No new singletrack in Forest Park

A look back at the debate for new trails in the city’s largest park.

October 5, 2010

Early in the spring of 2009 when the debate over the expansion of singletrack riding in Forest Park was gathering steam, I met up with members of the Northwest Trail Alliance (NWTA, formerly Portland United Mountain Pedalers or PUMP) for a ride in the park. That evening, a palpable sense of momentum hung in the air.

The group had recently begun ratcheting up their efforts to expand access to Forest Park, where despite being the country’s largest urban park at 5,000 acres, there exists just one-third of a mile for singletrack riding. The talk that afternoon was of “trail sharing”; a plan that would allow knobby tires on a few narrow, more contoured hiker-only trails during certain days a week. The informal proposal had gotten the spokes rolling again on an issue that PUMP had been founded on back in the 1980s: access to Forest Park.

It also kicked up a cloud of controversy. Not only was there the 1995 Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan to contend with (the near mythical document relegates bikes to paths at least 8-feet wide) there were also groups such as the Portland Audubon Society and the Forest Park Conservancy who worried that allowing bikes on anything but the 28 miles worth of firelanes that are already available to them, would irrevocably erode the park’s trails, damage its fragile ecology, and possibly even put hikers at risk due to close encounters with bikes.

Covering the issue for the magazine, I literally went along for a ride to see how the effort was going.

Despite the formidable resistance, NWTA members were optimistic that night. Portland Parks and Recreation Commissioner Nick Fish, who had said he had wanted to investigate “low-hanging fruit” within the park, appeared eager to move on the issue. And with endorphins flowing after skirting our way down the park’s rarified patch of single-track (a section that was legally constructed off of Firelane 5, deep within the park, several years back), everyone circled their bikes around and thought about what might be. Spring had arrived. The days had begun to stretch longer, and a summer of riding—maybe even on new trails in Forest Park—felt within reach. Anything seemed possible.

Then I noticed something funny. A strange hiss had begun to rise up from my back tire. I looked down. Inexplicably the tube had begun ballooning outward. The hiss got louder. Horrified I watched as my tire bulged out and out and out—sssssssssssssssss—and finally… BANG! The sucker exploded like a gunshot. The reverberations appeared to shake the trees. My tube had been obliterated, and my tire was shredded. Dumbfounded, the hardened group of mountain bikers looked on. What the hell just happened everyone wondered?

I still don’t really know what made my tube detonate. I did know that I wasn’t going anywhere until I figured out how to fix my tire on the fly. Luckily, a NTWA member whipped out an empty pack silver package of energy goo, and after I aired up a spare tube, he crammed the wrapper down between the lacerated tire and the wheel’s rim, enabling me to pedal out the six miles without busting another tube.

This week, Northwest Trail Alliance members and cycling advocates citywide have their own blow out to recover from.

Last Thursday, after more than a year’s worth of debate on the issue, Commissioner Fish announced that there would be no new trail access for mountain bikers in Forest Park. At least not yet.

Instead, Fish, who had initially been quoted as saying that he wasn’t interested in studying the issue to death, ultimately decided that what is needed now are two more years of park study, outreach, and education before any changes will be made.

[Read Fish’s complete statement here]

Notwithstanding a nebulous pledge to enhance a pair of unnamed firelanes for riding within the next two years, Fish’s decision effectively mothballs nine months worth of tooth-and-nail progress made by the 15-member Singletrack Advisory Committee. The committee had been convened last August in order to find short-term solutions to the expansion issue.

Despite their differences, the committee, which included members from Northwest Trail Alliance, The Portland Audubon Society, and various other park stakeholders, had produced a list of options for the city to run with, including the addition of another trailhead to relieve the perpetual overcrowding on Leif Erikson, and opening Gas Line Road, an obscure path below the Leif Erikson trail that’s not found on the natural resources map.

In total, the proposals would have provided more than 8 miles of new and or improved terrain to ride. And in the eyes of mountain bike advocates, those actions seemed pretty modest and could be done without any harm to the park or any of its users, especially considering that they had abandoned the hotly contested trail-sharing option all together.

“They were incremental, they would have been phased, and many of them were already included in the management plan,” says Tom Archer, NWTA’s president, of the plans that were at Fish’s disposal. “We were hoping that the Parks department would follow those recommendations, and to that extent, we’re very disappointed.”

