opportunities for one user group against the ecological health of the park. We’ve made clear that the plan is a foundational document that people need to become familiar with and that should be a guide, but it doesn’t preclude any set of recommendations.”

What is the short term outlook? Will it be possible to do some things by summer 2010 (which is a date that has been promised)?

City Council candidate Nick Fish-1.jpg

“Yes. Within Forest Park, because certain proposals would require a land use process, I specifically urged them [the Committee] to look at the low-hanging fruit, places where we can get agreement early that mountain biking works — whether it’s fire lanes, whether it’s parts of trails where the use would not create a significant threat to the ecological health of the park.

In fact, even some of the biggest skeptics at the table in our last meeting started pitching ideas for low-hanging fruit. They are willing to come forward and actually advocate for parts of the park opening up [to bikes]…

Citywide we’re looking at new trail initiatives… specifically to Forest Park we’re looking at whether there are opportunities, particularly the low-hanging fruit because we can do those on an accelrated basis. That being said, I’m interested in any reomcmendations, even ones that would require a land-use process.”

What’s an example of a “low-hanging fruit” project?

Emily Hicks: “Re-greening of existing fire lanes, creating more curvature, making the fire lanes narrower, it seems to be an idea that everyone’s warming up to.”

What about the plan itself? Critics make it seem like not much can be done with a formal change to the plan.

“The plan is not the Bible. It has not been handed down by God. It is a plan that sets forth some basic parameters. We can operate within the plan, the committee can also choose to modify some part of the plan, but that would require a land-use process.” (To weave their way through whether or not a specific committee recommendation would trigger legal challenges, Parks and Rec. has received a technical assistance grant from the National Parks Service.)

How much of what you want to do with bikes in Forest Park is based on meeting user demands versus the idea that it will lead to more involvement and help for the park?

“Both. To me, it goes back to cornerstone principle which is this: We’re a ‘Platinum’ city, but the one area where we have a weakness is off-road cycling opportunities. It’s the area we have been challenged as a city to put more time and resources into developing our system; and it’s an area where the mayor has asked the council to be creative. I start with the premise that we’re doing really well as a bicycle town but this is an area where we need to do better.

Whether people like it or not, off-road cycling is a booming activity. We can’t ignore it and from my point of view, I think it’s not only prudent to find off-road cycling opportunities to meet this demand but at the same time, I’m excited about the fact that this is not only a new user group, these are people who are going to be great stewards of our system.

I want to create the opportunity for a responsible user group, at the same time the dividend for the city is we get the good stewardship which comes from bringing cyclists into the fold.”

What about the concept of trail-sharing (where existing trails would be open to hiking and biking). Does this remain a possibility in Forest Park?

“I have put no limits on the committees opportunity to make recommendations — including shared use. I haven’t specifically directed them to do that, but shared-use is a concept they’re discussing and debating and I’ll consider it if they make a recommendation.”

[*Fish wanted to make it clear that, contrary to some information being spread around, the popular Wildwood Trail is not on the table as an option for trail-sharing. At this point, a 3.2 mile stretch of the Maple Trail in the central area of the park “could potentially be shared”.]

What about the cost of enacting some of these recommendations (like “re-greening” fire lanes for instance)?

“I’m seriously thinking of going out to voters as early as November 2010 with a bond measure. If I do there will be an opportunity to ask for a carve-out in the bond funds to enhance our trails and we’re specifically looking to make investments in Forest Park. So, if we had a blueprint [of what to do in Forest Park] by late spring next year it’s conceivable I could include as part of the bond measure a request for funds to make it happen. That’s one possible source of funds.”

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far about this issue?

“How much of a misunderstanding there is out there. I think we’re at an interesting moment where different user groups are beginning to grapple with what it means to bring cycling into our park system, and it’s not atypical in these type of processes that you start with a lot of misinformation, misunderstandings, and skepticism…

I underestimated the amount of friction in the system that this issue causes… I’m not a mountain biker so I’m not surprised that people who aren’t avid cyclists don’t fully understand what’s driving some of the bike groups and vice-versa.”

Will the public have an opportunity to weigh in on all this?

“All the meeting of the advisory committee are open to the public. Once we have a list of recommendations by the committee, we’ll have an open house and give the public a chance to weigh in.” (I recommended they put a public comment form on the website.)

During our interview, Fish did a masterful job of balancing his words on this issue. He was clearly happy that he and (Parks Director) Zantner were able to smooth over differences among the committee members.

