Cycling in Forest Park
The rhetoric goes round and round, but real debate never begins.
Organized mountain bikers have yearned to ride Forest Park trails for decades, restrained so far by a city law that puts the ecological health of the 5,000-acre urban preserve above potentially destructive recreational uses.
To be precise, the standard for allowing new recreational use is even higher than that. These activities must literally “enhance” plant and animal life in the park
Science is to have the last word. New facilities or activities cannot be considered until the current condition of biological life in the park is documented, providing a baseline from which to measure disruptions to the status quo.
This framework is at the heart of the Forest Park Natural Resources Management Plan, adopted by Portland City Council in 1995. Twenty-five years later, the baseline studies have still not been conducted.
bicycle lobby has never attempted to clear this hurdle nor pushed for the prerequisite studies. Instead, cycling advocates have attempted to go around the ordinance and its formidable environmental bar.
They have argued that mountain biking is popular, and they have no sufficient alternative locations to practice their sport in the urban area. They have argued that bikes cause no more damage to trails than hikers do. They have labeled park preservationists NIMBYs wanting to keep this semi-wilderness wonder to themselves.
A sport based on overcoming challenging, even dangerous, obstacles, breeds adherents who do not readily give up.
Daniel Greenstadt, an off-road cycling advocate and frequent contributor to BikePortland.org, believes the management plan was off-base from the start.
“Forest Park is governed by a Natural Resources Management Plan that contains recreational trail management guidelines—unfavorable to bicycle use—that were already out of date when the management plan was adopted in 1995,” he told the NW Examiner. “People can decide for themselves if they think that was the result of professional negligence, casual oversight or an intentional effort to skew policy in the park.”
In 2006, Portland Parks & Recreation launched a pilot project to create a section of single-track on Firelane 5. Single-track, just wide enough for single-file riding and typically having turns and inclines to test a rider’s skill, is preferred to wider, gentler routes.
The city-funded Forest Park Conservancy and the militant Northwest Trail Alliance issued a report citing this as “an example of a previously limited-use trail that now successfully accommodates multiple user groups.”
Shared use became their slogan. Sharing a road with occasional fire or maintenance vehicles is of a different nature than sending single-track riders down hiking trails, but the phrase has a politically positive tone.
Privately, the cyclists were less interested in getting along with others. Northwest Trail Alliance (previously known as Portland United Mountain Pedalers) was renamed in 2009 to reflect mountain bikers “fed up with the status quo” and “itching to move the needle,” according to Bike Portland Editor Jonathan Maus.
In 2010, the City Club took notice of the growing tension and released a study entitled “A Call to Action.” The action it recommended was in the opposite direction. It called for stricter compliance with the Forest Park Management Plan and labeled past efforts “dismal.”
“We are concerned that the plan’s core requirement—scientific analysis that would establish a baseline for future decisions—has not happened. The plan mandates a comprehensive recreational user study and a comprehensive natural/sustainable resources plan; neither has been funded or performed. Instead, over the past 15 years, mere piecemeal and often unrelated efforts have been made to address the broader issues.”
Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who served on council 1979-96 and oversaw the parks bureau almost half of those 17 years, raised another reason cyclists and hikers should not share the same paths: safety. A former Northwest District resident whose own experiences helped shape his assessment of conflicts over park usage, Lindberg wrote in a 2017 opinion piece in The Oregonian: “During my hundreds of hikes in the park, I have nearly been run over by mountain bikes speeding downhill. Many others I know have experienced similar near-accidents and some people have been hit by bikes.”
While the City Club was researching the issue, PP&R formed a Single-track Advisory Committee to explore cycling options. The 17-member committee was heavily weighted with cycling advocates while having no representation from hiking and running groups, although these activities are pursued by vastly more people than cycling. Only 9 percent of park users were cyclists, according to a 2012 Forest Park Recreation Survey of 2,277 respondents conducted by Portland State University and PP&R.
The two park preservationists on the committee, Marcy Houle and Les Blaize, stood alone against expanding bike access.
Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversaw PP&R, sided with the minority.
“We have concluded that Forest Park is not ready for expanded access,” he announced.
But Fish left the door ajar.
“We recognize that off-road cycling is a popular recreational sport. People who enjoy single-track riding also care about the environment and are committed to being good stewards of our natural areas. Although Forest Park is not ready to support increased access at this time, we will continue to pursue opportunities to create sustainable single-track trails in Portland.”
In 2012, Fish thought the time had come, promising action within nine months.
“Our team agreed that we needed to change our approach by focusing on single-track that’s designed especially for cyclists—from the get-go,” he announced, referring to joint use of firelanes by fire vehicles and single-track cyclists as not feasible.
“PP&R is currently seeking permits to build enhancements parallel to Firelane 5 that will result in a true single-track experience for cyclists in Forest Park.”
BikePortland’s Maus was optimistic. “Biking in Forest Park is finally set to improve,” stated his headline.
The stars seemed to be aligning for cyclists.
Michael Abbate, PP&R director 2011-19, was an ardent supporter of biking in the park. He claimed that John L. Olmsted, who in 1903 developed a citywide plan for Portland and intended Forest Park to be a contemplative “natural sanctuary,” would have favored high-energy activities and infrastructure to accommodate more users.
