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Environmentalists call on all governments to end the homeless crisis to help save natural areas.

COURTESY METRO - Enivironmental damamge in the Newell Creek Canyon in Clackamas County.The dramatically visible increase in outdoor homeless camping in Portland has shocked many elected officials, business leaders and neighborhood activists. It has prompted the city and Multnomah County to open additional shelters, to create new sanctioned campsites, and to consider changing zoning policies to allow more emergency housing as soon as possible.

But more hidden outdoor camping also is creating problems. Environmentalists say camping has increased in natural areas throughout the region outside of urban centers, causing more damage to sensitive lands than at any time in memory.

"Access to safe housing is a human right. Unfortunately, a humanitarian housing crisis in the Portland metro area has caused an environmental crisis because people need somewhere to live," said Daniel Newberry, executive director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, a nonprofit organization created in 1995 to restore the creek and its watershed.

Many of the properties are owned by the city of Portland and Metro, the elected regional government that has bought and managed 17,000 acres of habitat throughout the metropolitan area over the past two decades. Neither the city nor Metro maintains a running tally of the financial costs of the damages.

But Portland Parks & Recreration told the Portland Tribune that its staff spent just over 1,000 hours cleaning up trash and debris believed to be related to people experiencing homelessness in its 8,000 acres of natural areas from July 2019 to present.

The extent of the regionwide harm was recently documented by Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission member Mike Houck, the director emeritus of the Urban Greenspaces Institute.

During the commission's recent discussion about allowing more shelters and sanctioned camps in the city, Houck prepared and distributed a presentation with photos of damaged natural areas throughout the region. It was intended to show why camping should not be allowed in open spaces within the city, including natural areas managed by the parks bureau.

"I want to emphasize that my putting this together is NOT to demonize or cast aspersions on those who have the misfortune to resort to camping in natural areas and parks, but to point out to those who say it's only a litter/trash problem that it's far more an issue of environmental degradation," Houck said in an email with the presentation to the Portland Tribune.

In the presentation, Houck listed serious problems caused by unsanctioned camping in natural areas beyond litter. They include habitat destruction, soil compaction, water pollution, wildlife harassment, wildfire danger, threats to public safety, and millions of dollars of restoration undone — with some areas that may never recover. Houck, who is in ongoing contact with the affected agencies, said the damage is of great concern to Metro, the parks bureau and the Johnson Creek Watershed Council.

The presentation included 27 photos of natural areas damaged by unsanctioned camping within the region. Several were taken along Johnson Creek, with one showing an unauthorized dam blocking the waterway constructed out of trash and fire damage caused by an exploded propane tank. Environmental damage was also shown in Beggars Tick Marsh, Gales Creek, Newell Creek Canyon, the Willamette Cove along the Willamette Greenway, and the Alice Springs, Big Four Corners and Oak Knoll restoration sites in the Columbia Slough.

Newberry confirms the damage his organization's staff and volunteers are seeing is significant, and that most if it is occurring on publicly owned property. But he said the problem cannot be solved until governments work together to end the homeless crisis.

"Our natural areas, especially along Johnson Creek, are currently safer than many other temporary housing alternatives," Newberry said. "This camping causes significant environmental problems, such as cutting and trampling trees our volunteers and paid crews have planted. Garbage and human waste from camps also ends up in the stream. Significant public and private investment in natural areas is being compromised. Until municipal, state, and federal governments can solve this housing crisis, however, we don't think there will be much change in this environmental crisis."

The commission voted on Jan. 26 to allow temporary shelters for up to 180 days a year in open spaces, including natural areas. The City Council could consider all recommendations as soon as this month.

A related Portland Tribune story can be found here.

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