Metro opens Chehalem Ridge Nature Park south of Forest Grove
The wait is over.
A years-long plan by the regional government Metro to open a 1,260-acre nature park in the Chehalem Mountains area of Washington County was realized Monday, Dec. 13.
Located about a 15-minute drive south of Forest Grove, the Chehalem Ridge Nature Park offers views of the Tualatin Valley, the Coast Range and a few Cascade peaks from 10 miles of multi-use trails.
At the park's entrance, there's parking for 80 vehicles, facilities for equestrian visitors, two picnic shelters (one that can accommodate 80 people), an open lawn, restrooms and drinking water.
It's the largest park on Portland's Westside and the second-largest of Metro's parks, behind the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in North Portland.
Acquired by Metro from Stimson Lumber Co. in 2010, most of the Chehalem Ridge property is a former tree farm dominated by Douglas fir trees.
Since then, the regional government has been working to restore the landscape.
Park workers have been implementing erosion controls, improving stream ecosystems and thinning firs to make way for habitats prevalent in western Oregon before white settlers came to the area.
The land purchase and restoration efforts were paid for by Metro's 1995 and 2006 parks and nature bond measures and two local option levies in 2013 and 2016, which directed public funds to protect water quality, wildlife habitat and increase recreational opportunities at parks.
In 2019, voters approved an additional $475 million parks and nature bond that has also supported the Chehalem Ridge project.
"It's a great opportunity to protect the landscape for wildlife and water quality, and then on the public access side of things, there are so many people who live within a short drive," said Karen Vitkay, lead planner for Chehalem Ridge. "Given that the park is so large, it's really this feeling of being in wilderness."
So far, the project has cost about $5.2 million, Vitkay said.
The opening of the park marks the fulfillment of one of Metro's main goals for public land: to provide people with a wide range of backgrounds and physical abilities access to nature.
Doing so has been years in the making and with much anticipation.
Planning for the nature park began in 2016. Construction didn't start until summer 2020, after Metro received land-use approval from Washington County in mid-2019.
Early timelines slated the park to open in 2020, but Vitkay says the approval of the parks and nature bond in 2019 allowed Metro to expand construction plans for the park's first phase, extending construction time. She added that there were some minor delays during recent extreme weather events.
The 2017 master plan for the first phase calls for only about 3 miles of trails, compared to the 10 miles now open. Officials were initially only planning to build one picnic shelter and more basic restrooms, Vitkay said, adding that plans to build an operations and maintenance facility also came later.
The first 3 miles of trails are accessible to all ages and abilities, with gentle slope grades and firm, wide surfaces able to accommodate strollers or wheelchairs, Vitkay said. Other trails that extend deeper into the nature park are shared-use trails, allowing for bikes and horses.
"There are a couple of trails that stand out," Vitkay said.
One is the Ayeekwa Trail, named after the Atfalati word for bobcat. The Atfalati, also known as the Tualatins, were a group of Indigenous Kalapuya people who were the Tualatin Valley and Chehalem Mountains' first inhabitants.
Vitkay said a staff member encountered a mother and baby bobcat in the area, adding that there's been some beaver activity that creates natural ponding when ephemeral streams run in the winter.
"It's one of the parts of the park that was never logged or farmed, so it has some really great (plant) diversity and some big old trees," Vitkay said.
Another standout, Vitkey said, is the shared-use Mampal Trail, which goes to the highest point in the park — the 1,100-foot Iowa Hill.
"When you get there, you emerge from this (Douglas) fir forest and then there's just a vast, open savanna with an old legacy oak at the very peak," she said, adding that the area was a focal point of habitat restoration. "You get these panoramic views. It's a really stunning experience."
Early in the planning process, Metro enlisted the help of Centro Cultural de Washington County to involve Latinos served by the nonprofit in determining what the park would offer. The communities surrounding the park have among the largest Latino populations in the state.
Metro formed a stakeholder advisory committee, held several community events, conducted surveys and received thousands of submitted comments.
A key feature of the park is that all signage is in both English and Spanish, Vitkay said, making it the first of Metro's parks to have entirely dual-language communications.
But she added that the Latino community's influence on the park goes far beyond signage.
Juan Carlos González, development and communications director for Centro Cultural, said Metro staff were committed to ensuring the Latino community had a role in co-creating the park.
González, who represents western Washington County on the Metro Council, says being part of the planning process was a big part of what made him want to run for the elected position.
"I think the community feels a lot of positive ownership in the park," González said.
"Those early conversations really challenged the traditional environmental and conservation mindset, but I would say in a healthy way," he continued. "Parks and trails have kind of been traditionally designed to be places of solace and reflection and walking individually or with another person. What we heard from Centro's families is the importance of having the ability to gather with family, to enjoy meals, be outside, being able to bring young children, aging family members."
González says the park's trails and gathering areas reflect those hopes in the community.
People have a wide range of relationships with nature, González said, but the park is an opportunity for Latino community members who may have negative associations with the outdoors after years of needing to work outside to form healing connections with nature.
"Seeing yourself reflected in something like this has to go a long way," González said.
By creating nature-based programming and education opportunities, Metro plans to continue partnering with volunteers and community organizations to help bring people with diverse backgrounds into the park. That will likely include shuttling people who don't have personal vehicles to the park, González said.
Vitkay says it's important to remember how the land could have been used. Before Metro purchased the land, developers were considering turning Chehalem Ridge into rural estate homes.
Instead, restoration efforts are turning the land into a natural area that will be more resilient to climate change through the addition of diverse plant life, invasive species removal, erosion control and the natural reintroduction of wildlife, she said.
Chehalem Ridge has several streams that lead to the Tualatin River, which serves as the drinking water source for roughly 400,000 people.
"We're working to protect those streams," Vitkay said.
Habitat restoration at Chehalem Ridge is an ongoing commitment for Metro, she added, saying additional fir removal and other efforts will take place and will likely lead to temporary closures for certain trails.
Metro's phased master plan calls for additional features to be constructed at the park in the future, including a nature-based play area and a second trailhead linking trails.
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