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Metro Council action clears the way for partial development of the nature park south of Forest Grove; public opening is scheduled for early 2020.

Now the real work begins to transform and restore Chehalem Ridge Nature Park.

The Metro Council approved a master plan for the park — one of the largest among its 17,000 acres of parks and natural areas — on Thursday, Oct. 19.

The plan combines development of multiple-use trails, a parking lot and picnic area with protection of natural areas and restoration of streamsides and an oak savanna. The plan has been in the works for almost two years.

The 1,230-acre site, south of Forest Grove and east of Gaston, is second in size only to Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in North Portland.

Chehalem Ridge offers views of the Coast Range and Tualatin Valley on a clear day from 1,100-foot Iowa Hill.

The Metro Council met in the Forest Grove Community Auditorium after a tour of the park by two dozen people, among them Council President Tom Hughes and Councilors Shirley Craddick and Bob Stacey.

"Let's not forget why we bought this property — for the benefit of clean water, and fish and wildlife habitat, as well as access to nature for people," said Councilor Kathryn Harrington of Beaverton, whose District 4 covers much of Washington County.

Among the first-phase improvements are a road leading from Dixon Mill Road into the park from the south — much of it is a former logging road — some multiple-use trails, an 80-care parking lot, picnic area and shelters.

"What is incredibly inspiring … is the multiuse options here," said Matthew Weintraub, who spoke for the Northwest Trail Alliance. "There are trails for everybody that bring everybody together."

Ground will be broken in summer 2019, after Metro obtains permits from Washington County and completes design and engineering. Opening is scheduled in 2020.

Cost estimates range from $2.5 million to $3.9 million.

The money will be drawn from measures already approved by Metro voters.

Metro voters have approved two bond issues — the most recent a $227 million measure in 2006 — and two levies for parks and natural areas. Voters last year approved a five-year extension of the 2013 levy, which now will expire in 2023.

Metro's system has evolved for the past 25 years, when it first began to study how to maintain open spaces for a growing population, which back then hovered around 1.5 million.

"Why you see this work happening is because we have the financial means to make it happen," Craddick said. "The real thank-you goes to the public."

The council acted about 18 months after it approved master plans for two other natural areas, Newell Creek Canyon in Oregon City and North Tualatin Mountains, northwest of Portland's Forest Park.

Planning is still underway for two areas: East Council Creek, 33 acres in northeast Cornelius, and Gabbert Butte, 150 acres south of downtown Gresham but within the city limits.

Former tree farm

When Metro acquired most of the Chehalem Ridge site from Stimson Lumber Co. in 2010, in a $6.1 million transaction brokered by the Trust for Public Land, about half of it was a former tree farm dominated by Douglas fir trees.

The site had been contemplated for rural estate homes.

During the past few years, some of the Douglas firs have been thinned to clear the way for restoration of Oregon white oak in grasslands known as savannas. Such vegetation was prevalent in western Oregon, including the Willamette Valley, before white settlers came to Oregon about 150 years ago.

Although most comments during a public hearing were favorable — including endorsements from Tom Gamble, Forest Grove parks director, and Michael Kinkade, fire chief for Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston — John Charles of Sandy offered some criticisms.

Charles said only nine miles of trails are envisioned for Chehalem Ridge, compared with 80 miles of trails in Forest Park, which is four times larger — and most of the park is proposed to be left undeveloped.

"That implies it is really special," said Charles, president of the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank based in Portland, although no significant natural, historical or cultural resource areas were identified.

"I have hiked it several times and it is the most boring, generic property purporting to be a natural area that I have ever seen."

Councilor Carlotta Collette said Chehalem Ridge contains the headwaters of five permanent streams — plus seasonal streams — that flow into the Tualatin River, Washington County's primary source of drinking water.

"I think we have done a tremendous balance by being able to open up and restore some of the area for public parks," Collette said. "At the same time we are being mindful that our real job is to protect that habitat and keep that river healthy."

Centro Cultural role

Early in the planning process, Metro enlisted the help of Centro Cultural, based in Cornelius, which has worked with Latino families in Washington County for 45 years.

Juan Carlos González, Centro's director of development and communications, said its participation has given Latinos a stake in the park's future — and more.

He said: "I think this partnership has fostered a way for communities of color in Washington County to engage with the planning process — and the way we will continue to engage it in the future — for everyone to be able to experience Oregon in the way it was meant to be experienced."

Councilor Stacey said Centro Cultural's participation is "a realization of a lofty goal" by Metro to promote racial equity.

In surveys of support for how the plan meets Metro's goals of natural protection and human access, Spanish speakers gave it almost 90 percent "very well," compared with 60 percent for English speakers.

Charles said those same surveys indicated a preference for more active recreation in the form of playgrounds and picnic areas.

"I think your plan is tone deaf to those stated preferences," he said.

But the plan envisions two shelters in the picnic area and an area for "nature play" close to the 80-care parking lot.

"I like the part of the plan that demonstrates every park does not have to have jungle gyms, swings and merry-go-rounds," said Council President Hughes, a former Hillsboro mayor. "We are going to teach kids how to play in nature with nature, how to appreciate that — and how they do not have to have man-made devices to do that."

Alberto Rodriguez from Centro Cultural has led tour groups ranging from children to older people, including the Metro-sponsored trip before the vote.

"It is wonderful to hear how they get excited," he said. "I know that sooner or later, this park is going to be the greatest thing I feel will be part of this place, because it is going to be there for years to come."

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