Local conservationist 'deeply appalled' at habitat destruction
by: ELLEN SPITALERI Northwest Youth Corps workers recently helped mitigate damage done by an illegal bicycle race course in the Three-Creeks Natural Area near Clackamas Town Center.

A bowl-shaped BMX race course creates an alien environment, set down in a verdant woody area on the banks of Mt. Scott Creek, overlooked by towering white oak trees, some of them 200 years old.

The illegal course was carved out of nearly two acres of earth in the Three-Creeks Natural Area behind the North Clackamas Aquatic Center, near the junction of Harmony Road and Southeast 82nd Avenue in Milwaukie. The 89-acre site is owned by Clackamas County.

This is no amateur course; it is constructed from compacted dirt, reinforced by rebar. Sculpted half-pipes, similar to those on skateboard courses, arch around the bowl, and trails, some with man-made corrugated bumps, snake through the trees.

Native plants by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been pulled out, and large tree roots protrude from the tamped-down dirt. The damage wrought here by a group intent on setting up an illegal BMX course will have devastating effects on the water quality all the way from Three-Creeks to the Willamette River, said Steve Berliner, director of the Friends of Kellogg and Mt. Scott Creeks Watershed, a nonprofit, all-volunteer stewardship and advocacy group.

'Any type of loss of vegetative cover and mechanical soil disturbance, such as clearing and compacting, will have direct impacts on water quality and quantity all the way downstream, resulting in greater flooding of properties and erosion to the banks of other properties," he said. "There will be more suspended soils in the water, which deprives fish and numerous aquatic organisms of their normal requirement of dissolved oxygen,' he added.

Berliner estimates that it will take from two to five years to replace the habitat loss with equally functional native vegetation, and if any of the standing large trees die because of the soil compaction or altered water flow, replacement time goes up to 20 to 30 years or more.

'In the meantime, the water-quality issue cannot be fixed. The damage is done and is long-lasting,' he noted.

Volunteer group

Berliner is also a longtime member of the Tsunami Crew, a volunteer conservation group that has been working to restore habitat to the Three-Creeks Natural Area for more than 10 years.

He described himself as 'deeply appalled at this senseless loss of native ecosystem,' and added that the Tsunami Crew has replanted nearly 21,000 native plants on the site. He said that the plants have to be purchased with taxpayer funds, and it is not a 'quick fix' when an area is obliterated of native plants.

'The recent BMX track building has destroyed some of the most pristine wetland forest at the Three-Creeks Natural Area. The three streams are still home to Coho salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout. We are doing everything we can to improve those fish runs and their necessary habitat. I know that the surrounding community is overwhelmingly supportive of the wildlife in this watershed and the recent destructive activities further degrade this essential wetland,' said Chris Runyard, founder of the Tsunami Crew.

He added, 'It is sad to see this destruction in a place that is so special to all of the crew. After 10 years of weekly work parties we have taken a bit of a break this summer. While we have held a few work parties, most of our trees are growing well and need less support. There is a management vacuum at Three-Creeks right now. Since we aren't there as much, the campers took over and did whatever they felt like. The county needs to allow their natural resource managers to manage Three-Creeks as they do Mt. Talbert or any other sensitive wetland or forestland in the district.'

Deputies patrol

Clackamas County Sheriff's Department deputies do regularly patrol the site, but Sgt. Ed Mura, patrol supervisor, noted that usually illegal activity takes place on the north side of the creek, not on the south side, where the BMX site was discovered.

It was a surprise to him to discover the trails, and he intends to pursue the people who 'destroyed this land in an intentional act,' he said.

He encourages anyone who has information about the site to call the sheriff's department or go online and file a tip on the tip line.

Those who built the BMX trails could be charged with felonies for criminal mischief; they could also be charged with misdemeanors, including offensive littering and criminal trespass. For the felony charge, bail could be set at $15,000 and the misdemeanor charges could result in a sentence of six months in jail and/or a fine, Mura said.

