Biking in River View: A broken process and many unanswered questions – UPDATED

Biking in River View: A broken process and many unanswered questions – UPDATED

“There’s a public process we tried to go thru but got abandoned… now we’re supposed to be advocating for another public process?”
— Kelsey Cardwell, NW Trail Alliance president

It’s been 12 days since Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish unilaterally decided to ban bicycling in the River View Natural Area and many people in the community remain shocked and confused.

We’ve been trying to get in touch with the Commissioners and their staff to get answers to many outstanding questions and have not heard back. While we continue to work on that, we wanted to share an update on what we’ve learned and offer some background on the issues swirling around the story.

Advocates and insiders were blindsided by the decision

For a city that usually puts such a premium on open and transparent public process around important issues, the decision to ban biking in River View came completely out of the blue.

“I get very concerned when elected officials establish advisory bodies then don’t use them.”
— Jim Owen, Portland Parks Board member
at March 4th board meeting.

On March 2nd, representatives from the Northwest Trail Alliance were called to a meeting at Commissioner Fritz’s office. According to our sources, that meeting included: NWTA President Kelsey Cardwell, NWTA volunteers Ryan Francesconi and Andy Jansky, Bureau of Environmental Services Watershed Services Group Manager Jane Bacchieri, ‎Portland Parks & Recreation City Nature Manager Deborah Lev, and Commissioner Fritz’s Senior Policy Analyst Patti Howard.

The NWTA has worked in good faith with the Parks Bureau on bike access issues for many years and is a strong supporter of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan that Fritz called for back in February 2014. After the frustrations of the Forest Park process just a few years ago, bike advocates had very good reasons to take a more adversarial stance toward Portland Parks, but they decided to work within the system in hopes of a positive outcome.

The NWTA reps were optimistic about the meeting and thought they might be hearing some good news. They had even brought a signed letter from League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke expressing support for funding of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan.

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Imagine their surprise when they were told cycling in River View was being taken off the table. And not because of an adopted policy stance or recommendation from a committee. Simply because of the commissioners’ vague declaration that they needed to, “exercise an abundance of caution… to protect the City’s investment.”

Adding insult to injury is that none of the NWTA reps were given clear explanations for the decision. Not only that, but after dropping this disappointing news, the advocates were encouraged to continue to participate in the process and help Parks advocate for funding of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan.

“There’s a public process we tried to go through but got abandoned,” NWTA President Kelsey Cardwell told us, “but now we’re supposed to be advocating for another public process?”

NWTA reps were further shocked to realize Parks had already sent the story to the local media before they’d even left the meeting.

That seems like a very disrespectful way to treat an important stakeholder group.

One day later, several NWTA members testified (during citizen communication period) at the monthly Parks Board meeting. They were amazed to learn that even Parks Board members didn’t know about the bike ban decision (it was “eye-opening” one of them shared with me). Board member Jim Owen told Parks Direct Mike Abbate he was concerned there had been, “no discussion about our policy affecting a legitimate use of the parks.” He then added: “I get very concerned when elected officials establish advisory bodies then don’t use them.”

Riding and working at Riverview property-3

A trail in River View.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

The conservation argument doesn’t hold water and drags cycling through the mud

The March 2nd memo from Fritz and Fish focus almost solely on conservation and ecological concerns as reasons to prohibit biking at River View. That stings bike advocates because there’s no scientific backing or any relevant studies of any kind that say biking is mutually exclusive with conservation of a natural area.

Fritz then further — and unnecessarily — sullied the reputation of bicycling in a March 5th KGW News story. According to their reporter, Fritz blames bike riders for “damaging critical habitat for salmon.” Here’s what Fritz told KGW:

“It’s the mud, it’s the unintentionally riding over native plants, it’s whether the wildlife there is scared by having mountain bikers coming crashing through,” said Fritz.

That sounds more like a personal anecdote rather than a reasoned position based on research or existing policy.