Toward the end of the interview, Fish said his job is to “bring people together to help find the sweet spot” and he seemed confident that he was doing that (both of the most vocal critics have apologized to committee members for their public outbursts). He also offered what seemed like a warning for bike advocates about the road ahead and a bit of a reality check for anti-bike critics (some of whom I’ve read comments from saying they’ll fight any bike access increase “to the bitter end”):

“You’ve got some people that have a long history fighting to protect the park who are already concerned about invasive species, the shrinking budget of the [Parks] bureau and our ability to maintain the park. It’s a large urban park, it’s a treasure. I’m grateful to those who view themselves as stalwart stewards, but not at the expense of shutting down any conversation about an evolutionary process.”

Fish also seems to understand that there could be a Land Use Board of Appeals challenge (remember the SK Northwest saga?) depending on what road to bike access he ends up taking.

“Even if I end up embracing some recommendations that are so unpopular with the public that someone chooses to have the council block me or go through a protracted land-use process, that’s the system of checks and balances we have. I just think it’s too early to have a freak out.”

In the end, Fish sees increased bike access in Forest Park as an inevitable byproduct of Portland’s growth.

“…as we become a denser city, with more people moving here and as what we define as recreational activities continue to expand, we have to find a way to share our precious resource… it’s part of a natural evolution of a system and a city that’s becoming more populous that you have to manage user group conflicts and that’s what I think we’re doing here.”

— Fish’s office just released a FAQ about off-road cycling in Forest Park. You can download it as a PDF here.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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    Patty Freeman November 3, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for this write-up, Jonathan. I appreciate Fish’s efforts to explore this issue, and I think there is potential for more single-track in Forest Park. However, I also think Fish is avoiding the primary issue longtime park protectors are raising – that baseline studies have not been funded, and therefore have not been done. And I think it’s irresponsible to be so political that he would respond to one group at the expense of the resource or the city’s ability to manage it responsibly. Fish, fund studies! It’s past time.

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    f5 November 3, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Good news, sound reasoning, all the way around. I must admit it’s nice to hear that the unreasonable behavior of the two were made to apologize. Hopefully everybody’s back down to earth for good and can proceed as adults.

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    Charlie November 3, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    This is great.  Thanks for keeping us informed Jonathon.

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    Bryan November 3, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    thanks for keeping this story up to date. nice to hear people are communicating again. its amazing what solutions can be had by simple conversations.

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    Charley November 3, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    I actually met Marcy Houle the other day. I was riding my mountain bike on the north side of Leif Erickson when I saw her and a another person with clipboards. I asked them what they were looking at, and they told me that they were working on a book. Well. . . after we introduced ourselves, and I realized who she was, we had a terrific conversation! We had a really very nice talk about what mountain bikers would like to have (at least my interpretation), and about what the Park needs to retain its biological health (at least in her interpretation).

    I think she’s pretty thoughtful, and it seems that some of the hype of it all comes from the media (Oregonian). I realized that we are coming from different perspectives, and that we might even have irreconcilable differences, but that a calm, constructive conversation was imminently possible.

    On the bike side of it, I told her my dream (after countless times walking the Wildwood and thinking “how great a ride this would be!) is to have a mountain bike version of the Wildwood Trail. For her part, her main concerns were location (preserving habitat north of Germantown) and user safety. We brainstormed about constructing a north south, bike only, contour trail (it could be an IMBA showcase!) paralleling US 30, at a low elevation in the Park. I told her about the bike-only area of Stub Stewart, for reference. Who knows if we could build it, but wouldn’t it be great?

    So, keep an open mind, and introduce yourself to nice looking folks on the trail, and you never know what could come of it!

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    syd November 3, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Thank you so much for continuing to cover this topic. As Mr. Fish pointed out, there is a a lot of misunderstanding about the issue. There’s a lot of unnecessary fear and a lack of understanding coming from the critics. Actual singletrack riding opportunities in the park is completely reasonable and long overdue.

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    Matt Picio November 4, 2009 at 9:01 am

    This is an issue that will take a lot of time, cooperation and understanding to resolve. First and foremost, the existing policies and documents support the preservation of the foliage and wildlife of the park above any recreational use. As others have mentioned, studies have not been done, so it’s difficult to gauge the impact of current recreational usage, much less proposed additional uses.

    Secondly, bicycles are vehicles under state law. If trails are opened up to bicycle use (or new trails created), then the dirtbike / ATV lobby can start arguing for the same sort of access. They’re not likely to get it, because the noise of 2-cycle engines would permeate much of the width of the park, and likely would carry to neighbors below. That may not stop them from trying, however.

