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Biking in River View: A broken process and many unanswered questions – UPDATED

Posted by on March 13th, 2015 at 12:57 pm

“There’s a public process we tried to go thru but got abandoned… now we’re supposed to be advocating for another public process?”
— Kelsey Cardwell, NW Trail Alliance president

It’s been 12 days since Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish unilaterally decided to ban bicycling in the River View Natural Area and many people in the community remain shocked and confused.

We’ve been trying to get in touch with the Commissioners and their staff to get answers to many outstanding questions and have not heard back. While we continue to work on that, we wanted to share an update on what we’ve learned and offer some background on the issues swirling around the story.

Advocates and insiders were blindsided by the decision

For a city that usually puts such a premium on open and transparent public process around important issues, the decision to ban biking in River View came completely out of the blue.

“I get very concerned when elected officials establish advisory bodies then don’t use them.”
— Jim Owen, Portland Parks Board member
at March 4th board meeting.

On March 2nd, representatives from the Northwest Trail Alliance were called to a meeting at Commissioner Fritz’s office. According to our sources, that meeting included: NWTA President Kelsey Cardwell, NWTA volunteers Ryan Francesconi and Andy Jansky, Bureau of Environmental Services Watershed Services Group Manager Jane Bacchieri, ‎Portland Parks & Recreation City Nature Manager Deborah Lev, and Commissioner Fritz’s Senior Policy Analyst Patti Howard.

The NWTA has worked in good faith with the Parks Bureau on bike access issues for many years and is a strong supporter of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan that Fritz called for back in February 2014. After the frustrations of the Forest Park process just a few years ago, bike advocates had very good reasons to take a more adversarial stance toward Portland Parks, but they decided to work within the system in hopes of a positive outcome.

The NWTA reps were optimistic about the meeting and thought they might be hearing some good news. They had even brought a signed letter from League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke expressing support for funding of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan.

Advertise with BikePortland.

Imagine their surprise when they were told cycling in River View was being taken off the table. And not because of an adopted policy stance or recommendation from a committee. Simply because of the commissioners’ vague declaration that they needed to, “exercise an abundance of caution… to protect the City’s investment.”

Adding insult to injury is that none of the NWTA reps were given clear explanations for the decision. Not only that, but after dropping this disappointing news, the advocates were encouraged to continue to participate in the process and help Parks advocate for funding of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan.

“There’s a public process we tried to go through but got abandoned,” NWTA President Kelsey Cardwell told us, “but now we’re supposed to be advocating for another public process?”

NWTA reps were further shocked to realize Parks had already sent the story to the local media before they’d even left the meeting.

That seems like a very disrespectful way to treat an important stakeholder group.

One day later, several NWTA members testified (during citizen communication period) at the monthly Parks Board meeting. They were amazed to learn that even Parks Board members didn’t know about the bike ban decision (it was “eye-opening” one of them shared with me). Board member Jim Owen told Parks Direct Mike Abbate he was concerned there had been, “no discussion about our policy affecting a legitimate use of the parks.” He then added: “I get very concerned when elected officials establish advisory bodies then don’t use them.”

Riding and working at Riverview property-3

A trail in River View.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

The conservation argument doesn’t hold water and drags cycling through the mud

The March 2nd memo from Fritz and Fish focus almost solely on conservation and ecological concerns as reasons to prohibit biking at River View. That stings bike advocates because there’s no scientific backing or any relevant studies of any kind that say biking is mutually exclusive with conservation of a natural area.

Fritz then further — and unnecessarily — sullied the reputation of bicycling in a March 5th KGW News story. According to their reporter, Fritz blames bike riders for “damaging critical habitat for salmon.” Here’s what Fritz told KGW:

“It’s the mud, it’s the unintentionally riding over native plants, it’s whether the wildlife there is scared by having mountain bikers coming crashing through,” said Fritz.

That sounds more like a personal anecdote rather than a reasoned position based on research or existing policy.

