PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Bickering between those on their feet and those on their bikes in Forest Park has gone on long enough that it has become a part of the park’s story. It’s a dispute that remains unresolved.
The feud spans decades, at least, ebbing and flowing. Lately, it’s ramped back up.
Primarily a pedestrian-friendly park, about 28 out of 80 miles of trail are open to those interested in riding a bike on dirt-covered trails. But that could change with the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan being prepared by the Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which aims to establish more opportunities for mountain bikers and cyclists throughout the city, as well as connect trails for a more cohesive riding experience.
For Forest Park, the plan illustrates five concepts to adjust existing trails to accommodate cyclists, and also for the creation of new trails.
Law or exception?
A new group called the Coalition to Protect Forest Park says the trail concepts violate the Forest Park Natural Resources Management Plan, a 224-page document from 1995 used to govern planning in the park. The plan was adopted as a city ordinance and ties in with local environmental zoning code.
Environmental lawyer Karl Anuta became interested in the situation, and sent a statement to city officials. Anuta was successful in past environmental legal battles, like the Salt Caves Dam project on the Upper Klamath River, a case where groups successfully opposed a large hydroelectric project between 1985 and 1998, upholding the river’s designation as a wild and scenic river.
He says if the city doesn’t stop looking at Forest Park for expanded use, it could result in a land-use battle, and that including Forest Park in any considerations is akin to false advertising.
“The cycling community is focusing on it. … Somebody in the city bureaucracy doesn’t know how to say no,” Anuta says.
Some of Portland’s plans call for single-track options in the park, where some trails would be between 2 and 6 feet wide, but the management plan says bike paths at Forest Park must be 8 feet wide. There are mountain bikers who enjoy riding on narrower trails; it poses more of a challenge than softer, flatter options.
Michelle Kunec-North, a cyclist who was chosen by the city to oversee the master plan process, says the plan would be “kind of like an exception” to the managment plan.
And, the 8-foot-wide bike trail mandate is an outdated standard, she says. She says smaller trails cause people to ride slower, similar to a neighborhood street versus a wide roadway, where people often drive faster.
“This was adopted in the mid-’90s, and that doesn’t mesh with best practices with modern trail design,” she says. Kunec-North adds that future projects in Forest Park would have to go through an environmental review process “because it’s different than what the (Forest Park Management Plan) had envisioned.”
A special park
It’s no wonder people are passionate about the park, the largest forested natural area within a city’s limits in the United States. At 5,518 acres, it offers a slice of solitude, a chance to reconnect with nature without the hassle of too much travel out of Portland itself.
The management plan poses a higher level of governance than any of the city’s other parks; consistently called “unique” by many people, Forest Park harbors valuable wildlife and uses its many trees to filter the city’s air and water.
“Yes, Forest Park is certainly special … but that doesn’t absolve us of the fact that Forest Park is the best opportunity in the city to experience nature on a bike,” Kunec-North says.
The 1995 plan was desvised to help alleviate environmental damage caused by a rising level of use by humans — be it more hikers, bikers or even homeless people.
The plan is specific about trail use and future planning, but doesn’t particluarly mention off-road cycling opportunities.
“The (Forest Park Management Plan) lays out certain improvements outright, like restoration activities. For off-road cycling, it doesn’t really identify future projects,” Kunec-North says.
Marcy Houle doesn’t agree with the city seeing it as an “exception.” She’s an esteemed wildlife biologist who has studied Forest Park intensively for the past 30 years, including conducting surveys and research for the Oregon Parks Foundation, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Multnomah County Planning Division. She also penned the book, “One City’s Wilderness: Portland’s Forest Park.”
She sees the Forest Park Management Plan as not open to interpretation.
“We’re lucky we have this very well-crafted law that’s really well done. Once you talk about the ‘exception,’ you won’t get it back,” she says. Introducing a new user group to the park, she fears, will cause detrimental damage.
Portland Parks and Recreation already has run into some issues trying to fix up Forest Park fire lanes for cyclists, including narrowing them, running into opposition by the fire bureau because doing so reduced access for emergency response.
Other previous proposals included creating new trails next to the fire lanes, but the parks bureau wasn’t supportive because doing so would “bisect areas in high-quality habitat, impacting interior forest.”
Nonetheless, plans for expanding access at Forest Park are still being considered despite likely challenges.
Elderly and disabled
There were only a few mountain bikers zooming along the Leif Erikson Trail, the park’s main drag for cyclists and hikers on a recent weekday.
