Access Action: Portland, we still have a problem

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Editor’s note: We will be updating this post at the bottom as news develops.

Photos by Adam Newman

Portland, Oregon, has a reputation as a progressive and welcoming city for cyclists. It has one of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the country and it supports a huge road and cyclocross race scene. In 2008 it was the first large city awarded Platinum status by the League of American Bicyclists.

In contrast, mountain bikes are largely outsiders in the Portland cycling scene. While other cities in Oregon like Bend, Hood River and Oakridge have embraced mountain biking, the nearest trails are at least an hour drive from Portland. The city has dangled promises of working together in front of riders for more than a decade only to snatch them away at the last moment.

In Issue #158 (August 2011) Dirt Rag featured the frustration of Portland mountain bikers in an Access Action piece (Portland, We Have a Problem). Since that story was published, sadly not much has changed in Portland.

The city did build a pump track at Ventura Park—largely thanks to the generosity of bicycle accessories brand Portland Design Works—but it could only be described as modest. A 35-acre piece of property known as Gateway Green is being considered for off-road cycling development, but its future is far from certain.

Nevertheless, spirits were riding high in late 2014 when more than 200 mountain bikers packed a public meeting to voice their input in the future of a 1,300-acre property that borders Forest Park. Optimism for mountain biking in the city further swelled as Portland Parks and Recreation requested $350,000 in its budget for a comprehensive off-road cycling master plan and the Northwest Trail Alliance collected more than 2,500 signatures on a petition delivered in person to a Portland Parks budget dialogue meeting.

It seemed 2015 would finally be the year that mountain biking came to Portland. Then on March 2, the bubble burst.

One of the few places within the city’s 133 square miles where cyclists can get their tires dirty was River View Natural Area, a 146-acre tract of undeveloped hillside that had been used by mountain bikers for years before the city purchased it from a nearby cemetery in 2011. The trails there are hardly epic, but they represent one of the only places in the city with trails open to bicycles that aren’t doubletrack or wishfully re-labeled stroller paths.

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Since 2011 cyclists worked hard within the bureaucracy of the city planning system to promote cycling in the park where it was still being allowed. The Northwest Trail Alliance organized trail work days, trash pickup and other events. The group even had a seat at the table on a project advisory committee, working with a technical advisory committee, a consultant team, and Portland Parks and Recreation to craft a future for the park that included mountain biking.

What they didn’t see coming was a letter from Portland City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish announcing plans to alter the recreation policy for the property. In fact, NWTA members were in a meeting with Commissioner Fish’s staff when the letter was released to the public.

“Exercising an abundance of caution and to protect the city’s investment in the River View Natural Area [the city] will be limiting activities at RVNA from now on to passive nature-based recreational uses,” the letter reads. “Mountain biking will no longer be an allowed use at RVNA as of March 16th.”

The reason given?

“Seven undeveloped streams flow through the property to the Willamette River. These tributaries and their forested buffers support critical habitat for coastal steelhead, coho, and Chinook salmon in the lower Willamette, all designated as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.”

Environmental concerns are easily and often cited as cause to do (or not do) just about anything in Portland, but cycling had long been discussed as a legitimate recreation opportunity in River View.

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Professional mountain biker Charlie Sponsel has led the charge against the decision to close the River View Natural Area to mountain bikes.

In fact, the actual dangers to the streams and wetlands that support fish populations in the nearby Willamette River were identified at a January 14, 2014, meeting by the River View Management Plan Technical Advisory Committee as: 1.) Dogs on and off-leash; 2.) Off-trail use by cyclists and pedestrians; 3.) Illegal camping/party spots that create wildfire risk; 4.) Climate change.

Present at the meeting was professional mountain biker Charlie Sponsel. There were no promises made in regards to mountain biking, but “it was absolutely made clear that their goal” was to make a decision through the use of “a democratic, citizen process,” Sponsel told the Oregonian. Dogs are still permitted at River View Natural Area.

