Forest Park’s “wilderness values” are at risk.
Just 16 days after Commissioner Amanda Fritz was put in charge of the Parks Bureau, people who are opposed to improving bicycle access in Forest Park have begun to pressure her to crack down on illegal riding and limit any policy changes that might result in more riders in the park.
Noted anti-bike activist and author Marcy Houle — who claimed back in March that trails in Forest Park were being “ruined by cyclists” and then teamed up with friends at the NW Examiner newspaper on a biased, hit piece against mountain biking — and local pediatrician Catherine Thompson, addressed Mayor Hales, Commissioner Fritz, and the rest of City Council during the citizen communication period before last week’s meeting.
Houle implored Council to take on a “renewed commitment and excitement” toward making Forest Park the “urban wilderness” she says it was originally conceived to be. Houle read quotes about the park from three of its founders who envisioned it as a place where Portlanders could enjoy the “peace, solitude, and beauty of an urban wilderness.” Houle (who wrote a book about Forest Park titled, One City’s Wilderness) used her three minute testimony to express her concerns that the “wilderness values” of the park are in jeopardy.
Houle read Council members the goal laid out in the 1995 Forest Park Natural Resource Plan and said she wants it posted at every trailhead in the park. That goal reads:
“Forest Park is an unparalleled resource where citizens can experience, peace, solitude, and passive recreational use without degrading natural resources.”
Houle never mentioned bicycling in her testimony; but given her history of opposition to the bike access issue, her intentions are obvious. Houle feels like the more people who see Forest Parks as a pristine wilderness, the easier it will be to prohibit the expansion of bicycle access (after all, federal law currently forbids mountain bikes in officially designated wilderness areas). It’s also a tried and true tactic of people opposed to mountain biking to portray it as an extreme sport that is inherently at odds with “wilderness values.”
Houle’s intentions also came into focus when the person who followed her to the microphone was Catherine Thompson. Thompson is a local pediatrician who said she was speaking up for “safety” in the park and then went on to single out bicycle riders. “Many groups have been writing letters concerned about safety,” she said, “It kind of started with the singletrack committee” (a reference to the Forest Park Single Track Advisory Committee set up to consider new bike access in the park.)
Thompson continued: “People were anticipating safety issues if singletrack occurred, and really, what I’ve discovered as I’ve spent time in he park is that’s happening right now and I really think it’s a crisis… Pedestrians need to be safe and feel safe and that’s just not happening now… 92% of the users of the park are pedestrians and right now they don’t feel safe.”
It’s worth noting why Thompson focused her testimony on how “pedestrians don’t feel safe.” She very likely remembers that Commissioner Fritz (who know holds the power to dictate the future of bike access in Forest Park), once ranted against bike sharing in Portland because of what she felt was “dangerous behaviors” of people who ride bikes. “Daily,” Fritz wrote in an email to a constituent about her stance on bike sharing, “I see cyclists riding on the sidewalks, endangering and harassing pedestrians.” A few months later, Fritz got the police to step up enforcement of sidewalk cycling law.
After painting a picture of people riding bicycles in a way that endangers hikers, Thompson called on City Council to erect new signs in the park listing the ordinance that forbids people from riding bikes on certain singletrack trails. “Until signs are up, rangers can’t do any enforcement,” she said. Thompson claimed that she spoke to a Forest Park ranger and learned, “He hasn’t excluded a single cyclist during his entire tenure.”
Thompson also said she and Houle have begun circulating a petition “casually” and so far 250 people have signed it. She didn’t say what the petition says; but she told Council members it “gives some information that people aren’t feeling safe in the park.”
So to recap: Houle and Thompson are telling our city government that Forest Park should be managed as a pristine wilderness; that there’s a safety crisis in the park due to people riding bicycles illegally; and that park rangers need to crackdown on these lawbreakers and kick them out of the park so that everyone can feel safe.
We’ll let you know how/if Commissioner Fritz responds; but I sure hope she’s hearing other perspectives on this issue.
You can watch Houle and Thompson’s testimony here (begins at about 12:00 minute mark).