Unauthorized bike trail damages “pristine habitat” in Forest Park – UPDATED

Illegal trail in Forest Park-16
Parks employee Dan Moeller with the
illegal trail behind him.
– Slideshow below –
(Photo © J. Maus)

Portland Parks & Recreation staff have discovered an unauthorized mountain bike trail built in the northern end of Forest Park. Parks spokesperson Beth Sorensen said the trail was found at the end of last week in “one of the most pristine habitat areas in the park.”

According to Sorensen, the trail is “pretty damaging” and whoever built it cut down trees, removed large rocks, and dammed a stream. The trail was created where elk and deer are active and Sorensen says it has “destroyed an area of highest habitat value.” The location of the trail is about 200 yards off of the Forest Park entrance on Harborton Drive, about 10 miles north of downtown Portland.

The Northwest Trail Alliance has posted an “Outreach Alert” about this on their website. The alert was written by the organization’s Advocacy Director Tom Archer and it implores mountain bikers to “abstain from unauthorized trail building.”

Here’s more from the NWTA statement:

“While riding is currently allowed on some roads and trails in the North Management Unit, the area is not being considered for expansion of off-road riding opportunities, primarily because of its habitat value. This is clearly spelled out in the Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan, and Northwest Trail Alliance fully supports this management approach.

Northwest Trail Alliance asks all bike riders to abide by the regulations that are currently in effect in Forest Park. Unauthorized trail building and illegal riding negatively impact our on-going discussions with Portland Parks – and with other land managers – to create more riding opportunities in and around Portland.”

As Archer refers to in the statement, the discovery of this unauthorized trail comes at a sensitive time for off-road advocates looking to expand riding opportunities in Forest Park. A committee put together last year by Parks Commissioner Nick Fish is in the process of vetting several different options for how to create more riding areas in the park. That committee is set to meet again this Thursday from 5-7:30 pm in City Hall.

“The goal of the committee has ben toward filling a need for off-road cycling and finding a solution the right way,” said Sorensen today, “and this trail undermines it by finding a solution the wrong way.”

I’m hopping in a truck with Portland Parks Natural Resource Supervisor Dan Moeller in about a half-hour. I’ll report back with photos and more information later tonight.

UPDATE, 3:43 (View slideshow below):
I just returned from a tour of the illegal trail with Parks’ Natural Area Supervisor Dan Moeller. Moeller says the trail was likely built within the last month. It was discovered by an owl researcher who came across the trail last week.

The trail is purposely hidden from
view of the main road (it begins
in the upper right of this photo).

As we walked up BPA Road just above Highway 30, Moeller pointed out the huge Oregon oaks that dotted the hillside. We then walked off the road (which is one of the roads in Forest Park where bikes are allowed) about 40 yards and came to a small hole in the vegetation where the rogue trail began (it was obviously made this way to stay hidden).

Once on the trail, it was clear that whoever built it worked very hard at it. We soon came to a creek where the builders created an entirely new trail on a ridgeline above a creek. Moeller pointed out that they used rocks and cut down live western red cedars to fortify the crib wall on the downside of the trail. Further along they dammed a creek to provide an easier crossing for their bikes.

A stream has been dammed with boulders.

Moeller is a rider himself (he rides a cyclocross bike) and while he’s disappointed by what happened, he hopes it serves as a educational opportunity for the community. On the drive out he described the extremely sensitive ecosystem this trail has been cut through. “This area is relatively undisturbed, that’s why there’s such an outcry about this.”

Moeller likened the trail to “putting a road through a roadless forest.” He said the trail will “create a highway” for invasive plants and it will allow animals (like skunks and possums) to access an area that otherwise couldn’t have — bringing them right to more sensitive species like nesting owls and bald eagles.

This entire trail section is newly built.

To help mitigate the damage Moeller says he’ll work with advocacy groups like the NWTA and the Parks ecologist. They won’t work on it now because the trail is so muddy that each step taken compacts the soil and makes the problem worse. Once it dries up a bit, they’ll start dragging branches and other material across the trail to create a physical barrier and discourage further use. Then, he says, “We’ll let it recover a bit,” before going in again and they’ll immediately monitor the area for the “recolonization of invasives.”

This fall, Moeller says they’ll do a comprehensive re-planting that will include thousands of plants to help reestablish the native species and promote recovery. He estimates it could take up to 15 years of ongoing maintenance for the habitat to fully recover.

Whoever built this trail was committed as it must have taken an immense effort to complete. Moeller said it’s a crime to destroy Parks property and they’re currently gathering evidence to try and find out who is responsible for it.

It remains to be seen how this trail will impact the current discussion on whether to allow more singletrack trail access in the park. It is not a new phenomenon, but this is a pretty egregious example. Off-road riding advocates — who wholly condemn this type of rogue trail — could point out that this is the type of behavior that will continue to occur until new trails are built (or opened). The biggest impact from this (besides environmental of course) could be in terms of bad PR for bike advocates, but on the flip-side this is likely to spur some heated (and hopefully productive) dialogue in the committee and add a new urgency to their discussions.

Moeller is far from ready to write off the good, working relationship he and mountain bike advocates have. “This is a good opportunity for some education… I’m glad that at least now we have a place to come together and talk about this issue.”

For more images of the trail, view the slideshow below:

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