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Amid sea of closures, Forest Park remains open for business

Posted by on April 3rd, 2020 at 8:23 am

It’s nearly impossible to ride the Newton Road trail right now without coming into close contact with other people.
(Note: Photo taken last year.)
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

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.

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“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

Forest Park-ing at a popular trailhead off NW Germantown Road.

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.)

Leif Erikson Road is a relatively safe bet for social distance biking and walking.

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 jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Granpa
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Granpa

At the risk of being (again) called a joy sucking buzz kill, I need to say – stay the “F” home. Jonathan, usually a North Star of social responsibility is setting an example of what Not to do by going places where it impossible to give 6 feet clearance. Not everyone is as immortal. Jeez

Chainstays
Subscriber
Chainstays

They should join other areas in closing the parking areas, this would keep at least 50% of the folks away.

Mick O
Guest
Mick O

It is somewhat distressing to hear the “6-feet” guideline being treated like most drivers treat speed limits. Much like a 35mph speed limit does NOT mean you should push an automobile to 35mph under all conceivable conditions, and represents the maximum speed you should consider under the most optimal conditions, there is no magic wall at 6-feet that keep us safe. 6 feet is more like how far most droplets might go under optimal conditions when the propelling agent is stationary, breathing normally. I am seeing so many people opining as if there is a magic 6-foot wall of safety even if they are running or cycling. But, of course I have no idea or special knowledge to be able to dictate to others what they should do, so I suppose we’ll find out one way or the other.

Tom
Guest
Tom

“I’m not going to encourage anyone to leave their house unnecessarily.”
–Chloe Eudaly

“We want people outside…”
–Mark Ross

So they don’t want people to be able to walk city streets safely, but perfectly okay with cramming them onto single track trails in the park.

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

Willamette Wee!

RH
Guest
RH

Why not just exercise locally? Walk around your neighborhood, streets, home, etc…Exercise does not need to be a destination.

colton
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colton

My personal experience is that there are many mountain bikers that are ruining the trails right now. I know it’s challenging to bike through mud holes and the like, but I certainly understand why hikers and trail runners aren’t keen on sharing trails with us when we (collectively) can’t be responsible and stay off them when they are too wet to ride without damaging them.

Eric H
Guest
Eric H

Well, if you can’t get out to Forest Park you can always just book a foursome with you friends at any of the still open golf courses.

https://www.oregonlive.com/sports/2020/04/portland-area-public-golf-courses-that-are-open-and-closed-due-to-coronavirus-outbreak.html

Manville
Guest
Manville

If they had allowed mountain bikers to build more trails pre-COVID, this would not be an issue.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

Regarding the disconnect between closing city basketball courts, but not mountain-biking trails, I’m surprised nobody has made the connection between the ethnicity of those generally involved in each activity.

Brian
Guest
Brian

One potential bright spot coming out of this is that it may strongly encourage Parks to develop a better partnership with NWTA. NWTA brings a lot to the table when it comes to trail building, trail maintenance, and natural area improvement. One can only hope this is recognized on a larger scale, sooner than later.

John m
Guest
John m

Well then shut up and dont make a post about forest park before it gets shut down and i dont have a place to ride solo and get off the hiking trail too

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

Well, for just a moment, the hysteria train hasn’t come to forest park.

Fred
Guest
Fred

I wish these articles about recreating during covid-19 would focus more on things that could be done to keep these areas OPEN and less on shaming the people who are trying to recreate in the open air, which is a GOOD thing.

The idea of one-way travel on trails, for example.

I agree that many responses have been binary (open or closed). Our gov’t agencies should be able to come up with more nuanced responses. We’re gonna need them b/c this thing is gonna last for many more weeks and even months and (god help us) the rest of the year or longer.

Ben G
Guest
Ben G

Saw what was for sure the biggest number of vehicles I’ve ever seen parked in areas around Forest Park on Sunday. I’m trying not to be too judgy but people need to get creative with your recreating and disperse if it is full.