Forest Park bike access talks disrupted by illegal trail

At the committee meeting last night.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Commissioner Nick Fish’s promise to improve and expand access for bicycles in Forest Park might be harder to keep than he expected.

With emotions still raw over the construction of an unauthorized trail in a sensitive habitat area of the park, tonight’s meeting of the Forest Park Single Track Cycling Committee was expected to be heated and emotional. It did not disappoint. There were pleas from Portland Parks Director Zari Santner, a walkout due to anger by two bike advocates, diatribes against the illegal trail, calls (from both sides of the debate) to shut the process down and reconvene the committee, and new information that has vast implications for the future of single track riding in the park.

“This is a tragedy… Unless… strategic management policies are in place, nothing should move forward.”
— Zari Santner, Director of Portland Parks

At the outset of the meeting, facilitator Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong from Commissioner Fish’s office, said that they decided to scrap the original agenda — which was to vote up or down on a set of trail access options — because, given the events of the week, “It would not have been a successful conversation tonight.”

Kennedy-Wong said discussions of the illegal trail would not be the sole purpose of the meeting, but she let several committee members address it.

Director of Portland Parks Zari Santner started out by calling the illegal trail a “tragedy.” “This is going to take years to fix… The impact to this unbelievably pristine part of the park is incredible.” Because of this tragedy, Santner said, the committee would have to work even harder to come up with recommendations that would put in place “management strategies [a.k.a. enforcement] and policies that are coupled with adequate resources to make sure that whatever the committee comes up with can be successful.”

Director of Parks, Zari Santner (Parks project
manager Emily Roth is on the right).

Santner added that while she and Commissioner Fish recognize the “unmet needs” of people who want improved bike access in the park, “protection of the ecological resource values of this park is paramount and whatever recommendation that the committee comes up with has to meet that goal and be consistent with the park’s management plan.”

The committee has already agreed that protecting the park ecology and working within the Forest Park Natural Resources Management Plan were imperative. That is nothing new. The part of Santner’s opening plea that raised eyebrows was how she is now demanding that the committee not just identify where and how to improve bike access in the park, but also come up with management policies and “resources” (which could mean sweat equity and/or funding) to carry them out.

“This park is totally out of control… We should not go forward with anything that would increase the impact.”
— Les Blaize, committee member

“Unless those strategic management policies are in place,” said Zantner, “nothing should move forward.”

Unfortunately, for bike advocates who hoped for progress on this issue by spring, “Nothing should move forward,” was a common theme at the meeting.

There was also a lot of talk about the importance of investing in enforcement. Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director with the Audubon Society of Portland, said, “I haven’t seen the commitment from Parks or council for enforcement… The message I’ve gotten over the years is that enforcement doesn’t matter.”

Sallinger’s comments were echoed by Les Blaize, a veteran Forest Park activist. Blaize painted a dire picture of the park, saying it is at “the tipping point” due to overuse and that no increase in usage should be tolerated without studies to assess their impacts. “This park is totally out of control… We should not go forward with anything that would increase the impact.”

Marci Houle and Les Blaize.

Marci Houle, an author who has studied the park for 28 years (and who some might recall as the woman who jolted the committee by sending a letter to the media in opposition to increased bike access last fall), was the first person to raise the specter of reconvening the committee. Houle feels that improving bike access without enforcement policies in place and completing studies on vegetation and wildlife is like “putting the cart before the horse.”

Tom Archer, President of the Northwest Trail Alliance spoke next. He said people who ride are “nature lovers first and bikers second.” He also expressed frustrations about what he had heard so far:

“The original charge of this committee was to look to expanding single track cycling opportunities… now what I’m hearing is that we should make broad policy recommendations… We don’t have authority to do that. If the baseline to progress requires additional studies and funding allocations — I’m not saying they’re not warranted — than we should disband this committee and reform another committee to look at those issues… I think it’s a disservice to members to deviate from our original goal.”

In response, Parks’ Zari Santner repeated that they are not changing the direction of the committee, but rather, she’s just saying that whatever they come up with must be “realistic recommendations” that are “coupled with management strategies.”