Also interesting to note is how the commissioners are now calling biking an “active” recreational use, when Parks’ own Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan calls biking a “passive” use and lumps it in with hiking, bird-watching, and so on. This is a major change that no stakeholders had any input on.

When the River View Technical Advisory Committee assessed threats to the 146-acre parcel they came up with the following ranked list: “Dogs on and off-leash, off- trail use by cyclists and pedestrians, illegal camping/party spots that create wildfire risk, and climate change.”

So, why the abrupt decision to single out an ban only biking? That’s a question many people in the community are still waiting to have answered.

One major environmental advocate, Audubon Society of Portland Conservation Director Bob Sallinger, told us he was just as shocked by the decision as everyone else. “I was pretty surprised… that the process has been stopped without explanation and that there had been no further communication from the city.” Sallinger feels that River View is, “one of the most significant natural resource acquisitions that the city has made in years” given its forest and streams. However, even he feels like there’s no reason to pre-emptively exclude biking from the list of possible uses. Here’s what he shared with me via email earlier today:

“My concern was not so much about what uses could be allowed (hiking, bikes, dog walkers, etc) but rather what areas needed to be protected, how big buffers should be, how much fragmentation by trails could be accommodated, etc…”

The City won the lawsuit; but its impact remains unknown

There’s been a lot of talk about how/if this decision was impacted by a 2011 lawsuit regarding the purchase of the River View property.

Just to review, in December 2011 a group calling themselves Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform, Inc. filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of Portland was using water and sewer ratepayer money improperly. They listed several expenditures in the lawsuit, including the $6 million in sewer funds the Bureau of Environmental Services used to buy River View (total purchase price was $11.25 million).

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the city had, “no authority to use any sewer funds to acquire this land because the acquisition of park land is not connected to the sewer system.” In fact, the City of Portland bought the parcel for dual-use, both as a park and for its significance as an ecological watershed area. During the City Council meeting to authorize the purchase, then Parks Commissioner Nick Fish said the parcel would be part of a, “world-class regional system of parks, trails and natural areas.”

In 2014, a judge ruled in the city’s favor, saying that the purchase of River View was “reasonably related” to the sewer system. “This court cannot second guess the Council’s decision,” the judges statement read, “to spend some sewer funds for that purpose.”

Even with this final judgment, Commissioners Fritz and Fish continue to make references to the lawsuit as part of the justification for their decision. Fish’s latest statement said because funding came from ratepayer dollars, “We must ensure the uses of the natural area match the BES mission to protect the watershed.” But sources from Commissioner Saltzman’s office — who was in charge of BES when the lawsuit came and went — have assured us that the City owns River View outright and that the lawsuit is a done deal that should not continue to have undue influence over management decisions.

UPDATE, 3:40pm: Matt Grumm in Commissioner Saltzman’s office followed up with us to clarify the lawsuit issue. He said, even though the judge ruled in the city’s favor regarding the River View purchase, there are “ongoing settlement negotations” and agency directors and commissioners might very well might have reason to be “nervous about the possibility of the parcel being pulled back into the lawsuit.”

Why Fish and Fritz haven’t just framed their decision about biking in terms of the lawsuit from the get-go remains a mystery; but it appears that if they’d done so, we could have avoided much of the frustration that’s being felt.

Many unanswered questions remain

Why this rash decision to ban one specific user group from River View? We still don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that, similar to the Forest Park situation, this process has turned into a circus and bicycling has gotten the very short end of the stick. (For more on how the process has be “hijacked” and “bungled” read this new comment from an anonymous insider.)

We’ve emailed and called both Commissioners’ offices and haven’t had our questions answered. NWTA leader Kelsey Cardwell hasn’t heard back from her letter to Fish and Fritz either.

For now, go ride your bike at River View. While it’s still legal.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 1:34pm: Check out the statement from Commissioner Fish we just posted. Also, we’ve confirmed with a reliable source that the process will be starting up again. The River View Technical Advisory Committee will convene next week and the Public Advisory Committee will also re-convene. We have also learned that Commissioners Fish and Fritz plan to meet with the full TAC next week. Stay tuned.

