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COURTESY OF AARON HAUTULA  - A father and son bike at Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails in Minnesota, a world-class singletrack system in Minnsota. Portland mountain bike advocates lament their lack of access to trails here, considering the abundance of green space.Portland is famous for a lot of things — food, beer, parks and bikes among them.


The city is laden with oodles of “best of” awards in each category, driving masses of people to move here, work here and play here.

But now one of those bragging rights is being called into question — twice in the past few weeks.

A bicycling advocate on Monday launched a petition to strip Portland of its bike-friendly ‘Platinum’ status, awarded by the League of American Bicyclists in 2009 and renewed in 2013.

“It seems like the ranking is out of line with reality,” says Will Vanlue, a Southeast Portland cycling activist and former spokesman for the nonprofit Bicycle Transportation Alliance who posted the petition on www.Change.org.

Vanlue’s petition — which collected more than 300 signatures in the first day — comes on the heels of a similar request to downgrade Portland’s ‘Platinum’ status due to the recent mountain biking controversy, which has made national headlines in the past month.

In other words, it’s been a bad month for bicyclists in the city of Portland — and no matter your opinion about bikes, advocates say this flashpoint is a wakeup call for everyone.

“Bicycling has become more mainstream, and people see it as an indicator for a high quality of life and an attractive place to live and locate a business,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Why all the fuss over bikes all of a sudden, and why should anyone care, outside of cyclists?

Lots of reasons. The infrastructure and politics of cycling and mountain biking in Portland is everyone’s business for four major reasons: Public money, public process, public reputation and public statement of values by city leaders.

A quick recap of the drama:

On March 2, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish issued a memo banning mountain biking at River View Natural Area, which has been one of the last bastions for dirt “singletrack” trails in the city.

The memo came after mountain bikers and others had been involved in a Technical Advisory Committee to create a plan for the park in a way that balanced recreation with resource protection.

The announcement sparked a protest ride through River View that drew 300 riders wearing “Portland hates mountain bikers.” It also prompted a letter by the League of American Bicyclists and two other groups to city leaders calling for a downgrade in their Platinum status.

“Cutting a public process short dishonors those citizens who have volunteered their time to their community,” read the group’s letter. “It undermines the professional input of the technical advisory committee. Most of all, it disregards the spirit of due process that we expect of government at all levels.”

Bikers enjoyed the terrain at River View for decades until summer 2011, when the city, Metro and the Trust for Public Land acquired the 146 acres for $11.25 million.

The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services kicked in $6 million, with Parks at $2.5 million and Metro at $2 million.

The mandate was to protect the area from development and remove invasives and restore native plants, to be managed as a natural area by Parks, according to Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s statement at the time.

Yet meeting minutes show that the Technical Advisory Committee considered mountain biking to be part of the plan. Mountain bikers held work parties to clean up and restore the trails.

At their first meeting in April 2014 the committee noted a desire to “Use Best Management Practices (BMPs) to construct trails that are sustainable and minimize impacts to natural resources,” according to minutes procured by BikePortland editor Jonathan Maus.

At their last meeting in June 2014, it appears they were moving forward with a plan for trail design.

“The draft Habitat and Trail plan strikes a good balance of providing recreation that is compatible with ecological values of the site,” said the meeting minutes.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JON HOUSE  - Forest Park resident Les Blaize frequently refers to the 240-page 1995 Forest Park Natural Resources Plan, which notes the need to balance natural resource protection and enhancement with appropriate recreational use and educational opportunities. Fish and Fritz’s memo said they exercised “an abundance of caution” to protect the city’s investment in the natural area, including the endangered fish that swim in the seven streams flowing into the Willamette River. They said the ban isn’t permanent, and proposed creating a new Citywide Mountain Biking Plan.

But cyclists are cynical about another process. They say it’s the city’s job to provide public recreation opportunities for all users at River View and Forest Park.

“The real issue is public access,” Maus says. “They have no idea what’s going on with trail running, off-leash dogs, climate change and invasives,” which were identified as the top threats to River View.

From his perspective, what’s happened is a “general bias and misunderstanding about mountain biking. They end up singling that out and making the biking piece jump through hoops, do a purity test, do all these trials and tribulations before they bless it. It’s not based in anything.”

A few weeks after River View protest ride, bikers also took part in a “Forest Park Freedom Ride,” to hearken back to their original fight.

Four years ago, mountain bikers joined other stakeholders on a Forest Park Single Track Advisory Committee that met and produced a report in July 2010. It noted majority support for “Improvements and construction of single track trails in utility corridors that would create additional loops and access from Highway 30 to Leif Erikson Rd.”

On paper, there are about 30 miles of mountain biking trails in Forest Park. However, all but about a third of a mile are on wide gravel roads. There’s about a third of a mile of singletrack.

To widespread concerns about mountain bikers knocking hikers and walkers off the path as they travel down in high speeds, advocates say Forest Park could and should adopt any of a number of sustainable trail design strategies used in other communities, such as alternating days with hikers, separate trails and designs for shared use.

In response to the committee’s report in 2010, Fish wrote that “Forest Park is not ready for expanded access,” without detailing reasons why.


PROTECTING THE PARKS

Les Blaize, a Forest Park neighborhood leader who served on that committee, calls the Forest Park process “a year and a half of torture.”

He and another committee member produced a minority report, which did not support singletrack in Forest Park at all.

Having lived there for 40 years, he’s tasked himself with one job: Protect the park’s natural areas.

“It’s not about hikers. It's not about bikers. It's not about runners. It's not about ADA. It's not about equestrians. It's about the park," Blaize says. “It's about the health of the park.”

Mountain bikers are just one user group, he says. But what happens when other user groups also seek to gain and expand access to the park, like equestrians, zip-liners, foragers, geocachers, cyclocross, BMX riders and more?

Blaize is concerned that the city has done few baseline studies of use at the park, so it’s impossible to tell how much the park is being degraded.


CHANGE.ORG PETITION

Will Vanlue's Change.org petition filed Monday puts the spotlight on basic safety for cyclists on Portland's city streets.

He says the city has fallen short of the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Communities attributes, also known as the 5 Es: engineering, education, encouragement, evaluation and enforcement.

Specifically he cites outdated design standards, facilities for bikes that are not well maintained and deficient neighborhood greenways.

He says public campaigns are often aimed at the victims of traffic violence, not the behaviors that cause crashes and fatalities.

He says Sunday Parkways events are popular but chronically underfunded; that traffic laws are unevenly enforced; and there's been little progress on the city's Bicycle Master Plan.

Vanlue says he's had his own "few near misses and more minor collisions" of his own on the roads. But when his friend was hit by a truck while on his bike recently, that set him over the edge.

"I just hope we can start talking honestly about what's working in Portland and what's not," Vanlue says. "The people at the city do value safe streets."

To view the petition: ow.ly/LKzY2

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