The National Association of Olmsted Parks issued a statement in 2018 contradicting Abbate’s interpretation, saying “single-track trails would be destructive in a great many ways and irreparable damage done.” (See sidebar at end of article.)
Fish listened, but he was not willing to give the cyclists all they wanted. So former Mayor Charlie Hales, who believed the park had “broad shoulders” that could bear added usage and infrastructure, moved the discussion to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which Hales controlled.
In 2016, BPS created the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan Advisory Committee and appointed cyclists and bicycle business owners to 12 of the 16 seats. BPS hired three consultants, including Hilride, a firm designing destination riding areas and bike parks and “dedicated to realizing the potential of the global mountain biking movement.”
BPS would not release the results of its survey of park users in the spring of 2017. A public records request found that 61 percent of survey respondents opposed any expansion of cycling in Forest Park, while 6 percent wanted increased bike access. BPS repeated the survey later in the year, only to find that opposition had risen to 80 percent.
A petition opposing the expansion of mountain biking signed by 1,300 residents was delivered to the City Council.
Nevertheless, BPS selected five Forest Park sites as appropriate for cycling improvements, including two new trails. Without conducting the requisite environmental research, the bureau concluded that the central third of the park “does not have high-value natural resources” that would forestall the development of bike trails.
Zari Santner, executive director of PP&R 2000-08, said the project was shifted to the planning bureau for a simple reason: “The biking advocates put a lot of pressure on City Hall and said this should not be done by parks—they are biased.”
In her 29 years in the bureau, Santner found the perpetual shifting of oversight roles undermined focus on goals. Five different city commissioners had the bureau in their portfolios during her eight years as director.
“Different commissioners saw things differently, and then they change bureau assignments every two or three years, so you sort of start over,” she said.
Santner told each commissioner about the primacy of the Forest Park Management Plan, not always with good results.
“You guys are the naysayers,” was the message she heard from them.
The succession of studies, task forces and promises made to mountain bikers led to frustration and wasted resources, resources that should have been devoted to studies of Forest Park’s environmental system, she said.
“It’s being penny-wise and pound foolish,” Santner said of the rounds of reconsideration with science at the hindmost.
Cycling advocates now have their sights on a proposed park entrance along U.S. Highway 30. A Phase I proposal recently submitted for approval includes a parking lot, trailhead, stormwater treatment and firelane improvements. Phase II could include bike trails. Rachel Felice of PP&R told Portland Garden Club members last year that the bureau is considering a trail along the highway that would be outside the jurisdiction of the Forest Park Management Plan.
The late state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, who represented the district encompassing Forest Park, advocated tirelessly for Forest Park preservation. Two weeks before he died on May 15, he emailed PP&R Director Adena Long expressing his concerns about the impacts of the entrance project and inquiring about an environmental impact study of Phase I.
Will Aitchison, a Willamette Heights resident who helped form the Coalition to Protect Forest Park in 2017, has assembled a history of the conflicting visions for the park. His thrust and parry account told via PowerPoint has been shown to public officials and citizen groups.
“I’ve shown it several times in various offices in City Hall, and it’s gotten a very positive reception,” he wrote in a guest opinion in The Oregonian last year. “At this point I’m ready to grab random people off the street to show them the PowerPoint.”
Two years ago, Aitchison shared it with Commissioner Fish. Former Commissioner Lindberg was with him at the presentation. Afterward, Fish told Lindberg, “That’s the best, most logical, most persuasive PowerPoint I’ve ever seen.”
Aitchison, a lawyer, is mystified that the debate has drifted so far from established policy and application of science.
“Science must come first,” he said. “We’re all Portlanders. When we consider global warming or COVD-19, we will all say we need to follow the science. What’s ironic is that when it comes to Forest Park, you have only one side saying we need to follow the science.”
Lindberg has had plenty of time to contemplate that conundrum in his years as a policymaker and citizen activist.
For the last two or three years especially, he anticipated a full debate before the City Council on the future of the park.
“For some reason it never really happens,” he said. “The lobbying by mountain bikers has been so effective and intense … and there have been dozens of behind the scenes meetings, but we have never had a full City Council hearing or debate. We’ve never gotten the chance to present our case.”
National association calls potential bike
The National Association of Olmsted Parks issued a statement in 2018 that countered the position of former Portland Parks & Recreation Director Michael Abbate, who strongly supported additional mountain bike opportunities in Forest Park.
“Altering the designated use of Forest Park to accommodate special purpose, active recreation would fly in the face of both Olmsted’s intent and current law that embodies it. Contemplated construction of miles of mountain bike trails would serve a small segment of the local population at great price to the rest and to the landscape itself.
“Introduction of single-track trails would be destructive in a great many ways, and irreparable damage done. The overarching loss would be the park’s treasured natural character and tranquility. Erosion, slope destabilization, canopy loss, fragmentation of fragile vegetation and wildlife habitat and dangerously incompatible uses are but some of the foreseeable consequences.”
Abbate was forced out of his position later that year by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who opposed adding recreational uses without a master plan.