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. Thank you — Jonathan

29 Comments
  • Patrick Barber March 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Here’s an interesting article, from the New York Times, about how ALL the activities we engage in while in the wilderness, no matter how low-impact, have significant impacts on wildlife and natural areas.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/opinion/sunday/leaving-only-footsteps-think-again.html?_r=0

    a teaser:
    “More and more studies over the last 15 years have found that when we visit the great outdoors, we have much more of an effect than we realize. Even seemingly low-impact activities like hiking, cross-country skiing and bird-watching often affect wildlife, from bighorn sheep to wolves, birds, amphibians and tiny invertebrates, and in subtle ways.”

    It’s time to leave behind the idea that there is some kind of pure, unsullied wilderness we need to protect, and to think more sensibly about our interactions with the world as an integrated whole instead of HUMANS on one side and NATURE on the other.

    The debate is ongoing, and personally I find fault with the extreme ends of the spectrum — traditional environmentalists on the one side, new conservationists on the other — but somewhere in the middle is a sensible approach that values context over fantasy, and nuance over tired dichotomies.

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    • caesar March 13, 2015 at 8:36 pm

      Acid Rain.
      Bhopal.
      Exxon Valdez.
      Pacific Garbage Patch.
      Chernobyl.
      Deep Water Horizon.
      Picher, OK.
      Love Canal.
      etc.
      etc.
      etc.

      Sometimes it’s really hard to avoid the Man v.s. Nature dichotomy. Very hard.

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  • Matt F March 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Just had a thought here…this whole thing doesn’t make any sense right? Well what if Fish and Fritz did this on purpose to push mtb trail access within the city forward. Here’s what I mean: this ban at River View has created (maybe purposefully) unprecedented awareness, media coverage and advocacy participation regarding the lack of off road riding opportunities in the city. What if Fish and Fritz (remember Fish at first tried to be a mtb advocate when he first became commissioner of parks a few years back and seemed to immediately run into some serious political obstacle so he retreated) decided to do this to get past whatever political obstacle that has been insurmountable in the past.

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    • invisiblebikes March 13, 2015 at 2:02 pm

      I had a similar thought, but I am considering the opposite… by the sound of it from NWTA that they were asked to continue to be an advocate for this decision and to move forward with Off road city plan. I think Fish and chips are trying to get the NWTA to react negatively and back away from the process.
      Fritz (chips) is an elitist snob and is completely disconnected from what this city is working towards as a community of bicycle friendliness, and I think she will do anything to make cyclist’s look bad to match her agenda.

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  • Duncan Parks March 13, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Let’s be absolutely clear: the City wants to protect the ecological value of River View (especially with Judge Bushong watching over the purchase). The expert TAC says do A,B,C, and D to protect it. The City then decides to do…”Q”, something not even on the list. It’s a decision that virtually defines ludicrous, and deserves nothing other than ridicule.

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  • redhippie March 13, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Well Amanda is up for re-election. I live on Willamette Blvd near St. Johns. The number of bikers by there is huge. Any ideas for signage or a slogan to communicate the need for her to get on board?

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 13, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Just FYI posted this update:
    UPDATE, 1:34pm: Check out the statement from Commissioner Fish we just posted. Also, we’ve confirmed with a reliable source that the process will be starting up again. The River View Technical Advisory Committee will convene next week and the Public Advisory Committee will also re-convene. We have also learned that Commissioners Fish and Fritz plan to meet with the full TAC next week. Stay tuned.