Although fines and possible jail sentences may slow down illegal activity, Berliner thinks the real solution lies in education.

'This destructive incident shows why increased public awareness about ecosystem functions and values are so important. At least if active-sports recreators are going to build their favorite facilities in public natural areas 'under the radar,' they should know the extent of the destruction they could cause. It's my nature to be optimistic, and think that most of them would not do so if they understood the negative impacts to water quality and to wildlife,' he said, adding that the watershed council offers many community and education outreach programs.

No legal BMX sites

The term BMX stands for bicycle motocross, said Tom Archer, president and advocacy director for the Northwest Trails Alliance, an advocacy group for mountain biking. BMX is a form of racing that takes place on a formal track, similar to a skateboard course.

Although he deplores the kind of activity at Three-Creeks, he does note that there are no legal facilities in the Portland area for BMXers to pursue their sport; the closest is in Salem.

He and his group have been working with land managers, area parks bureaus, the Forest Park Conservancy and other groups to try to build sanctioned facilities to meet the needs of BMXers, along with other off-road bikers.

Right now two sites are under construction and when finished will provide opportunities for dirt bikers, he said.

The first is the Gateway Green PDX project, a 35-acre swath of land between I-84 and I-205 in the Gateway area.

And the second is a renovated dirt bike course at Eichler Park, located at 13710 S.W. Farmington Road in Beaverton, which will formally open in September, Archer said.

But these are dirt bike courses, not BMX racing courses, and putting together legal sites takes time, energy and money, so some riders prefer to make their own sites, rather than wait for a parks bureau to find a space for them.

'That is part of the allure, part of the culture, being off the radar - they don't want to be part of an organized venue,' Archer said.

Restoration work

The county was notified about two months ago that something was afoot at Three-Creeks, said Tonia Burns, natural resources coordinator for North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District.

At first it looked like the BMX trails might have just covered a small area, 'then we got to this site, and our mouths just dropped. This is way bigger than we ever thought it could be, with huge dirt ramps sculpted out of dirt.'

Although Three Creeks is county owned, it is not an official park, and Burns said the county is still working through a final land-management plan. She would like to see a cooperative venture put together so that the county Water Environmental Services department and NCPR can work as partners to oversee the site.

'I have high hopes we can establish a trail system through Three-Creeks, and then through education and ownership, people could be watchdogs for their own park,' she said.

For now, however, the county is beginning remediation efforts at the damaged site. On Aug. 10, a work crew from the Northwest Youth Corps came to Three-Creeks to begin rehabilitation work.

The NYC is a Eugene-based organization that teaches trail building and maintenance skills to teens, and Burns said the group was ideal, because they know about restoration techniques.

When corps member Joey Acker, 18, initially saw the illegal BMX course, his first thought was that it was 'artfully crafted - this has taken quite some time and they had to have blueprints' in order to construct it.

John Bergman, 19, his teammate, said the course was 'very impressive, but this is the wrong area for it, because it is illegal.'

Both young men were wielding pickaxes, trying to level out the compacted dirt, especially near Mt. Scott Creek; once the ground is flattened, then replanting of native species can begin.

Teammate Jake Kuper, 18, added that the damage is especially a problem near the stream, because it is taking away shade, and ruining potential salmon habitat.

Burns agreed that it was especially unfortunate to build the BMX course so close to Mt. Scott Creek, because of erosion potential and water-quality and sediment issues, but she added, the large open trails leading up to the BMX bowl provide a corridor for weeds.

'That is our biggest problem at the site, controlling weeds. This has created more threats to a habitat that already needed tons of help.'

In addition, campers have set up a tent village next to the BMX course, complete with a metal smoker, fire pit, outdoor seating and other accoutrements.

'We already have problems with the creeks with normal urban issues, and now we have trash and human waste - both bad for the health of the creeks,' Burns said.

Anybody with information about the BMX site is encouraged to contact the Clackamas County Sheriff's Department at 503-655-8218. To report criminal activity, call the Tip Line at 503-723-4949, or visit .

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