[Read NWTA official statement regarding Commissioner Fish’s decision here]

Archer wasn’t the only one left with sour grapes. Within hours of Fish’s announcement, the League of American Bicyclists—the very same Washington D.C. bike advocacy group that bestowed Portland with its highly touted “Platinum” rating for bike friendliness in 2008—released a statement expressing their dissatisfaction with the city’s decision.

[Read the entire League of American Bicyclists statement here]

“It got our attention,” Andy Clarke, the League’s president told me from his D.C. office some 2,000 miles away on Friday. “It tells us two things. Number one: there’s still a lot of work to be done. And Number two: Portland may be good by comparison to almost any other city in the country, but it’s still far from ideal.”

The city’s lack of mountain biking experiences was already considered a chink in Portland’s biking armor—a deficit that the League, which claims some 300 local members and ties with 750 affiliated local organizations such as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Portland Wheelmen, noted before awarding Portland its Platinum status. As to whether Fish’s decision will negatively affect the Rose City’s lofty bike rating, which is up for renewal in 2012, Clarke says he’s not sure.

“If ridership increases and other things continue to go in the right direction, then maybe it won’t,” he explains. “But if we learn a year or two from now, that other things are coming off the rails, then it might factor into it.”

But according to Commissioner Fish, Portland’s bike scene is right on track. And when I spoke to him Friday morning, he told me that the overwhelming sentiment he has received about his decision has been positive.

“People on all sides of this issue, were wondering how this would come out and if this was cooked,” says Fish, who had been dogged by claims of favoritism throughout the process. First, anti-singletrack elements were put off by out-of-turn statements he made to bikers at the outset of the debate, in which he seemed to pledge to significantly increase access for mountain bikers within the park.

And then, with tensions riding high after the City Club had released a damning report on the health of the park this spring, and with the discovery of an illegal trail built by scofflaw mountain bikers a few months prior, it was singletrack supporters who were wondering if Fish was beginning to cave to voices that claimed allowing more bike access would destroy the park.

But Fish says he had only one goal in mind.

“I don’t make decisions on the basis of doing spot polls on who’s for it and who’s against it,” he says. “My primary obligation is to be a good steward of Forest Park. And the decision we announced was our best judgment based on the evidence.”

Fish also tells me that the city’s renewed commitment to projects such as Gateway Green, a mountain bike “skills park” that’s set to be built on a vacant patch of land near I-205 and I-84, and the city’s pledge to improve the recreation experience at Powell Butte in Southeast Portland (Fish’s dedication to both plans were also announced on Thursday) are “huge wins” for the mountain biking community.

NWTA’s Tom Archer says he’s pleased about the peripheral projects, but he maintains that the city failed to show leadership on the real issue at hand: Forest Park.

“They kind of took a middle path,” he says of Fish’s announcement, while adding that the other projects aren’t substitutes for increased access in the city’s preeminent green space.

So while I have Commissioner Fish on the phone, I ask him why mountain bikers like Archer shouldn’t look at this process as a total failure.

“I can certainly understand the frustration of anybody that is impatient with progress,” he answers. “But if you’re an advocate of singletrack in Forest Park, this is a deferral, not a failure.”

Fish also defends his stance to me by stating that without bulletproof science on the park’s overall condition, the process of applying for permits for new trails inside Forest Park would result in a land use “civil war”, complete with lengthy reviews and endless appeals processes.

And what about all of the committee’s work—is it simply flushed down the drain, I ask?

“No,” he says. “I have a deep commitment to this agenda. It’s not like we’ve announced that the door has been closed to mountain biking in Forest Park. Quite the contrary, what we’ve said is, ‘Here’s the road map to getting to yes.’”

But for Forest Park singletrack advocates like Archer, and in a town where our top brass has, at best, inched along on hot button issues like Columbia Crossing and Memorial Coliseum, and completely missed the boat on the Portland Beavers, it’s hard to believe that road map doesn’t lead right into a ditch.

“We’ve been working on this for 20 years,” says Archer. “And it is just now being raised to a higher level of visibility.”

To keep the issue on the front burner, he tells me the group has a ride planned in Forest Park on October 16. “We’re calling it a rally of support,” Archer tells me when I ask if this is a protest ride. “We know that there are a lot people who share our views and our commitment. It’s not just a narrow demographic. We will continue to work on it. It’s going to take some time.”

And quite possibly someone who’s willing to step in with glue, duct tape, wrappers of goo, or whatever might be handy, to try and patch this whole mess back together.

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