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  • Mike Vandeman March 13, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    “The March 2nd memo from Fritz and Fish focus almost solely on conservation and ecological concerns as reasons to prohibit biking at River View. That stings bike advocates because there’s no scientific backing or any relevant studies of any kind that say biking is mutually exclusive with conservation of a natural area.” This absolutely false. Here e.g. is my review of the relevant research: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/scb7.htm

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  • Joe Rowe March 13, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you J. Maus for the work in reporting the details. Fritz constantly speaks in stereotypes of cyclists. She would be perpetually unemployed if she talked about black people because she saw one black person do something wrong.

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    • Dan March 14, 2015 at 12:18 am

      Found guilty on two counts of brandishing a deadly weapon, one count of battery.

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  • Eric H March 13, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Oh boy, here we go.

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  • Mike Vandeman March 13, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    http://portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/253409-123173-mountain-bike-protest-echoes-at-city-hall

    What else is new? Mountain biking has been an outlaw sport from the beginning, and shows no sign of changing. IMBA will no doubt excuse the law-breaking, as it did the illegal trail-building in Marin County, by saying that there aren’t enough legal trails. Yeah, and there aren’t enough legal venues for me to race my bulldozer, either, but I don’t plan any “civil disobedience”. 😉

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  • Fivefrud March 13, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    Typo: you don’t plan any other civil disobedience, other than assault with your pruning saw.

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  • Fivefrud March 13, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Which I’m sure is why UC Berkley urges other witnesses or victims to contact them.

    (Pruningsaw.)

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  • Mike Vandeman March 14, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1996: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtb10.htm . It’s dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don’t have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else — ON FOOT! Why isn’t that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking….

    A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it’s not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see http://mjvande.nfshost.com/scb7.htm ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

    Those were all experimental studies. Two other studies (by White et al and by Jeff Marion) used a survey design, which is inherently incapable of answering that question (comparing hiking with mountain biking). I only mention them because mountain bikers often cite them, but scientifically, they are worthless.

    Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it’s NOT!). What’s good about THAT?

    To see exactly what harm mountain biking does to the land, watch this 5-minute video: http://vimeo.com/48784297.

    In addition to all of this, it is extremely dangerous: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtb_dangerous.htm .

    For more information: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtbfaq.htm .

    The common thread among those who want more recreation in our parks is total ignorance about and disinterest in the wildlife whose homes these parks are. Yes, if humans are the only beings that matter, it is simply a conflict among humans (but even then, allowing bikes on trails harms the MAJORITY of park users — hikers and equestrians — who can no longer safely and peacefully enjoy their parks).

    The parks aren’t gymnasiums or racetracks or even human playgrounds. They are WILDLIFE HABITAT, which is precisely why they are attractive to humans. Activities such as mountain biking, that destroy habitat, violate the charter of the parks.

    Even kayaking and rafting, which give humans access to the entirety of a water body, prevent the wildlife that live there from making full use of their habitat, and should not be allowed. Of course those who think that only humans matter won’t understand what I am talking about — an indication of the sad state of our culture and educational system.

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    • abomb March 14, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      How do you live? Do you drive a car, live in a house, use electricity or natural gas, and do you eat? All of those things do what you say Mt bikes do and yet you still do them. Those activities harm nature. How can you live with yourself?

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      • Mike Vandeman March 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm

        I keep my impacts to a minimum. Mountain bikers don’t. I WALK to my hiking trail. Mountain bikers usually DRIVE. Then they blame everyone else for “forcing” them to drive, when it’s really their own choice. No one is “forcing” you to drive. Instead of admitting the harm they cause, mountain bikers prefer to talk about everyone else – just as you did. Is it any wonder that mountain bikers get no respect? Try telling the TRUTH for a change!

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        • davemess March 14, 2015 at 4:32 pm

          “Mountain bikers usually DRIVE.”

          WOW did you pick the wrong article (and MTB issue) to start ranting about this!

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        • abomb March 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm

          So say your going for a hike on mt hood or the Gorge. Do you walk there?
          Us Mt bikers wouldn’t be driving so much if there were some urban mt bike trials.

