Yesterday dozens of Portlanders took time out of their day to send a simple message to the Portland Parks Board: Our urban parks should have better — and more — opportunities for off-road cycling.
“Successful conservation happens with partners and not by excluding user groups. This is especially true when human pressure is growing and the demands are becoming more diverse.”
— Bob Lessard, President of NW Trail Alliance
The meeting agenda focused on the Draft Off-road Cycling Master Plan that’s been developed over the past two years by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) and an advisory committee. Panelists were invited to speak against and in favor of off-road cycling improvements in both Forest Park and River View Natural Area — two locations that have been flashpoints of disagreement in the past.
Board Chair Patricia Frobes opened things up by saying they’ve received more public testimony on this plan than any other issue. Citing the 185 pages of testimony posted to the Parks Board website, she said, “We appreciate that this plan raises issues that people are very passionate about.”
The overflow crowd showed up to remind the Board not just that there’s a huge demand for off-road biking, but that the positions they take on the issue will not go unnoticed. On a procedural level, the Parks Board doesn’t make any binding decisions about the plan. This meeting was targeted by advocates because the Board is drafting a detailed recommendation about the Off-road Cycling Plan that they’ll pass onto BPS and Portland Parks and Recreation (PP&R). These recommendations are likely to influence PP&R, who is in turn likely to influence the all-important opinions of Mayor Ted Wheeler and the four City Commissioners.
The Parks Board was prepared for this meeting. They pre-selected panelists to speak about their concerns or support for cycling in Forest Park and River View. There were four on each side for Forest Park and two on each side for River View.
Marcy Houle, a biologist, author, and de facto leader of the loudest anti-cycling voices around the Forest Park issue for many years now, kicked things off for the concerned side by reading a letter she claimed was written by former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts. “Forest Park is facing the most serious threat in its history,” Houle read from the letter. The letter went on to explain in detail how the park’s wildlife would be threatened by the presence of more bike riders and more trails.
“Venues for new recreation uses can be designed at other locales,” Houle read. “What Forest Park offers, however, is irreplaceable. Forest Park is too precious to lose by allowing short-sighted gain at the sacrifice of what makes this park truly great.”
Catherine Thompson, a pediatrician and a dedicated critic of cycling in Forest Park, addressed the assembled crowd: “To all the cyclists here,” she said, “We’re in this together and we need to share our park.” That was an interesting statement coming from someone who has worked extremely hard to keep the unlimited access to the park they currently have and to prevent improved access for others. Thompson also mentioned the park’s designation as a “wild habitat” area and advocated for more ecological monitoring and studies about user impacts (both of which are clearly stated requirements in the plan).
Thompson’s final remarks, which centered on her belief that cycling on trails is inherently dangerous to other park users, resulted in audible grumbles from the crowd. “We are loving the park to death… We have more children walking in the park than cyclists of any age,” she said, looking directly at people holding helmets and pro-cycling signs. “And we need your to help protect them. We need you to respect the rules about the trails.”
While the first panel promoted a fear of cycling and a vision of earth-destroying hoardes on two wheels that will spell doom for Forest Park, the next panelists spoke about a much brighter future once cycling is finally embraced.
“Gateway Green shouldn’t be the only place in the city for kids that like to ride their bikes in the woods and away from traffic.”
— Evan Smith
Evan Smith, who works for an environmental nonprofit and lives in the Linnton neighborhood adjacent to Forest Park, spoke about the role parks have played in the life of him and his daughters, ages seven and nine. “Like most kids their age, they much prefer to bike than hike,” he shared. “But where is there for them to ride in Portland?” Smith said he’s driven his girls to a trailhead off NW Germantown Road to ride the unpaved Leif Ericson road inside Forest Park, “But it doesn’t hold much appeal and the off‐leash dogs are scary to them,” he explained. “Everything else [in Forest Park] is way too steep for them — and for most beginning cyclists.”
Smith added that his kids love riding at Gateway Green, the new bike park in east Portland, but that it, “Shouldn’t be the only place in the city for kids that like to ride their bikes in the woods and away from traffic.”