Leif Erikson connects to other smaller trails like the Wildwood Trail. That’s the path that Alex Schay, a blind athlete from Southeast Portland, enjoys hiking in Forest Park. He became acquainted with Houle after using her book to hike the length of the Wildwood Trail. The Wildwood Trail isn’t being considered for cyclists.
An athlete who likes to stay active, navigating the trails comes relatively easy for Schay, despite being without his sense of sight because of glaucoma. Technology has given more confidence to folks like Schay who might otherwise stay away due to disability. He uses an iPhone app called BlindSquare, which shouts out audible directions, while his guide dog Clifton navigates around any roots, rocks and sticks that could cause a fall.
He says he hasn’t had much trouble in Forest Park with cyclists, but he has at Powell Butte, a park where there are some trails for cyclists. There, he’s had to “get off the trail quickly.” He’s concerned that if more access comes to Forest Park, it could pose a threat for elderly and disabled who might not be able to act so swiftly.
“For older folks, if they have to quick dive from the trail or whatever, they could get really hurt, and they might not recover, and it might be a life-changing experience for them,” Schay says.
Kunec-North contends that some people have preconcieved notions of what mountain biking is, thinking of it as more of an “adrenaline, full-face, helmet-goggles sort of sport, when that type of riding is a very small demographic within the larger off-road cycling community.”
She says they’re looking at increased riding options for beginning and intermediate off-road cyclists.
Enforcement at Forest Park
Outside of anecdotal information, there’s not much data about pedestrian and cyclist incidents, according to officials. For all of Forest Park’s mass, it has a single ranger who can’t actually issue citations for anyone found violating rules. Officials know, too, that signage is in poor condition, in need of upgrades so that cyclists aren’t veering onto trails they’re not allowed on.
According to Portland Parks and Recreation, there have been only three reports in a year regarding bike riders in Forest Park who were riding in areas prohibited to them.
“We primarily rely on education, talking to people and spreading the word about park rules, general safety and the negative impacts on natural areas,” says Mark Ross, Portland Parks and Recreation spokesperson. They do have the authority to write a warning, where the next step would be a park exclusion. Exclusion starts from 30 days going to 90. Rangers are on foot and aren’t about to chase rule breakers.
Park officials also are concerned about cyclists on narrow trails with pedestrians.
“A trail may be too narrow to accommodate cycling safely; there could be visibility challenges,” Ross says.
The parks bureau, though not responsible for the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan, says it “would be supportive” of trail expansion for cyclists, as long as it also would reduce negative impacts to natural resources.
For its reliance on education, a pilot program that engaged volunteers with the ranger program to provide education and outreach to park users on trail etiquette and safety already has ended. It didn’t focus on cycling.
However, Ross says the Portland Park Rangers recently received a grant to implement “Leave No Trace,” a program that will help them learn concepts around stewardship, environmental education, habitat preservation and safety.
“Rangers have begun learning more about these concepts and how they can best be utilized across our system,” he says.
Kunec-North says that better signage and enforcement could happen sooner if funding were prioritized. For now, they’re reviewing feedback from their trail concepts, which were out until April 30. Forest Park received the most feedback of any of the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan’s other locations for expanded cycling.
They’ll take information to the project advisory committee then draft a proposal that likely will be out for community input by the summer. Then it’ll go to the Portland City Council, when there will be more opportunity for the public to testify.
The Forest Park Conservancy is supportive of new trails, but concerned about the park’s lack of enforcement.
“But we’re really looking forward — if the city does approve something — that there’ll be better signage and more enforcement,” says Renee Myers, executive director of the conservancy. “We really feel like there needs to be some kind of enforcement in order to keep the parks safe.”
But can the longstanding dispute be resolved? Myers hopes so.
“I think it’s not a bad idea to figure out how we can all get along, to (get) polarized groups together to collaborate … instead of kicking the can down the road somewhere else,” she says.
How it works in Boulder
The city of Boulder, Colorado, was pointed to by several in both the hiking and biking communities as a model city for how to handle competing uses for trails.
According to Mark Gershman, planning services supervisor for the City of Boulder, they’ve been experimenting with different options to make it work for both users. They have tried separating activities by day or alternating directional travel.
The city has 15 rangers for their trails who are able to issue citations that could result in a fine and court appearance.
They also have a bike patrol, started in partnership with its local mountain biking association, to offer education to users.
The Portland Tribune is KOIN media partner.