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Lowami plan doesnt support public call for preservation

I am a long-term, frequent user of Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District sports facilities. I think THPRD does a good job of managing sports facilities. However, management of natural areas is a different story.

THPRD has not kept pace with newer science and perspectives on publicly owned greenspace. The district seems locked into a way of viewing greenspace that was more commonplace when the district was formed in 1957: Liberal use of asphalt to provide cheap, low-maintenance trails, little concern about environmental impacts of pavement, and no consideration of alternative trail surfaces. More forward-thinking park departments in several parts of the country have begun removing asphalt from trails in response to rate-payer requests. They have found the public actually prefers the resulting natural areas. Not so THPRD. They are determined to increase the amount of asphalt in natural areas.

The Aug. 8 THPRD Board of Directors meeting is a case in point. The board voted on a trail expansion plan for Lowami Hart Woods Natural Area. Lowami Hart Woods, a beautiful site of about 26 acres, was brought into public ownership through the efforts of dedicated individuals in Friends of Beaverton's Johnson Creek, West Beaverton NAC, former campers and counselors at Lowami, Metro Greenspaces staff, Trust for Public Lands and others. Although the site still shows the impacts of human habitation, it has remarkably rich plant communities, varied terrain, year-round stream and wildlife habitat - sufficient richness to become a smaller version of Tryon Creek or Forest Park. The THPRD Board rejected this possibility out of hand, instead treating Lowami like a sport court or play park.

THPRD is spending some $1.2 million of public funds to construct about 1/3 mile of trail through Lowami Hart Woods Natural Area. In preparation for the 2008 bond measure, THPRD commissioned two polls to find out what residents thought the district should spend potential bond funds on. The top three items in both polls were: preservation of water quality, natural areas and wildlife habitat. These results were representative of the entire district, not some special-interest group.

You might expect the board to implement the residents' wishes in the bond projects. Not so. During deliberations, the board made it abundantly clear that they care little for 'nature' and even less for the wishes of their 'nature-loving' constituents. Water quality and wildlife habitat were never mentioned as considerations. The board seemed to take pride in ignoring calls for a lighter touch in Lowami, laughing about increasing the amount of asphalt on trails and parking areas. Board members dismissed calls by the public to use permeable trail and parking surfaces and instead increased the amount of asphalt by more than 25 percent over the staff plan. The resulting main trail is now wider than the main trail at Tualatin Hills Nature Park, which has over 100 times the visitors.

THPRD has sites that function well without asphalt. Nearby Hyland Forest Park has narrow bark chip trails, and Cooper Mountain Regional Park has gravel trails. Both of these sites successfully handle large numbers of visitors. Such counter-examples did not deter the board: They proceeded with their save-it-with-asphalt plan.

Unfortunately, the Lowami trail expansion is only the beginning. The district plans to extend that trail through wetlands north and south of Lowami as part of a larger trail called South Johnson Creek Trail. No needs analysis, feasibility studies, cost estimates or environmental impact studies have been done for SJCT. The district just assumes the public will pay untold millions to route SJCT through wetlands and riparian areas. Something is fundamentally wrong when THPRD uses a costly and questionable trail as its primary justification for the Lowami Master Plan without at least examining the need, feasibility, cost and impacts of the 'parent' trail. Furthermore, there is a certain arrogance in assuming the public will pay millions for this ill-considered scheme. Apparently economic hardship is not an issue at THPRD.

THPRD has greater responsibilities than just managing sports facilities. As the largest taxpayer-supported manager of public land in eastern Washington County, THPRD is charged by Metro with preserving natural area and wildlife habitat. The public supports this effort, but THPRD is disinterested. The board's willingness to ignore consistent, well-reasoned calls for lighter development from large numbers of constituents suggests an underlying perspective that has no room for the concept of true natural areas. Although board and staff repeatedly say that the district is doing better at managing natural areas, there is no clear indication that anyone at the district has the slightest inclination to change practices that have been ingrained for years. Meanwhile, 'nature' takes a beating, and the public is poorer for it.

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Mark Hereim is a Sexton Mountain resident and president of Friends of Beaverton's Johnson Creek.)