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.
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):
“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)?
“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.