If you think it’s hard to comply with social distancing guidelines on narrow sidewalks and bike lanes in Portland, you should try doing it on singletrack trails in Forest Park.
But that hasn’t stopped the City of Portland from keeping the much-loved urban park open.
While trails in the Columbia River Gorge and elsewhere throughout Oregon are closed — and the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau has opted to close basketball courts, skateparks and roads around 10 other local parks in an effort to discourage use and help people maintain their distance, Forest Park has avoided closures thus far.
I’ve biked through the park several times recently and the parking lots have been very crowded. It got me wondering; if the Parks Bureau has closed basketball courts and skateparks, why would they keep Forest Park trails open while they continue to attract such large crowds? I was also curious how it’s physically possible to maintain a six-foot passing distance on trails in heavily forested areas that are just 18 to 30-inches wide.
I put my questions to two people: Portland Parks Media Relations Director Mark Ross and Forest Park Conservancy Executive Director Renée Myers.
“Forest Park Conservancy is unable to keep up with the amount of people wanting to use the park’s trails.”
— Renee Myers, Forest Park Conservancy
Ross said they expect park visitors to figure it out: “Trails are open for use but trail users must take responsibility for their actions, including avoiding trails if they are sick, staying at least 6 feet away from others, announcing their presence to others and stepping aside to let others pass, and going elsewhere or coming back later if that’s what it takes to adhere to the guidelines.”
When I asked why they don’t use the same rationale for basketball courts and skateparks, Ross didn’t address the question directly. He said the agency is following health guidelines and heeding Governor Kate Brown’s executive order, which specifically calls for the closure of skateparks, sports courts and playground equipment, but doesn’t mention urban park trails. The order does however, explicitly call for the state parks department to, “close any property… when proper social distancing cannot be maintained.”
“Portland Parks & Recreation continues to maintain our parks, trails and natural areas so that people can safely go outside and improve their mental and physical health,” Ross says. “We want people outside and rejuvenate in a PP&R park or natural area – while maintaining strict social distancing.” (Learn more about Parks’ COVID-19 closures and policies here.)
Myers, leader of a nonprofit that advocates and helps maintain Forest Park, said they’re in a bit of pickle. “Forest Park is experiencing a significant increase in the amount of people wanting to access it as a result of so many of the region’s amazing places to recreate being closed,” she shared. “This is having a negative impact on our beloved Forest Park and potentially putting community members at risk because the narrow width of many of the trails do not support a minimum of six feet of physical distance.”
Myers is concerned not only about public health, but about the health of the park itself. While people have flocked there to “rejuvenate” in nature, Forest Park Conservancy staff and volunteers have cancelled all their maintenance events for the “foreseeable future.” “This means that the hundreds of hours from volunteers and staff that are needed to ensure the park’s trails are safe and maintained are not being logged, while the user impact on the park continues to increase,” Myers cautioned. “FPC [Forest Park Conservancy] is unable to keep up with the amount of people wanting to use the park’s trails.”
Portland Parks and is facing similar staffing and budgeting challenges. Yesterday the Portland Mercury reported that the bureau has lost $900,000 in revenue and has made steep staff reductions. And last week Willamette Wee reported another local parks agency, Metro, plans to lay off 40% of its workforce.
Even with this bleak outlook, neither Myers nor Ross offered full-throated discouragement to would-be park visitors. Myers said her own staff have made “an intentional choice” to not visit at this time and she hopes others will do the same. “Join us and the many other Forest Park lovers who have chosen to ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’,” she said.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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