Portland Parks

Where Parks Are More Than Just Playgrounds and Ballfields

Metro’s Jon Blasher on balancing the urgency of access to nature for all with habitat preservation

By Julia Silverman May 27, 2022 Published in the June 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

A man standing in the woods, shot from below with sun coming through the tree canopy above him

Jon Blasher, director of parks and nature for Metro

Image: Cristle Jose

Quick: When we say the word “park,” what comes to mind? Slides, swings, picnic tables, maybe a ballfield and a grassy lawn? The parks managed by Metro, the Portland area’s often under-the-radar regional government, have those elements, but also protected watersheds, old-growth trees, miles upon miles of trails, and views for days. As the agency’s director of parks and nature, Eugene native Jon Blasher is in charge of 14 nature parks and natural areas, which stretch from Sauvie Island to Oregon City. We talked with him about balancing preservation and access, staffing back up after pandemic cuts, and where he’s eyeing for the region’s next great park.

During your time at Metro, you’ve added several new parks to the agency’s portfolio, including Scouters’ Mountain and Newell Creek Canyon. How do you balance the mix of recreation and land preservation? 

Blasher: When we think about, you know, what is nature for nature’s sake and nature for people’s sake, that becomes this false dichotomy when we’re trying to pit land and people against each other. We’re trying to really think more holistically about what that looks like. There are times we say, here’s some more sensitive habitat or species that we’re trying to help protect. The way we’ve approached it is through looking at the different science and data and understanding the Indigenous and ecological knowledge, too.

Where are some parts of the metro area that you think need more investment and more green space preservation?

Blasher: Part of our strategy is building off large anchors, like at Oxbow Regional Park on the Sandy River. We have Newell Creek Canyon in Oregon City, and we’re expanding on that larger footprint. Chehalem Ridge Nature Park in Washington County ties into getting into the valley side of the coastal range. We’re also taking a big look inside the urban growth boundary at areas along the Columbia Slough, and along Rock Creek.

Parks departments have been struggling to staff up again after those initial rounds of pandemic budget cuts, and staffing affects the programs that are on offer. How are you handling that at Metro?

Blasher: It’s been a challenge! It takes time to effectively ramp back up. We took a little bit longer to bring back some of the amenities that people might be used to enjoying. And whether that’s picnic shelter reservations or the splash pad at Blue Lake, we wanted to make sure that we could welcome people every day. I hope that people continue to have some of the patience and grace that they had early on in the pandemic. We have requests to add more ranger and staff capacity, to be prepared for what we hope is an exciting summer of folks getting back out there.

Which metro parks are overlooked gems, in your opinion?

Blasher: Killin Wetlands Nature Park over in Washington County, that’s one of our newer sites. It’s just really beautiful. It’s got some great shorter trails. And I don’t know how often folks get to go out to Sauvie Island, to Howell Territorial Park. There’s a nice orchard and a really interesting old historic home there. 

Filed under