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Closed-door Parks bureau committee was set to recommend bike trails at River View


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Detail from Portland Parks & Recreation River View Natural Area Habitat and Draft Trail map showing shared biking/hiking trail.
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As we continue to learn more about why Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish abruptly decided to prohibit bicycling in River View Natural Area (RVNA), there’s one large piece of the puzzle that has remained secret. Until now.

The project’s 16-member Technical Advisory Committee met four times between September 2013 and June 2014. However, their work was never made public. Citing Oregon’s Public Meeting Law (ORS 192.610-690), the Portland Parks & Recreation bureau has withheld meeting minutes and allows only invited members.

When the decision to ban bikes at River View came down last month, many people struggled to understand the rationale and it was natural to wonder about the TAC’s work.

Thanks to a public records request we know now that the TAC was prepared to present a draft management plan for River View that included bicycle access. Then, for reasons that remain unknown to us, the plan was shelved last summer and biking is now completely off the table.

Before I share some highlights from each meeting, let’s take a look at who’s on the TAC:

One thing that stands on that list is the lack of recreation-focused representatives. Nearly every member has a background in ecology, conservation, or watershed issues. Only one member, Zach Jarrett has experience building, managing, and designing dirt cycling trails.

TAC Meeting #1, 9/18/2013 (PDF of meeting minutes)

“The team noted that biking use was a key issue for the site, and that water quality protection and habitat preservation is an equally important issue.”

The first meeting was a site visit to River View Natural Area that lasted about four hours. TAC members took a very close look at specific trails and conditions. They noted areas where damage from informal uses had occurred (including “newly constructed bike jumps”) and areas that deserved greater protections from public access.

In a discussion about “ped/bike trail sharing,” Paul Agrimis,”noted possible conflicts when including cyclists and pedestrians on the same path (30 mph bikes versus low mph pedestrians).” The group mentioned Powell Butte as an example where biking and walking trails co-exist and another case of successful shared-use trails at Alsea Falls in Corvallis. TAC member Kendra Petersen-Morgan, “noted the need to plan for increased future use at RVNA.”

Later during the site visit, the meeting minutes allude to the main tension surrounding this entire debate: the balance between public use and ecological preservation. “A major issue for RVNA is human site access. The first priority is to protect the natural resources, and not disrupt the site.”

Then toward the end of the meeting the minutes reflect a somewhat different stance: “The team noted that biking use was a key issue for the site, and that water quality protection and habitat preservation is an equally important issue.”

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TAC Meeting #2, 10/15/2013 (PDF of meeting minutes)
The committee received a presentation from Steve Roelof, a project manager at ESA Vigil-Agrimis. Besides a mention that the site might need more bike parking locations in the future, the most salient bit of this meeting was a list of “guiding principles” for the RVNA management plan: improve ecological health, direct future management priorities by a science-based approach, and􏰀 provide access to nature.

TAC Meeting #3, 12/19/2013 (PDF of meeting minutes)
In their third meeting, the TAC got serious. They started to finalize goals for the plan, went into detail on their “draft ecological prescriptions” and started to lay out their trail management ideas.

Here’s the section about goals:

“The group prioritized goals for the plan in the following order (note goals listed here are abbreviated): ‘Protect water quality and hydrology…’; ‘Protect aquatic and terrestrial wildlife…’; ‘Improve forest health…’; ‘Provide recreation access…’; and ‘Foster community engagement…’ The consultant team will present goals in the plan in this order, and will state they have been prioritized but not weighted.”

During a discussion of trail management best practices, the committee noted that the “mountain bike community wants technical trail features, including leaving berms and bigger grade reversals.” The committee decided those type of uses are “not appropriate at this site.”

Then, there was a question that again showed the city’s struggle with the park/preservation balance: “Are trails consistent with city’s multiple purposes for purchasing the site: water quality, stream protection for an intact watershed?” That question was not answered at the meeting (or if it was, it wasn’t recorded in the minutes).

Once the committee started to discuss trail designs and locations in detail, it appears they were under the assumption that mountain bike trails would be included in the final plan. “The consultant team next presented the draft Trail and Access Overlay Concept, indicating that trails typically focus mountain biking routes in one direction for increased safety.”

