My View: We need wilderness found in Forest Park
In today's world, just how important is wilderness? Does it still have value? Will we even notice its disappearance? And what will that mean for Portland?
Thoreau said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
Wallace Stegner, wrote "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed."
Remarkably, the city of Portland is the only urban area in the nation that has preserved by land-use law a park designated as "wilderness." Forest Park has held the distinction of being reserved as a wild place since its conception by John Olmsted, 114 years ago. Early founder Fred Cleator, whose work gave us the Pacific Crest Trail, wrote that Forest Park should always remain a "wilderness park for wilderness values."
For 69 years, that philosophy has remained intact — in 1995 becoming land-use law and the state's environmental code.
In 2017, however, with a swipe of a vote from City Council, that could all change.
And disturbingly, most of Portland has not heard a thing about it.
Ordinance No. 168509 protects Forest Park stating as its highest goal the preservation of the park's ecological health, flora, fauna and wilderness qualities.
Officials in Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, though, are saying that the law can be invalidated and are working to do just that.
In place of wilderness, city officials are proposing a place for "destination recreation," with plans to draw in thousands of visitors, and tourist dollars. First out the door is a proposal to allow single-track cycling in Forest Park, a sport currently prohibited by land-use law.
While there already exists 30 miles of paths for cycling in the park, management standards restrict cyclists to trails that are a minimum of 8 feet wide, not the 1-foot to 3-foot-wide trails enjoyed in the sport of single-track. For reasons including user safety, the park's extremely fragile, highly erodible soils, Portland's wet climate, and the park's curving geography (making it often impossible to see around the corner), ordinances have mandated that this activity is not appropriate for Forest Park.
These prohibitions, however, can all be easily amended, say city planners. In the next few months, an Off Road Cycling Committee will bring recommendations to the council.
It will be endorsing opening miles of pedestrian-only hiking trails in Forest Park to single-track cyclists.
If the City Council agrees to the plan currently being formulated, more will change than just the law. Forest Park as we know it today will be altered forever.
Forest Park will lose the distinction of being the only city park in the nation that puts the preservation of animals, plants and habitat before all other park uses. Further, by advancing thousands of more visitors to the park, it will lose its revered sense of quiet, safety and peace.
Most of all, though, what will disappear will be Forest Park's sense of wilderness — a quality exceedingly rare and precious in any city ... the sense that we have entered some place bigger than ourselves, that allows us to reflect on the incalculable beauty of nature, to find what is still good and noble within us.
In 1903, Olmsted made a radical statement about the proposed Forest Park, amazingly farsighted for its time. "The fundamental purpose of (Forest Park) is to shut off from the interior as completely as possible all city sights and sounds, and the resolute exclusion of many exceedingly popular means of amusement ... even at serious sacrifice of opportunities for those using them to enjoy some of the scenery. Rural parks (such as Forest Park) are intended to afford to visitors that sort of mental refreshment and enjoyment which can only be derived from the quiet contemplation of natural scenery."
But unless the city hears from all of us, future generations will never know this sense of wilderness that is Forest Park — a gift given to Portland by those who came before us. It will forget the work of generations of park supporters who created a unique place in a unique city, where wildness was valued and set apart for the benefit and replenishment of urban souls.
That hard-fought work now lies in the balance. Today, more than ever, Stegner's words ring out as a call to Americans, and especially to the citizens of Portland:
"We need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
Portland has such a place. An urban wilderness. Forest Park. As Sen. Richard Neuberger, one of Oregon's greatest senators, wrote: "Inside Portland, Oregon, there is a wilderness: Forest Park. I hope there will always be men and women in Portland determined to keep it that way."