“What I just heard is totally different than the expectation we’ve been operating under and it changes the equation for this committee and the community at large.”
— Tom Archer, President of the NW Trail Alliance

As committee members continued to speak, the exchanges got a bit heated. Les Blaize and Marci Houle spoke out of turn, interrupted people, and waved their speaking cards while others spoke. Their conduct caused two other members of the committee — bike trail expert Chris Bernhardt and bike activist Frank Selker — to get up and leave in frustration (Bernhardt warned he would do so if Houle and Blaize continued to speak out of turn).

Bob Sallinger from Audubon Portland said Blaize and Houle’s “disruptive behavior” was “completely unacceptable.” “We do have [meeting] rules and if we’re not going to enforce them than it’s a waste of time for everyone involved.”

After things calmed down, Emily Roth with the Parks bureau revealed the biggest news of the night. She said they just got word from the Bureau of Development Services that adding a new use (biking) to an existing hiking trail (known as trail-sharing) would require a Type III land use review process. A Type III review requires a lengthy public process.

Bike advocates on the committee had previously been told by Parks and BDS that sharing existing hiking-only trails would only require a Type II review process. With this revelation from BDS, it means the trail-sharing option is now off the table.

Tom Archer was clearly thrown a curve by this news:

“What I just heard is totally different than the expectation we’ve been operating under and it changes the equation for this committee and the community at large… It changes the whole program. Our goal was to identify new trails for bikes by spring 2010, that will not happen without trail sharing.”

The frustration by Archer is understandable. Parks’ project manager Emily Roth addressed the confusion: “Originally, when I talked to BDS, I was told it was a Type II review; but now in fact they look at it as a Type III review.”

After hearing all this, Frank Selker — the citizen activist whose work in galvanizing community enthusiasm around this issue back in December 2008 is largely responsible for the committee’s existence — said, “Bottom line is they don’t want bikes getting more access… They’re saying, ‘Go play somewhere else.’ I’m frustrated because I keep hearing selfish based suggestions.”

(Selker was responding in part to one woman on the committee who suggested that people who want more bike trails in Forest Park should find private funds to purchase a parcel of land. She said, “I have neighbors who’d like to ski and they’d love to be able to ski in Forest Park in the winter time… but they’re going to the private sector to get their needs met. I hear a lot about all the resources the bike community has… Can a parcel of land be purchased for this purpose? Rather than try and cram another usage in?”)

At the end of the meeting, several members of the public were allowed to comment. Lynn Jennings, a retired Olympic runner who runs “every inch of the park” said she understands why bike advocates are frustrated:

“The sinuous smallness [of trails] is what is beguiling… If I were shut out from that I would be upset too… If this committee doesn’t recommend some small trails for mountain bikers, there will be more [illegal] trails… Please give something to mountain bikers that resembles the beauty that all the runners love too.”

One man pointed out that the illegal trail is “not an isolated incident” and said there is a “spider web” of similar trails throughout Washington Park. “This is a problem of rampant lawlessness… Until those trails are rehabilitated, the City should not even consider expanding that use.”

Les Blaize’s wife, Barbara Blaize did not leave any question on where she stands:

“This massacre happened in my backyard. I am very embarrassed for my city… We should not be moving forward at all without more rangers, without enforcement… I think this group should reconvene and not go forward at all until this park is studied.”

One woman who said she conducted a study on Forest Park trail users while at Portland State University implored the committee to remember that the illegal trail was done by a “small group of individuals” and that, “It’s totally unfair to blanket rule against an entire user group” for their “irresponsible activities.”

At this point, it’s not clear what direction the committee will take. It is clear however, that while the illegally built trail may not have officially derailed this process, it has certainly sent shockwaves through it. As NWTA President told me the other day, “The discovery of that trail could not have come at a worse time.”

View complete coverage of this issue here.

— In related news, the NWTA has announced a joint work party with the Parks bureau to help decommission the illegal trail. The event will be held May 1st. More details on the NWTA website.

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