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  • wsbob March 14, 2015 at 9:58 am

    “…It’s time to leave behind the idea that there is some kind of pure, unsullied wilderness we need to protect, and to think more sensibly about our interactions with the world as an integrated whole instead of HUMANS on one side and NATURE on the other. …” Patrick Barber

    Patrick…pure, unsullied wilderness is the ethic to which natural lands are in need of being cared for, because human activity has made much of them go away. Use of natural lands for vehicular recreation, including mountain biking, tends to rationalize away, this ethic.

    Natural lands in general, have long been threatened and diminished, especially those near cities. That’s why striving for “pure unsullied wilderness”, as an ideal, to is essential to work towards conserving, if present and future generations are to stand any chance of experiencing that near where they live. This week’s guest bikeportland columnist Erik Tonkin and mountain bike enthusiast seems to have some understanding and personal value for this ethic. By the tone of what they write, it seems that a majority of mountain bike enthusiasts vocal on bikeportland comment sections, do not value that ethic.

    People in too big a hurry to open to the public, that relatively little 143 acre parcel of natural land, and to what? Here’s Fish and Fritz taking the slow, cautious approach, and for doing so, they’ve gotten a lot of flak. If the reverse were taken instead, and the result was problems occurring between vehicular recreation (aka ‘mountain biking’) users and people on foot, would they be blamed for that as well? They may well have thought that scenario out before moving forward with arrangements to be made for the use of this land, and decided caution was the better choice.

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    • Mike Vandeman March 14, 2015 at 10:42 am

      Well said! There’s too much unthinking selfishness in the world, as exhibited here. Once you have spent a huge amount for a mountain bike, you have a strong motive to demand access for your machine, and ignore the needs of anyone who gets in your way – especially the wildlife, who can’t speak for themselves….

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    • davemess March 14, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      “People in too big a hurry to open to the public, that relatively little 143 acre parcel of natural land, and to what?”

      Open to the public? What do you think has been going on this very parcel of land for over the last 30 years!?!?!?!

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  • rick March 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    A slap in the face

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  • Eric H March 14, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    Folks, if you don’t know who Mike Vandeman is or his history please read up on him and his actions and don’t bother to respond to his posts here.

    Also, Jonathon please consider deleting his comments here and blocking him from posting here.

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  • CAMS March 15, 2015 at 6:27 am

    Mountain bikers are all well and good, but the simple fact is that they damage streams and turn trails into quagmires that are basically unusable by hikers. Also bikers barreling downhill can be dangerous to hikers and themselves. About two years ago a biker fell off his bike while trying to avoid me at the last minute and broke his arm. I would have got off the trail for him if I had heard him coming, but in this instance I didn’t. It’s better to have separate trail systems for both groups.

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    • Mike Vandeman March 15, 2015 at 8:54 am

      No, the only solution fair to everyone is to restrict bikes to paved roads. Separate trail systems means double the habitat destruction (if you build twice the trails) or unfairness to the majority (if you divide up the existing trails). And either any case, mountain biking is more harmful to wildlife, since bikers travel several times as far & as fast as hikers. The fault for the conflict lies with the land managers, who stupidly allow bikes on trails, where they don’t belong.

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  • CharlieB March 15, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Off-road bicycing is the purest form of recreation and a higher evolved form of locomotion than inferior methods such as walking. The human-machine interface is a pure form of existence that is beyond the simple evolution of common homo-sapien. The bicycle, by extension becomes part of the human and they emerge as one; the movement, a ballet and transcendent.

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  • KristenT March 16, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Wow. We went from talking about the public process that the city council went around to attacking the very action of mountain biking as somehow a vicious assault on Mother Nature that needs to be banned everywhere, period, the end.

    Can we get back on track here? (No pun intended) Can we go back to talking about the process that was circumvented and why? That was the focus of this post, right?

    Also, if someone knows of a rigorous scientific study on mountain biking and environmental conservation that has been peer reviewed and published, would it be possible to have that information posted here? For instance, a link to the scientific journal it had been published in?

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