Also interesting to note is how the commissioners are now calling biking an “active” recreational use, when Parks’ own Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan calls biking a “passive” use and lumps it in with hiking, bird-watching, and so on. This is a major change that no stakeholders had any input on.

When the River View Technical Advisory Committee assessed threats to the 146-acre parcel they came up with the following ranked list: “Dogs on and off-leash, off- trail use by cyclists and pedestrians, illegal camping/party spots that create wildfire risk, and climate change.”

So, why the abrupt decision to single out an ban only biking? That’s a question many people in the community are still waiting to have answered.

One major environmental advocate, Audubon Society of Portland Conservation Director Bob Sallinger, told us he was just as shocked by the decision as everyone else. “I was pretty surprised… that the process has been stopped without explanation and that there had been no further communication from the city.” Sallinger feels that River View is, “one of the most significant natural resource acquisitions that the city has made in years” given its forest and streams. However, even he feels like there’s no reason to pre-emptively exclude biking from the list of possible uses. Here’s what he shared with me via email earlier today:

“My concern was not so much about what uses could be allowed (hiking, bikes, dog walkers, etc) but rather what areas needed to be protected, how big buffers should be, how much fragmentation by trails could be accommodated, etc…”

The City won the lawsuit; but its impact remains unknown

There’s been a lot of talk about how/if this decision was impacted by a 2011 lawsuit regarding the purchase of the River View property.

Just to review, in December 2011 a group calling themselves Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform, Inc. filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of Portland was using water and sewer ratepayer money improperly. They listed several expenditures in the lawsuit, including the $6 million in sewer funds the Bureau of Environmental Services used to buy River View (total purchase price was $11.25 million).

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the city had, “no authority to use any sewer funds to acquire this land because the acquisition of park land is not connected to the sewer system.” In fact, the City of Portland bought the parcel for dual-use, both as a park and for its significance as an ecological watershed area. During the City Council meeting to authorize the purchase, then Parks Commissioner Nick Fish said the parcel would be part of a, “world-class regional system of parks, trails and natural areas.”

In 2014, a judge ruled in the city’s favor, saying that the purchase of River View was “reasonably related” to the sewer system. “This court cannot second guess the Council’s decision,” the judges statement read, “to spend some sewer funds for that purpose.”

Even with this final judgment, Commissioners Fritz and Fish continue to make references to the lawsuit as part of the justification for their decision. Fish’s latest statement said because funding came from ratepayer dollars, “We must ensure the uses of the natural area match the BES mission to protect the watershed.” But sources from Commissioner Saltzman’s office — who was in charge of BES when the lawsuit came and went — have assured us that the City owns River View outright and that the lawsuit is a done deal that should not continue to have undue influence over management decisions.

UPDATE, 3:40pm: Matt Grumm in Commissioner Saltzman’s office followed up with us to clarify the lawsuit issue. He said, even though the judge ruled in the city’s favor regarding the River View purchase, there are “ongoing settlement negotations” and agency directors and commissioners might very well might have reason to be “nervous about the possibility of the parcel being pulled back into the lawsuit.”

Why Fish and Fritz haven’t just framed their decision about biking in terms of the lawsuit from the get-go remains a mystery; but it appears that if they’d done so, we could have avoided much of the frustration that’s being felt.

Many unanswered questions remain

Why this rash decision to ban one specific user group from River View? We still don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that, similar to the Forest Park situation, this process has turned into a circus and bicycling has gotten the very short end of the stick. (For more on how the process has be “hijacked” and “bungled” read this new comment from an anonymous insider.)

We’ve emailed and called both Commissioners’ offices and haven’t had our questions answered. NWTA leader Kelsey Cardwell hasn’t heard back from her letter to Fish and Fritz either.

For now, go ride your bike at River View. While it’s still legal.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 1:34pm: Check out the statement from Commissioner Fish we just posted. Also, we’ve confirmed with a reliable source that the process will be starting up again. The River View Technical Advisory Committee will convene next week and the Public Advisory Committee will also re-convene. We have also learned that Commissioners Fish and Fritz plan to meet with the full TAC next week. Stay tuned.

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