Forest Park update: Wildlife report, new Parks Director chimes in, media goes crazy

Forest Park update: Wildlife report, new Parks Director chimes in, media goes crazy

Bikes vs. Nature! Run for your lives! Front page
of February 2013 NW Examiner newspaper.

The debate about bike access in Forest Park has heated up once again. Last time we checked in on the issue we reported on a positive statement from City Commissioner Nick Fish. Then in December, Portland Parks & Recreation completed a Forest Park Wildlife Report that found, among other things, that bicycling does not pose a major threat to the park’s ecology. Following on that, the Director of Parks, Mike Abbate shared his perspective on future recreational use in the park in an email to park stakeholders (which we’ve obtained).

With what seems like clear momentum from Portland Parks & Recreation for moving sensibly forward to expand bicycling opportunities in Forest Park, those who don’t want that to happen are once again making their feelings known.

“I feel recreation is compatible with this priority and about the importance of improving community health through recreation and the creation of the next generation of park stewards.”
— Mike Abbate, Director of Portland Parks & Recreation

The Forest Park Wildlife Report (PDF here) was completed as per recommendations laid out in accordance with a directive by the 2010 Forest Park Off-Road Cycling Advisory Committee. The 142 page report catalogs wildlife and vegetation, lists threats to the park’s ecological health, makes recommendations to maintain and improve it, and much more. The report is meant to be a baseline with which to monitor future park health and to help make informed management decisions.

Throughout the Forest Park cycling debate, one of the pillars of opposition to improved bike access was that somehow bicycling is inherently bad for the park’s ecology. However, there is no statistical basis for that claim, and the Wildlife Report itself barely mentions bicycling as a threat to the park. Below is the list of threats named in the report:

• Climate change
• Non-native invasive plants
• Non-native invasive insects and other wildlife
• Habitat alteration outside of the park
• Utility corridor management (habitat alteration within the park)
• Illegal park activities: homeless camps, rogue trails, nocturnal
recreation
• Domestic cats at the park perimeter
• Air pollution
• Water quality degradation in Balch Creek
• Parasites, poisons, and persecution
• Fire and fire management

The only specific mention of bicycles in the report relates to that mention above of “nocturnal recreation.” It’s not a secret to the City or to park stakeholders that some people illegally ride their bikes on trails in the park at night. As for “rogue trails,” while a particular rogue trail made major headlines during the Forest Park bike access debate back in 2010, that isn’t a huge problem otherwise and many existing rogue trails are built by runners, hikers, and homeless people who camp in the park.

Forest Park ride-2

When it comes to biking in Forest Park,
we’re on a road to somewhere.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Mike Abbate, the new Director of Portland Parks (he was not in the position during the singletrack debate), seems to understand that what Forest Park needs are more stewards that can help it battle real threats like invasive species. At the end of December, Abbate met with Marcy Houle and Les Blaize — two citizen advocates that you’ll recall were opposed to an expansion of bike access. Following that meeting, Abbate emailed a large list of park stakeholders. Below is an excerpt from that email:

“We agree that the highest priority for Forest Park management is protecting and enhancing ecological health and that Portland Parks & Recreation needs to bring more resources to the park for both ecological restoration and use management and enforcement. I also let them know that I feel recreation is compatible with this priority and about the importance of improving community health through recreation and the creation of the next generation of park stewards.”

When Abbate says he wants to bring, “more resources to the park” and that “recreation is compatible with this priority,” he is almost certainly referring to people who ride bikes. As bike advocates and the Northwest Trail Alliance have said all along; if Forest Park had more compelling bike access, the park would have many more stewards to volunteer for work parties and contribute to its ongoing maintenance. In other words, the large community of people who like to mountain bike have an impressive reputation for sweat equity and responsible stewardship of public lands, but many of them see nothing worth fighting for — or working for — in Forest Park.

Also in that email, Abbate shared specifics about future bike access:

“The consultant [hired by Parks to evaluate new bike trails] recommended enhancing the mountain biking experience by building a portion of single track adjacent to Fire Lane 5. This was presented as the most sustainable option, minimizing the potential for erosion and trail user conflict.

We are now exploring this possibility and have talked to Northwest Trail Alliance who would partner with us on design and funding.”

Obviously, this kind of talk from Parks is not sitting well with everyone.

Allan Classen, publisher of the NW Examiner newspaper (that covers neighborhoods around Forest Park) called people who want better bike access in Forest Park “bicycle zealots” in a June 2010 editorial. And now Classen has struck again with a very unfortunate and unfair article in the current issue of his newspaper.

In a front page, above-the-fold article (download issue here), Classen declares a harmful and false dichotomy with the headline: Bikes vs. Nature. I sold that photo to Classen for the story. He never mentioned details of the story and didn’t asked for my comment on the issue, even though I’ve covered the story closer than anyone in town. Come to find out, sources tell me Classen didn’t talk to anyone other than the two most outspoken critics of bicycling in Forest Park — Marcy Houle and Les Blaize — so it should come as no surprise that the NW Examiner article is very one-sided and doesn’t portray the issues accurately.

Portland Parks & Rec is moving forward with expand bicycling opportunities in Forest Park, not because they are being reckless with this cherished natural resource or because they are bending to the will of an all-powerful “bike lobby.” They are taking these steps because most Portlanders want better bicycling opportunities in the park, because an advisory committee helped inform these decisions, and because the future health of Forest Park depends on its relevance as a place where responsible recreational users are treated equally and fairly.

Stay tuned. We expect lots more news on this issue in the weeks and months to come.

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