Stumping Grounds

What’s right about Oregon’s first new state park in nearly three decades? Not much.

By Bill Donahue May 19, 2009 Published in the December 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

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"IF IT SEEMS BARREN,” the publicist for L.L. Stub Stewart Memorial State Park told me before I drove west to visit the attraction, which opened this summer in the Coast Range, “just try to imagine what it will look like when the trees and the shrubs grow in and the buildings start aging.”

I tried, but after I ground up the long hill away from the visitor’s center, and into the heart of the first state park built in Oregon since 1972, I was mostly overwhelmed with dismay. The 1,650-acre site, 30 miles from Portland, seemed so institutional, so Smokey Bear square, so devoid of natural charm that I felt as though I’d rolled into the parking lot of a mobile home dealer.

Carved into a patchy hillside forest that has been repeatedly logged for about 75 years, Stub Stewart State Park is home to 15 log cabins, which occupy a stump-riddled swath of land, and a 43-slot RV park that is likewise denuded. The trails winding among these clear-cuts offer none of the sinuous wonder that one gets upon reaching, say, Oswald West State Park on the coast and weaving down the narrow forest path toward the surf. No, at Stub the 15 miles of trail are set on wide-open old logging roads—and they don’t go anywhere spectacular. They just wind pointlessly beside the park’s main road, sometimes dead-ending into it, and once even crossing it. Covered by either dusty dirt or crushed rock, the trails are open to hikers, bikers and horseback riders.

Trudging along, I worried about this mismatched trio of users. (Say a cyclist came barreling head-on toward an ill-tempered horse.) I also lamented how sorely Stub, which cost $16 million to build, failed to live up to the hype of the summer’s TV commercials: In those, we beheld a mossy forest, a sunset and a marshmallow roasting over a crackling campfire, while a warm female voice burbled about “a place to get away” and “just escape.” Now, I kept coming within sight of the road. I had to concede that

Stub wasn’t designed to please the wilderness backpacker, but as I labored along the park’s steep slopes, I also wondered if it was even suited for the average marshmallow-roaster. If you wanted to take an 8-year-old cyclist out here—well, he’d need some serious cardio training.

Stub Stewart’s poor design looms large because in 2004, Governor Ted Kulongoski pledged to end a decades-long budget crunch for state parks by using lottery funds to develop a “park per year” until 2014. It’s too early to tell if the forthcoming parks will be more user-friendly than Stub, but a truism obtains in the world of landscape architecture: Great parks are always the spawn of a single genius. They require a designer (or a team of designers) with a coherent aesthetic—a vision. When Frederick Law Olmsted planned New York’s Central Park, for example, in 1858 he famously conceived of it as a “single work of art.”

In researching Stub, I looked for an Olmsted, for someone who could explain the concept behind the park. I left messages all over Salem before being shunted to Chris Havel, the communications coordinator for Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Havel explained that Stub’s design came from a collaboration with CH2M Hill, a Denver-based engineering firm that has maintained a Portland office for over 20 years. Founded in Corvallis in 1947, the company has helped with projects in several state parks, like Silver Falls and Fort Stevens. Of course, they’ve also had a hand in building freeways and oil pipelines in the Arctic.

Havel stressed that what unifies Stub is not so much design as tribute—the place is an homage to the timber industry. The diminutive Loran LaSells “Stub” Stewart (1911-2005) was a timber baron as well as a stalwart advocate for Oregon parks, so several trails at his namesake park bear timber-themed names, like Skidder Row and Felling’s Wedge. “In that area, timber is just what you breathe in the morning and what you let out of your lungs when you go to sleep,” Havel told me.

I am a non-native Oregonian, an emigré from New England, and if you asked me to cut down a tree, I’d have to consult Still, I have to ask, humbly: Isn’t, like, half the state of Oregon already a tribute to the timber industry? Shouldn’t a park afford us an escape from that grim reality?

To be fair, when Stub’s planners began seeking a site in 1998, they had far fewer options than Oregon’s park czars did back in the 1930s, when iconic state parks like Silver Falls and Ecola State Park came into being. But the state should have spent its money on a site less ravaged than Stub.

Like, for instance, beside Willamette Narrows, a sparkling, steep and skinny stretch of the river near West Linn. Here, Metro has acquired some 600 acres—two islands, dotted with wildflowers, and a swath of shoreline leading up to Canemah Bluff. Deer and coyote roam through the forest, and ospreys soar over a stretch of river unscarred by human habitation. The Narrows would be a delightful destination for kayakers and hikers, but currently no roads lead to the shoreline. Building the roads and parking lots needed to make the area accessible would cost about a million dollars.

But even if splendors such as Willamette Narrows are wiped out, I’d argue that we could still keep building good parks. We need only remember why people go to parks. We go, as Olmsted wrote, to savor “a specimen of God’s handiwork.” We go to rejuvenate, to breathe deeply and get a glimmer of the natural majesty that was here on the land before landscape architecture—and even human settlements—ever existed. And we can find that glimmer in the most trodden and unlikely of places. When I visit Tanner Springs Park downtown and see where the space’s architect, Herbert Dreiseitl, set a stream gurgling amid alders and slough grasses, I hear the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, “And for all this, nature is never spent;/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

At Stub Stewart, sadly, I don’t hear any such poetry. I hear chainsaws and trees falling, and I hear bureaucrats keyboarding away in sterile offices, drafting unwieldy plans, far, far away from the wonders of nature.