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City tackles master plan for off-road bikes

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Stung by criticism, officials balance access, environment


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jim Berneike bikes up to the Powell Butte Nature Park in East Portland. Its one of the few places to mountain bike inside city limits. There’s an informal truce in effect between mountain bikers and Portland officials, while the city creates a master plan for expanding off-road biking opportunities in town.

But now comes the hard part: Plotting new mountain biking paths within city parks and other natural areas that don’t disturb nature — or arouse conflicts with hikers and other park users.

Mountain bikers, who are growing increasingly vocal and numerous in Portland, were enraged in 2010 when Portland Parks & Recreation decided against adding mountain biking trails in Forest Park. They grew livid on March 2, when Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish abruptly banned mountain biking in River View Natural Area, which, with seven miles of dirt trails, was the city’s best mountain biking spot.

Mountain bikers say they can’t fathom why the commissioners would pull the plug on a trail-planning process under way on the 146-acre natural area, purchased in 2011 from River View Cemetery. But Fish and Fritz’s March 2 letter may provide a clue: They announced a ban on mountain biking there until Portland completes a comprehensive master plan for off-road biking facilities in the entire city. The plan would cost $350,000 and, by the way, the letter noted, “community advocacy will be necessary to encourage the mayor and Council to fund this request.”

Voila!

In three months, a $350,000 project the Parks Bureau had previously been unable to fund got the green light. Mountain bikers initially opposed the call for a master plan, but some came around to support it.

Mayor Charlie Hales asked the Planning and Sustainability Bureau, under his direction, to take charge of the plan instead of the Parks Bureau, under Fritz’s authority.

His bureau assigned the task to Michelle Kunec-North, an avid bicyclist who does cross-country, racing, short-track and cyclocross.

Where will paths go?

The master plan will map out potential sites for off-road and mountain biking that are sensitive to environmental protection and connect with existing bike routes, Kunec-North says. It won’t be just narrow dirt mountain biking trails, known as single-track, she notes. The city wants to foster off-road trails for people of all ages and abilities, including children. Some might be entry-level trails with little elevation gain. There also might be a “pump track” or skills center, where riders can pedal up and down bumps like a mogul run for downhill skiers, and work on sharp turns and other maneuvers.

No properties will be totally off-limits, Kunec-North assures. “We do want to look at Forest Park; we do want to look at River View.”

Other potential close-in sites include:

• Gateway Green, a budding park in East Portland’s Gateway neighborhood where organizers hope to create an off-road biking mecca.

• Powell Butte, another East Portland park that already includes several gravel and dirt trails.

• North Tualatin Mountain property north of Forest Park owned by Metro

• Oregon Department of Transportation property between Barbur Boulevard and I-5

• Red Electric, a rail-to-trails project parallel to the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in Southwest Portland

• A North Portland greenway that parallels the Willamette River

Kunec-North has been holding meetings to gauge peoples’ interests and ideas around town. By fall, the city hopes to award a $200,000 contract to a consulting team that will take on much of the task, including a needs assessment, evaluation of specific sites and mapping. Hopefully, a plan and map will go to the City Council for approval after a year’s work, Kunec-North says.

An Oregon State Parks and Recreation survey found that about 11 percent of Multnomah County residents had done some form of off-road biking in the past year, Kunec-North says. That was more than the share who played basketball, football or soccer during that time. “It was twice as high as skateboarding.”

Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, didn’t even try mountain biking until three years ago, when he pedaled atop Powell Butte.

“I went from zero to fun in like 15 seconds,” Sadowsky says. “If it gets people out into nature, and appreciating the nature we have, I don’t see anything but good coming out of this.”

Mountain bikers say they

really want more trails in town that they can bike to, rather than having to drive for an hour or more out of town.

Conservationist views

But environmentalists are concerned that mountain biking can erode the habitat values in places like Forest Park and River View.

“There’s some areas that are so sensitive that you probably don’t even want pedestrian trails, let alone mountain biking trails,” says Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute and a member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission.

Houck recently complained when he saw a video of people biking on Ross Island posted on BikePortland.org, a popular blog. “We’ve got a great blue heron colony there,” Houck says, and that’s one of the reasons biking is banned there. Bike trails shouldn’t be allowed in places that cross streams and mar wetlands or other important habitat, he says.

Houck often leads biking, hiking, kayaking and birdwatching trips, and is concerned when he sees rogue mountain biking trails forged in sensitive natural areas. “People desire to go somewhere, so they just make their own damn trails,” he says.

Houck also has witnessed user conflicts on the trails, including a time when a trio of mountain bikers on Powell Butte nearly ran over a group of senior citizens he was leading on a birding walk.

Despite such concerns, Houck says he can envision appropriate mountain biking trails on the “periphery” of Forest Park and River View, so wildlife isn’t too disturbed.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, says mountain biking is just one of many pressures on natural areas that the city needs to be concerned about, along with off-leash dogs, geocaching, weddings and other public events.

“There’s a steady stream of requests for using these areas. You load too much into a natural area and it ceases to function for the purpose we set them aside for.”

Sallinger also is concerned that political pressure from mountain bikers doesn’t rob from Parks Bureau spending in parks-deficient East Portland.

Nevertheless, Sallinger says Audubon wasn’t opposed to allowing some biking at River View, and he has observed “awesome examples of mountain bikers doing stewardship” to protect natural areas where they bike.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A family hikes along a mixed-use trail for pedestrians, horses and bikes at Powell Butte Nature Park.

Mountain biker views

Mountain bike activists resent being stereotyped as rogue cyclists who tear up natural areas and do as they please.

“You can point to rule-breakers in every community,” says Kelsey Cardwell, board president of the Northwest Trail Alliance, a Portland-based group that has more than 1,000 members.

“We’re rule-abiding, and we want to ride on trails that are legal,” Cardwell says.

Volunteers from the Northwest Trails Alliance developed the family-friendly EasyClimb Trail at the Port of Cascade Locks. The International Mountain Biking Association partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to build the more challenging Sandy Ridge mountain bike trail network near Sandy. Bridges were built there to protect Sandy River tributaries, says Matthew Weintraub, a Portland resident who serves as Pacific Northwest associate regional director of the International Mountain Biking Association, which has about 1,300 Oregon members.

The city’s arbitrary closure of River View, which was used by mountain bikers long before the city bought the property, did breed discontent, advocates say. And the city’s reluctance to add trails to Forest Park may have spurred people to develop a rogue trail there several years ago.

But adding formal trails will cut down on such activity and protect the environment, Sadowsky maintains. “If you’ve got a trail system, people will use it. They’re not going to go off-trail.”

Mountain biking groups can actually help serve to “police” activities that may harm their cause, Sadowsky says.

Advocates say trails can be designed to protect the environment and reduce conflicts, through vegetation clearing, speed controls, proper lines of sight, signage and other devices.

“Forest Park is full of existing trails that have been built with nature in mind,” Cardwell says. “It’s something that can be done.”

But serious mountain bikers prefer to pedal on exciting single-track trails where they can go fast and don’t have to share the trail with hikers.

“I think that’s going to be a challenge,” Kunec-North says. Some places around the country address that by designating some trails for pedestrians on certain days and for bicyclists on other days, she says.

And the earlier conflicts among users at Powell Butte have largely disappeared, Houck and Sallinger agree.

For now, mountain bike advocates are getting behind the master-planning process, though they realize it will take years to get some of the routes funded and built, Cardwell says.

Still, the issue remains politically sensitive. Fish declined to comment for this story.

Fritz didn’t return a phone call seeking comments.

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@SteveLawTrib