The Metro regional government - thanks to the foresight of voters and taxpayers - has been able in the past 16 years to buy some beautiful pieces of land, including hilltop parcels right here in Gresham. Now, Metro needs to figure out how to make these natural assets more accessible to the public that paid for their purchase.

All told, Metro has acquired 12,000 acres of open space in Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties since 1995, when voters first authorized the regional government to begin buying land for preservation. These properties include forested hills - such as the Gresham Buttes - and sensitive wetlands. They hold the potential for hiking, biking and other forms of active and passive recreation.

Yet, many of these natural treasures, including the Gresham holdings, remain locked away from full public access. That's because Metro was given the funding to purchase this vast inventory of land, but not to develop it or manage it over time.

Metro President Tom Hughes and others are discussing how these properties can be maintained and opened up for public use. One motivation is obvious: If citizens own something, they'd probably like the chance to use it. But there are economic reasons, as well, to continue this expansion of the region's park system. Communities that invest in their parks also do better at attracting new businesses and industries. Quality of life is improved and home values increase along the way.

So, we agree with Hughes that the region eventually must do something to enhance these natural treasures. The only questions involve scope and timing. Metro officials had been talking about a relatively bold idea of creating a regional park district - a concept that would have required action by the Oregon Legislature. But mayors of cities within Metro's boundaries objected, arguing that the regional government shouldn't compete with other jurisdictions for limited dollars.

Without broad support from mayors, the regional parks district proposal is off the table. That leaves Metro with the more modest approach of someday asking taxpayers for a small amount of money - say, $10 or less per homeowner per year - to begin opening up these spaces with trails, parking areas and restrooms.

We also prefer this minimalist route, and not just because it asks little of taxpayers. If Metro can raise a limited amount of money to invest in park development, these funds will in turn stimulate interest from volunteers, nonprofit groups, local park districts and foundations. The Cooper Mountain Nature Park on the southern edge of Beaverton offers an excellent example of how such partnerships can work. Metro bought the land with its voter-approved bond money, but the park's ultimate development was made possible through multiple sources, including Metro, the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District and volunteer groups.

We believe all residents of the tri-county area have a similar interest in preserving and taking full advantage of the natural areas that have been set aside. They have shown this by approving two bond measures allowing Metro to buy the 12,000 acres it has acquired so far. When the time is right - meaning when the economy shows further improvement - metro-area voters would likely look favorably at the idea of spending a small amount of money to make parks accessible and to create partnerships that maintain these valuable lands in perpetuity.

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