    I appreciate Nick Fish’s well-reasoned response and consideration of the issues. Mr. Fish is shaping up to be one of the more progressive and practical members of the City Council. It’s good to see that he and his office were immediately on top of the issues.

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    Jill November 4, 2009 at 10:07 am

    There is a very clear and easy distinction between motorized and non-motorized vehicles. Park and forest managers across the US, from big cities to national forests, have no trouble making this distinction, I don’t see why it would be any different for Forest Park.
    Indeed, Parks already addresses it: bicycles are allowed, motorized uses are not. The question is not whether, but where and how.

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    wsbob November 4, 2009 at 10:16 am

    I wouldn’t think internal combustion powered bikes would have a chance accessing single width trail in a nature park such as Forest Park, but electric assist bikes very well might.

    From the ‘electric bikes’ category at BikeForums, I’ve been reading comments from people relating that they are once again able to ride places such as forest roads after buying an electric bike, or installing an electric motor kit to an existing bike.

    I wonder how many miles of off-road bike access to single width trail in Forest Park, Commissioner Fish might have in mind for dedication towards the objective of fulfilling “…‘Platinum’ city…” requirements.

    Commissioner Fish, being quoted on a widely read weblog, referring to…well, it’s not specifically clear who he was referring to by the use of the phrase “freak-outs” (see caption of top picture in this article). Might it have been in response to the two members referred to here?:

    “However, last week two members of that committee made headlines when they voiced strong opposition to the idea.” maus/bikeportland

    I hope not, because that doesn’t seem like a very civil way to refer to people that are trying to help make sense of ideas related to having single width trail in what is essentially a nature park, accessible to off-road bike riding.

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    Jonathan Maus (Editor-in-Chief) November 4, 2009 at 10:25 am


    i think “freak-out” is a perfect description of what happened… although I agree it’s not the most PC way to say it.

    and yes, it was in response to two people on the committee who… well, freaked out.

    These two people came into a process without full understanding of what was going on and instead of talking about it with Fish and/or other committee members they went to the media with misinformation and fear and dropped a bomb on the talks. that is a freak out.

    and the important thing is that both folks have since acknowledged that what they did was not cool and they are now working in good faith with other members of the committee.

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    RWL1776 November 4, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Matt Picio (#7): Motorized vehicles of any kind were banned from Forest Park, years ago, with only Parks Dept. maintainence vehicles, Fire Truck and Emergency vehicles allowed access for certain reasons.

    As for ‘reconfiguring’ firelanes, the 1995 Forest Park Plan specifically states Firelanes must remain passable for 1/2 ton trucks in the months of June thru October.

    As someone who has been involved with this entire mountainbikes in Forest Park saga since about 2000, it is good to see the efforts of the local bicycle advocacy groups are finally being heard!
    To me, it’s simple, it’s the law of Supply and Demand: if there were no mountainbikers poaching the ‘good stuff’, there must be no demand for such trails. There is a limited supply of singletrack, with a huge demand for such

    A large sticking point may be funding to get anything ‘built’: Firelane 5 required over $18K in grants, with a majority of that going towards permit fees, environmental impact studies, etc., and those ‘fees’ ended up going right into the cities bank account for such required ‘fees’.

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    yoterryh November 4, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Maybe we can just continue to talk about it, study it, discuss options, etc., etc. until mountain biking just disappears altogether.

    Honestly, I get so tired of the prolonged conversation on this. It’s ridiculous. We mountain bikers have been asking for some trails to ride in FP for YEARS and we’re no closer now that we ever were. More political BS, more discussion, more smoke and mirrors from the city as they talk it to death with their heads in their, uh, backsides. I’ll be dead before I can ride singletrack in FP!

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    SkidMark November 4, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Matt Picio: First of all, from what I’ve been told by older local mountain bikers, bikes were allowed on trails until the mountain bike boom in the mid-80’s when groups like the Sierra Club use their lobbying power to get bicycles kicked off the trails.

    Second, ATV and Dirt Bike riders have plenty of spots to tear up in Oregon, and it’s not like a bicyle where you can ride to the trailhead, most dirt bikes and all ATVs are not street legal and have to arrive by truck and/or trailer, so driving to some spot is part of what you do. Nobody is riding dirt bikes and ATVs on singletrack trails , you’d have a hard time going slow enough anyways.

    Third, most of the Japaneses dirt bike and ATV manufacturers have stopped producing 2-stroke bikes and are now producing machines with larger displacement 4 -stroke engines to make up for the loss in power.