Then Smith shared a point that’s become one of the central rallying cries from bike advocates: “Like the prior panel, I share the concern about the long‐term ecological health of Forest Park. Unlike them, I think the biggest threat to the health of our natural areas is not more users; but apathy.” Smith’s point, echoed by others at the meeting, is that if we don’t find a way to engage new and different populations of park users, we’ll miss out on thousands of future volunteer hours and millions of future donor dollars that could help protect and preserve the park.
Another panelist in favor of cycling, Northwest Trail Alliance (NWTA) President Bob Lessard (who also has a Master’s Degree in forest ecology and a PhD in wildlife conservation), put it this way: “Successful conservation happens with partners and not by excluding user groups. This is especially true when human pressure is growing and the demands are becoming more diverse.”
Tonya Booker raised a point of concern about equity and inclusion, given that all the people who spoke in support of the plan (and nearly everyone in the crowd) was white.
NW Trail Alliance Secretary Jocelyn Quarrell, a former board member of Friends of Gateway Green, told the Parks Board in her testimony that the plan is a “step in the right direction.” However, she has concerns that the plan pre-emptively prohibits cycling access or improvements on large swaths of existing trails. “Please carefully reconsider the closures and trail restrictions made, as they were made outside the committee process without discussion or clear data to base the decisions,” she said. “Opening up and improving existing trails to allow for off-road cyclists is by far the least expensive and most responsive action that can be made.”
When it comes to River View Natural Area, panelist John Miller said he wants it completely removed from consideration in the plan. He and another panelist said that the natural area is a crucial watershed that feeds into the Willamette River and its ecological value is simply incompatible with cycling. Countering that argument was NW Trail Alliance Advocacy Chair Andrew Jansky. He read a statement from Metro (who owns the River View easement) that “nature-based recreation” — which cycling qualifies under — is permitted. “Trails can be made in ways that would not degrade the ecological values,” Jansky said.
At the end of the meeting Parks Board member Jim Owens (who acted as board liaison to the Off-road Cycling Master Plan) led a discussion about a letter he’s drafted that outlines the board’s recommendations to BPS. His constructive criticisms of the plan included concerns that it only includes city-owned properties and therefore prevents planners from building an inter-connected off-road cycling system; and that it lacks a list of priorities or implementation plan (he suggested BPS reconvene the committee to create one).
Board member Tonya Booker said she’s a mountain biker, but like many people, she sold her bike when she moved to Portland 10 years ago because there’s no place to ride it in the city. Booker also raised a point of concern about equity and inclusion, given that all the people who spoke in support of the plan (and nearly everyone in the crowd) was white. Booker is concerned that the demand for off-road cycling isn’t coming from from all parts of the city — especially places where black and brown people live. While the people who showed up yesterday are not an accurate representation of how the plan was developed, Booker’s message was heard loud and clear by the advocates I’ve heard from since the meeting. “That was a missed opportunity on the part of the cycling advocates,” one person shared with me, “and we should have anticipated it.”
Another advocate forwarded me a video of kids riding off-road in Ventura Park, the site of the Portland’s first pump track (the plan calls for building a network of these around the city).
One perspective from bike advocates is that the reason off-road cycling is currently so white is that it takes privilege to participate in. You need a car, money to fill it with gas, and lots of free time to drive to a trail. If we expand opportunities to ride off-road in local parks (where people can bike to), the thinking goes, the faces will change. This is already playing out in places like Ventura Park (as seen in the video above) and at Gateway Green.
There was a lot of talk among the board about a lack of funding to build the trails and new facilities envisioned in the plan. “Given budget constraints, unless a group steps up to help, nothing will happen in the short-term,” said Board member Jim Owens. His comments were followed by several people in the crowd holding up signs that said, “Let NWTA Help.” Those signs underscore a strong feeling that if the City would just embrace off-road cycling it would open up exciting partnership possibilities with a well-established local nonprofit and hundreds of dedicated volunteers just waiting to step up.
Owen said one way to get cycling improvements sooner would be to do a pilot project. Bike advocates would love to see this. Many cities across the country have already implemented trail-sharing plans and other creative trail use programs that could be applied to Forest Park and elsewhere.
The next step is for the Parks Board to complete their recommendation letter. Once that’s done, we’ll share it here on the front page.
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