Interview with Commissioner Fish about Forest Park decisions

City Council candidate Nick Fish-2.jpg
Nick Fish
(Photo © J. Maus)

The City Commissioner in charge of Parks, Nick Fish, announced a set of “actions” earlier today about off-road cycling in Forest Park. I spoke to him on the phone from his office in City Hall about that announcement…

You told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) today that Forest Park isn’t ready for new bike trails. Why not?

“I don’t think the park is ready to have an expansion in bike trails right now for two reasons. Number one is that we don’t have all the data that we need to make thoughtful decisions; data about who uses our parks, the health of our park, and so on. This was a significant problem I discovered through this process. The second part is that anything I propose for the future is going to be subject to a Type II or Type III land use review, so if we don’t have the science ironed out than nothing gets through land use review. Nothing would be more cynical for me than to announce a breakthrough today that I know will be stalled in litigation tomorrow.”

If it’s litigation you’re worried about, how was Parks able to build the 1/3 mile of singletrack on Firelane 5 back in 2006? Why can’t we do more of that?

“I can’t answer that.” [Parks spokesperson Beth Sorensen followed up with me and said that this short piece of singletrack trail was identified in the 1995 Natural Resource Management Plan, which was approved by the Bureau of Desvelopment Services and therefore grandfathered in when the plan was approved.]

Why not use existing trails? Why was the solution of trail-sharing not proposed as an action?

“We went through a lot of deliberations… Let me get back to you on that one… There were a lot of moving pieces.” [PIO Sorensen followed up on this question to say that trail-sharing wasn’t forwarded as a recommendation by the committee. Committee member and off-road cycling advocate Frank Selker says the committee didn’t forward trail-sharing because Parks “changed committee rules so unless committee support was unanimous, it would not be an option.”]

In February 2009 you said, “My interest is not in studying this to death, it’s seeing what we can actually do… I am committed to finding ways to significantly expand our current inventory of singletrack trails,” yet today you announced more studies and you have found no new ways of expanding singletrack.

Why have your public statements on this issue changed so much in the past year?

“It’s not a change. I actually think I’ve been consistent. I am committed to expanding off-road cycling. I am committed to finding additional singletrack opportunities… The group I pulled together to do this, quite honestly, led me in some unexpected directions and one of them had to do with the state of Forest Park… By saying the park is not ready for new trails, I’m saying there are some things I have to do lay the foundation to process permits that will be successful for trails that we have now identified. Once we have completed the next phase and we have the data and the science we can begin the permit process for those trails.

We have momentum… My job is to lay the foundation for the decision-making and in my judgment, acting prematurely based on what I’ve learned over the past year would be counter-productive.

… What I’ve learned in the course of the last year, and it was a challenging year, was that the City had not done a great job serving as stewards of Forest Park. Having the opportunity to look more closely at the Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan, the feedback I received during the committee’s work, and frankly talking to a lot of thoughtful people about this, it became clear to me that we have to do some immediate things to enhance and protect the ecological health of Forest Park. One of the most productive things that occurred through this process is a consensus around that.”

In your press release today, you said, “Further restoration and maintenance work is needed in the park before recreational use can be expanded.” Does that mean you plan to cap the current number of users? Will Parks begin to limit the number of people hiking, walking and taking dogs into the park?

“It’s never been about bicycling. You’re looking at this through the wrong frame. You’re looking at this like world revolves around the bicycle instead of the world revolving around the park. My approach is this: We need more off-road cycling opportunities, we have to look region-wide and look at working with our partners. The park is not ready for additional bike access, yet… I have also said in the interim we will be very creative citywide in order to meet what I consider is a legitimate need and we’ll put dollars and leadership behind a bigger plan down the road.”

[Note: We jumped around a lot in the conversation, so the snip below doesn’t really have a specific question attached to it but I feel it’s important to share.]

“There is in this city a kind of culture debate between bikers and non-bikers that sort of reminds me of what we went through with skateboarders and non-skateboarders. Today we have 10 skate parks and more on the books. The skateboarders are great stewards of those parks. To me, that’s what the future holds for bicycles and what I’m trying to do is strike the right balance by moving the ball forward. I feel confident that we’re making progress, the only thing I worry about is that some feel this announcement signals the city’s retreat from a commitment to expanding off-road cycling.”

He mentioned Gateway Green, Powell Butte, pump tracks, and the other efforts Parks has made toward off-road cycling and then said, “Judge us on the totality of our work and then watch closely over the next 1-2 years on how we proceed in Forest Park.”

What about Forest Park specifically makes this issue so difficult?

“It’s the most significant natural area in the city. It’s largest urban forest in the country, and it is vital to our whole clean air/clean water system. It was identified by Charles Olmstead in 1903 as a legacy piece and it has a passionate following in this city. It is fragile and the city hasn’t always done the best job acting like a steward of Forest Park and today it faces some real challenges, not all of which are man made… Forest Park is iconic and people have very strong attractions to it…

I believe that the single biggest obstacle that arose to our ability to move forward in a more united way to bring more cycling into the park was our recent history of stewardship, and with all due humility I recognized we have to do a better job. When we do a better job and the park’s ecology is healthier it will make it easier for us to welcome new trails for bicycling.”

What do you say to people who are frustrated by this decision and feel helpless as to what to do next ?

“If people are disappointed, than what I’m asking them to do is to continue to work with us on the solutions. I represent almost 600,000 and on any given day there are people disappointed in what we do, but I hope people understand that the decisions we make, particularly the tough calls, are based on what we think are best for the system as a whole and not designed to single out any particular group.

Some things take a little extra time and this is not an example of putting up a road block to prevent something from happening — this is about sequencing and this is about doing it thoughtfully.

When you do things thoughtfully and with a strategy and you take the time to do it right there are some barriers you can get over you didn’t even think possible. I also believe at my core that we are laying the foundation for being able to do some very innovative things for Forest Park down the road and the sequence I have proposed is the right one.

… The process to get to this point left some people feeling bruised and in a democratic process that happens; but my commitment to enhancing the bicycling experience and welcoming bicycles into our park system and to thinking of creative ways of enhancing that experience has been strengthened through this process.”

I’m still processing all the news about Forest Park today. I’d love to know how you are feeling after hearing a bit more from Commissioner Fish.

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