So despite the growing chorus of voices of citizens asking for more (or any) off-road cycling opportunities in the city, their voices may be falling on deaf ears. I reached out to Commissioner Fritz’s office multiple times for comment but did not receive a reply. She recently announced she will be running for reelection in 2016. No incumbent member of the Portland City Council has lost an election since 1992.

The investment the Commissioners cite in their letter stems from the controversy surrounding the city’s acquisition of the property in 2011. Funds to buy the land from a nearby cemetery—more than half of its $11.25 million price—were from city utility customers’ stormwater fees. The city justified the taxpayers’ purchase of the land by citing the environmental resources the property offers, but a state review agency found those claims largely unfounded. In 2013 a group of ratepayer plaintiffs sued the city after the Oregon Watershed Review Board found that the city’s claims “significantly overstated the project’s ecological merits,” according to court documents.

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As the Oregonian pointed out in an editorial scolding the city council for the bait-and-switch, allowing active recreation on the site would be in opposition to its justification for the purchase, and could potentially open the city to more lawsuits.

I reached out to Commissioner Fish for comment on the lawsuit and got a reply from Jim Blackwood, a policy director in Fish’s office.

“The City Attorney advised BES and Parks that the utmost caution must be taken to preserve the natural area status to stay within the bounds of the court’s decision,” Blackwood said.

In statements made after the March 2 letter Fritz has said that the ban on mountain biking at River View isn’t permanent, and points to the $350,000 off-road cycling master plan as a sign of the city working for its constituents. But in that very letter Fritz and Fish point out that the budget request is only that—a request—and states “community advocacy will be necessary to encourage the Mayor and Council to fund this request.”

So will the master plan be included in the budget? I asked Commissioner Fish’s office the chances of an off-road cycling master plan happening at all.

“We are optimistic about the budget ask,” Blackwood said. However the City Budget Office isn’t so optimistic, and recommended against funding the study.

“The cycling community has expressed strong interest in expanding off‐road cycling options,” the recommendation reads (Page 22). “However, the current focus of the bureau’s current capital plan reflects its most pressing needs: maintaining assets and expanding access to underserved resident.  Because this project is not included in capital plans and the bureau has other, higher priority capital needs, CBO does not recommend funding this project.”

Portland needs to address the discontent of mountain bikers in the city, but it is unlikely to pacify their request to reopen River View. In the Parks and Recreation budget request it states “This package would fund a joint effort with Metro to identify several sites, possibly within and outside of Portland, in which to build sustainable trails, access points, and facilities for off-road cycling that would not negatively impact natural resources.”

Given the city’s strict adherence to environmental concerns at the property it is unlikely that the decision to ban mountain bikes from River View could ever be reversed.

Portland loves a good protest, and in online forums and in discussions I’ve had with others, there is a growing sentiment among some mountain bikers that they are tired of working within the system. Ideas ranging from simply ignoring the ban on bikes to organized Critical Mass-style mountain bike rides have been floated.

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Riders gathered at the River View trails on the first day of the protest, but did not ride on the trails due to recent rains.

In fact, Sponsel organized a protest ride on March 16, the first day of the ban. An estimated 300 mountain bikers and supporters came to the event which was scheduled to ride the trails in defiance of the ban. At the last minute the plans were changed, as heavy rains softened the trails and the riders wanted to show they could be good stewards of the property by not using it when it was vulnerable. A ride around the circumference of the park was enough to draw TV news crews and photographers.

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More than 300 mountain bikers joined the protest ride.

Many have said they have no intention of heeding the ban at the River View Natural Area. Erik Tonkin, a long-time staple of the Portland mountain bike scene and owner of Sellwood Cycles, a well-known bike shop just across the Willamette River from the trails, wrote on his blog that he will continue to ride there, just as he has for more than two decades.

“The cemetery trails offer me sense of place,” he wrote. “I’ve lived and worked near to them ever since–without interruption, and by intention. The place made me the athlete I am.”

Video

This is a great video by Cory Tepper summarizing the issue at hand.

