The National Association for Olmsted Parks is entering the fray to oppose new mountain biking trails in Forest Park, joining local environmental groups such as the Coalition to Protect Forest Park.
The foundation is named after Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and his sons, who worked to preserve landscapes across the country, and designed Central Park in New York and The Emerald Necklace in Boston, among others.
One of the sons, John Charles Olmsted, visited Portland and created the pathsetting 1903 Report to the Park Board of Portland, Oregon, and reccommended preserving the park as an urban wilderness. Forest Park officially was created in 1948, thanks to the Olmsteds.
Eliza Davidson, a member of the advocacy group's board of directors since 2006 and author of a letter being sent to the city of Portland, says the philosophy behind the Olmsteds' work has continued for generations.
The foundation's letter to the city references the intention of the Olmsteds to preserve Forest Park for future generations, and explains the park's importance to the city's inhabitants. The letter argues that allowing mountain biking changes the purpose of the park, and clashes with what the Olmsteds hoped to preserve. The organization praises Forest Park as being the largest urban wildland park in the country and its close proximity to the city's residents.
"Portland's Forest Park may be the only city park in the country that has as a goal, set by law, to retain what the Olmsted Brothers originally envisioned for it to be: a natural sanctuary — a place for mental and spiritual renewal and refreshment," the letter states.
Proximity to the urban environment is a unique feature of Forest Park and aligns with a management goal for the park that became land-use law in 1995. Those who oppose more mountain biking in the park are using components of that law to back their argument.
Goal three of the management plan is titled "Provide for Quiet, Reflective, Spiritual Experiences."
It goes on to state: "Citizens need opportunities to escape the urban environment. Forest Park should offer places of solitude ... places providing park users with the feeling that they are alone and that they have entered an environment that is dominated by nature. These places should be reliably free from disturbance and conflicting uses should not be encouraged."
Marcy Houle, author of "One City's Wilderness," a book about the 5,200-acre Forest Park, says more studies on how mountain biking would affect the land are needed before trails should be added.
"I was in contact with national scientists about Forest Park, and it made me realize this place is incredibly special," Houle said. It's important to understand the carrying capacity of the land and what sorts of activities different areas of the park can handle, she said.
"The purpose of Forest Park was to make sure people had access to a place that was quiet and they could recharge in nature, in peace," said Davidson, who has a background as an arborist and in urban forestry. She stressed the importance of the continuity of purpose, and also is concerned about the environmental impacts, as well as safety of park-goers.
Jonathan Maus, who runs a popular bike blog called BikePortland, says folks are making the assumption that riding a bike can't be peaceful.
"They don't understand there are many young and old people who just want to pedal through the park in a tranquil matter," Maus said. Maus has written about mountain biking in Forest Park on his blog, and sees this as a culture war more than an environmental one.
"I find it tremendously hypocritical to say biking is damaging while they're driving cars to the park," Maus said. He says many people who want to use Forest Park for biking likely would ride to the park, instead of drive, which would benefit the environment. He attributes pushback to biking in Forest Park to the rich and powerful who live near the park and don't want things to change.
"They're happy the way it is," Maus said. "They don't want to sacrifice their happiness for anyone else's."
According to Maus, people opposed to more biking in the park think of mountain bikers as adrenaline junkies, wearing masks and speeding down trails at 50 miles per hour. He wants people to see that as an inaccurate view of bike culture.
Still, Davidson is worried about park-goers who may not be expecting a run-in with a biker. The seventh management goal for Forest Park is to promote user safety, and goal six is to minimize user conflict. Davidson and Houle both think allowing mountain bikes on more trails will create trouble for older or disabled park-goers.
"There may be a senior out for a walk with a hiking group that comes into direct contact with a mountain biker. Maybe they get hurt or maybe it just scared away the birds they were looking at," Davidson said.
"I think if people ride really fast, that's not necessarily the right use of the land," Maus said. "You do want to be a good steward and a nice considerate person. We have to make sure people use facilities in the right way, but they want to single out the bad actors and say it's not any other way."
Maus envisions a bigger discussion about biking in Forest Park, and thinks it should be allowed in areas of the park on a case-by-case basis. Some trails, he said, could be uphill only to allow bikers easy access into the park and to lower speeds. He also says building new biking trails would be essential and that they could be built sustainably.
Currently, mountain bikers can use wide, unpaved fire roads in Forest Park. But Maus says only a few are rideable by the average biker, as some are extremely steep.
Bikers of all levels also pedal the 11.3-mile Leif Erikson Drive, which is less challenging for mountain bikers.
Soil issue at park
Portland State University professor Scott Burns says many hikers are concerned about bikes coming around corners too quickly, but there also are scientific issues to consider.
Forest Park has a special kind of soil more prone to erosion than other places. The West Hills have about 150 feet of Cascade silt loam soil, which Burns says is highly erodible. It's less ideal for biking or hiking, and erosion is worse when the soil is wet.
"Silt is a particle bigger than clay and smaller than sand," said Burns, who specializes in soil. "Like dust, it's easily eroded away; the particles don't hold together."
When Cascade silt loam soil erodes, it can lead to landslides. Burns said there's a new way to map areas more susceptible to landslides in Multnomah County, which could be used to determine which trails could allow biking and which shouldn't.
Making trails in a way that minimizes harm to the environment is possible, Burns said. Up-and-down trails lead to more erosion, with tires slipping as they pedal up slopes and digging into the ground as they brake. Erosion also can cause more sediment to get into the streams, which Burns says can negatively impact wildlife. Instead, he says trails that follow the contour on the sides of the slopes are generally better. Burns said erosion happens from normal hiking, too, but biking increases the rate at which it occurs.
Davidson describes Forest Park as "democracy embodied." By that, she means that those who came before us worked hard and paid a lot of money to create a park system for the people. She thinks folks need to look at changing Forest Park with the future in mind, and also remember the intent of the park's creators.
"I think it's very important to take the long view and to appreciate how invaluable the open space resources are that were set aside for us by our forebearers," Davidson said, "and not to take lightly that trust that has been given to us in short-term thinking and single-interest thinking."
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