    What this issue comes down to is that hikers are simply not willing to share the trails. MTN Bikers do not want narrower fire roads, we want singletrack. We want the same experience hikers get just on two wheels. So much to ask.

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    f5 November 5, 2009 at 8:49 am

    SkidMark, thanks for the insight regarding ORV’s, you’re spot-on. There’s still such a mountain of prejudice and severe lack of understanding to overcome of what mountain cycling is all about. That people perceive ORV’s desiring to drive on narrow, twisty singletrack trail — or even double-track (leif Erickson) where people are walking 2,3 and 4 across while walking their offleash is simply hilarious. But the burden is on cyclists to prove the reality in face of the fear-fantasy.

    I just had a mental picture of a huge extended cab dually-truck pulling a flatbed full of ATV’s trying to parallel park up on the end of Thurman. Good times.

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    wsbob November 5, 2009 at 10:55 am

    “We want the same experience hikers get just on two wheels.” SkidMark #13

    Towards the objective of having that same experience, are you prepared to propose a limit to the speed of bikes ridden in the park to the same speed of people on foot?; 3.5-4.0 mph?

    If so, immediately take that proposal to Forest Park Single Track Cycling Advisory Committee. I’m inclined to think all the members of that committee would be delighted to hear of such a willingness to be compatible with foot travelers in the park.

    It’s highly doubtful that other off-road bikers looking for single width trail to ride, would appreciate such a limitation or abide by it if it were a regulation for single width trail access.

    Walking/hiking and off-road biking, are two entirely different modes of transportation. Bikes are vehicles. Part of the purpose of a bike is to allow the person riding it to travel faster and farther with less effort than a person of foot.

    What speeds will people riding off-road bikes on single width trail in Forest Park expect to be able to travel at? Most likely, the speed they travel will be at their personal discretion, since there will be no police officers available to pursue and slow them down.

    I would visualize off-road bikes in the park to definitely be riding faster than a person on foot…easily twice as fast at 7-8 mph; speeds of 10-15, are likely as well, even 20 mph may occur.

    The speed factor is likely just one of the numerous considerations related to the proposal for off-road bikes access to single width trail in FP that the Advisory Committee has before them.

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    f5 November 5, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    This is generally managed by designating an order of Yield. Bikes on shared trails Yield to all other users. That would most likely be that case if any trails in FP become shared us trails. I’ve never seen a ‘speed limit’ on a trail, be it municipal, BLM land, Forest Service land, etc.

    Really, it’s all going to be okay.

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    Jill November 5, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Runners and dogs off leash go much faster than 3-4 mph. Runners probably range 6-15mph.

    For speed control, it’s best to use the trail. The nature of the trail can provide a perception of speed, while actual speed is reduced (think about a car in a narrow alley vs a car on a freeway. 30mph feels out of control in the alley, but painfully slow on the wide, straight freeway). Now think about Lief Erickson drive vs a tight, twisty singletrack trail.

    On many trails, avg speed for runners is roughly the same as bicyclists. Runners go a bit faster up, cyclists a bit faster down. Actually, as someone who does both regularly, the experience on a trail when cycling is pretty similar to that when running- similar pace, similar flow, enjoy berms and rollers, and prefer it not too steep.

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    wsbob November 5, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Runners can travel faster than a person walking, but unlike bicycles, they aren’t vehicles. To some extent, like bikes, people running can travel faster than people walking can. Unlike bikes, people are not vehicles.

    Bikes occupy more space than the two shoes of a runner, and they are less able to be like a pedestrian when approaching and passing people traveling trail on foot.

    There is variation in speeds that people on foot travel, but the range amongst them is likely to be much closer than that between people traveling on foot and people traveling on bikes.

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    wsbob November 5, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    H-o-o-h-boy…so much for careful editing. Think I’ll make that first paragraph just one sentence:

    “Runners can travel faster than a person walking, but unlike bicycles, they aren’t vehicles.”

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    Storie Mooser November 6, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Uh,…have any of you heard the name John Muir? If yes, how far are we getting away from the sensibilities he hoped our nation would nurture and preserve through keeping within reach vestige of wilderness experience? Aldous Huxley predicted that our materialistic values would lead to wilderness having value only as a place to take our expensive toys. Both of these great thinkers believed that wilderness should be preserved as a temple, entered in humbleness for contemplation and wonder, not for self enamored indulgence. In other words, take testosterone to commercial theme parks.

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    f5 November 6, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Storie Mooser, that’s an interesting viewpoint, can I ask what you’re doing to take action towards your goals?

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