Updates

March 18, 2015: There have been rumblings within the Portland mountain bike community that the city’s Platinum status as a Bicycle Friendly Community should be reconsidered. I reached out to the League of American Bicyclists, for a comment:

“Yes, we do take off-road cycling opportunities into account when making the award decision,” said Nicole Wynands, the Bicycle Friendly Community program manager. “We also reach out to local mountain biking organizations and advocates, as well as IMBA for input before we are making an award decision. We actually received a good amount of feedback from mountain biking advocates when we reviewed Portland’s last application, and included a specific recommendation in regards to mountain biking in their feedback report.”

Many riders feel a reconsideration should happen immediately, and Wynands said communities have been downgraded before, but only through the standard renewal process. Bicycle Friendly Community awards are valid for four years, and the League has never changed a community’s status while its reward was still current. Portland’s Platinum status was last renewed in 2013.

Wynands said the League is crafting a joint letter with People For Bikes and IMBA to the Portland city government. We will update this post with its content when it is available.

March 19, 2015: Today key leaders in the bicycle advocacy movement sent an open letter to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and the City Council (PDF) admonishing the city for its handling of the River View Natural Area situation. It is signed by Michael Van Abel, president and US executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association; Jenn Dice, vice president government affairs at People for Bikes; and Andy Clark, the president of the League of American Bicyclists.

It reads, in part:

We know that sometimes other priorities for funding or even land use take precedence and bicycles are not given priority. We can generally accept those decisions. However, when those decisions are made in an arbitrary and capricious manner that cuts off due process, we must object.

We request that Portland Parks and Recreation, Bureau of Environmental Services, and any other city agency that administers public lands collaborate with the North West Trails Alliance and other local off-road bicycling advocates to develop a strategy to address the shortage of off-road bicycling opportunities in the city of Portland. We look forward to Portland living up to its status as a progressive thought leading city that embraces bicycling in all forms.

Unfortunately it also contains an error, stating that the funding for the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan has been denied. While the City Budget Office has recommended against funding the study (and against funding the Gateway Green project), it’s not dead just yet.

“The CBO recommendations … provide a starting framework for Mayor and Council deliberations on the budget,” said Andrew Scott, the director of Portland’s City Budget Office. “But there is still important information that will become available during the public budget hearings, Council budget work sessions, and further discussions with bureau management and our labor partners.”

“I think it’s safe to say that the Mayor and Council find the CBO reviews valuable in terms of setting a framework for the budget, but they make their own decisions about each individual funding request as it moves through the process.”

The next opportunity for mountain bikers to lobby for funding the study and the Gateway Green project directly to Commissioners is at the community budget forum scheduled for April 16 at the Floyd Light Middle School cafeteria at 6:30 p.m. Because the chance to speak is determined by a lottery system, the more mountain bike supporters are present, the larger the chance for their voice to be heard.

March 24, 2015: The Northwest Trail Alliance has informed its members that it has taken the first steps of legal action against the city of Portland for its decision to close the River View Natural Area to bikes. In an open letter, the group said it has filed a Notice of Intent to Appeal with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, citing the lack of public transparency in the decision.

“We do not take this action lightly,” the letter reads. “We would much rather work in partnership with the City to resolve the issue. However, the gravity of this decision, the lack of justification, and the lack of answers has lead the board to take legal action. We simply cannot stand idle.”

However, despite the growing chorus of those supporting civil disobedience, the NWTA doesn’t support such action: “We encourage our members and supporters to continue to make their voices heard in an appropriate fashion. At the same time, we cannot condone and strongly discourage any acts which defy current regulations related to trail access. As frustrating as it has been, we are committed to working within the system.”

According to BikePortland.org, the city has 21 days to turn over records used to reach its decision. Then there are several weeks of back and forth before the Land Use Board of Appeals renders its decision. It can uphold the decision, reverse it (if a law has been broken or jurisdiction has been overreached) or send it back to the city to reconsider, essentially putting all the pieces back where they were before. It could be mid-June before that decision is made.

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