A discussion period at the end of the meeting brought up important issues and big questions that remain relevant today. This is also the first time we hear the mention of a complete prohibition of both dogs and cycling:

  • Would having pedestrian only trails reduce water quality/wildlife impacts to the site?
  • Historic bike use on site, note there are limited staff for enforcement if decide to eliminate cycling. Need to be able to manage the people to protect the habitat.
  • It may be challenging to explain the rationale for hiking only areas to the public
  • Concerns of multi-use directional trail at north due to long descent, possibly create a single use for biking only at this trail
  • Mountain bikers would like to experience the site with more contouring trails and higher bridges
  • How does the trail system meet the recreational consumer needs for the site? Could there be zones for hiking and cycling?
  • The upper loop would be a good place for children to learn to ride a mountain bike and for a family experience if it was a shared trail.
  • Show an alternative without bikes, making a perimeter-only option that limits fragmenting effects to edge. The plan would be the most conservative option to provide the maximum protection of streams, wetlands, and natural areas.

As you can see in that discussion, at this point in the project (about six months before it was paused), the TAC was seriously considering cycling while at the same time expressing deep concerns over how/if it would be possible while still maintaining the site’s ecological integrity.

TAC Meeting #4, 06/03/2014 (PDF of meeting minutes)
This was the final meeting of the TAC before it re-started just last month (under the operating rules of no bikes allowed).

“The draft Habitat and Trail plan strikes a good balance of providing recreation that is compatible with ecological values of the site.”

With the bulk of the management plan work fleshed out in the third meeting and six months to polish it up, PP&R’s lead planner on the project, Emily Roth, opened meeting four with a big update:

Dogs will not be permitted in the natural area due to adverse impacts to wildlife and water quality. Trails at RVNA will be primarily shared use for hiking/biking.

One of the issues that becomes clear in reading the TAC meeting minutes is that PP&R struggled with how exactly to build shared-use dirt trails in a dense environment where ecological concerns were paramount. However, despite those constraints, Roth (via the meeting minutes) uses relatively confident terms about hikers and bikers sharing the trails:

“They will be narrower than PP&R standard trail widths for shared use trails in order to reduce impacts to the site.”

Here’s more on the TAC’s planned “draft habitat and trail map” (emphases mine):

“… To protect interior forest habitat, wetland areas, and multiple streams, the design team set aside the central area of the property as protected interior habitat. To the extent practicable, the team routed trails along a 300-foot wide corridor at the edge of the property. To provide a family-friendly trail experience a short loop trail is shown on the flattest portion of the site. Due to topographic constraints and the desire to provide a beginner loop, certain portions of the trail system do not remain within the outer 300 feet. The interior habitat area boundary shown on the plan is 200 feet from the edge of trails. Lewis & Clark will allow a trail connection along the northern edge of their property, creating a loop trail around the natural area. Most trails will be two-way hiking/bicycle…”

What’s notable about this decision is the 300 foot buffer. You’ll note that a document provided by the city in advance of tonight’s Project Advisory Committee meeting says trails would be located within 200 feet from the property boundary. In that discussion the committee mentioned creative ideas to manage the shared trails, “such as limiting hours/days/directions.” “Techniques such as hiker-only days and clockwise or counterclockwise biking days may create better experiences for all, and limit conflicts.”

At this point in the process, the TAC members appeared to support biking in River View. “The draft Habitat and Trail plan,” reads the meeting minutes, “strikes a good balance of providing recreation that is compatible with ecological values of the site.”

This draft plan and map was all set to be shared with the Project Advisory Committee at a meeting on June 25th, 2014. After that, they would be shared with the public at an open house at Lewis & Clark College on July 9th.

However, shortly after this draft plan was revealed at the TAC meeting, the entire process was shut down for unknown reasons. The next time we heard from the city about River View was nine months later when city staff and staff from Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish’s offices called a meeting to tell the president of the Northwest Trail Alliance that biking would be banned completely and no longer considered in the project.

The question remains: What happened between June 2014 and March 2015 to make the commissioners change their minds about bicycling at River View?

Perhaps that question will be answered at tonight’s meeting of the Project Advisory Committee. Stay tuned.

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