Forest Park is the City’s largest park and its most significant public natural area. The park’s more than 5,000 acres make up some of the city’s most valuable wildlife habitat, help filter our air and water, and provide countless opportunities for recreation, solitude and learning. Because of Forest Park’s unique natural resources, preservation and restoration of ecological function is critical and is the highest management priority for the park.
The City is considering off-road cycling opportunities in Forest Park as part of the citywide Off-road Cycling Master Plan. If projects are recommended, they will require additional planning and community input, robust environmental review, and multiple approvals before they can be built or implemented.
Draft trail concepts for Forest Park will be posted for public review and feedback by March 31, 2017.
Why is the Off-road Cycling Master Plan exploring options in Forest Park?
Locally, about 10 to 12 percent of people participate in off-road cycling, a rate higher than many traditional sports. Many riders enjoy experiencing nature on natural surface trails of various levels of difficulty. Though the Off-road Cycling Master Plan is looking at innovative ways to create these types of riding experiences across the city, as the largest natural park in the region, Forest Park offers the potential to provide off-road cycling experiences that cannot be created elsewhere.
Approximately 28 miles of Forest Park’s trails, service roads and fire lanes are currently open to off-road cycling, but these opportunities do not always follow current best practices off-road cycling and resource management. These trails, road and fire lanes have a number of limitations. For instance:
- People can currently ride a bicycle on gravel access roads (like Leif Erikson Drive) and on some wide trails within Forest Park. This was intended in the 1995 Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan, which limited off-road cycling to trails over 8 feet wide. However, people who enjoy riding bicycles on dirt trails are generally looking for narrower trails, which provide a more engaging riding experience. In addition, wide trails may have greater environmental impacts and can increase cyclist speeds, posing potential safety hazards.
- Many of the trails and fire lanes open to cycling are fall-line trails, meaning they run directly down a hill rather than contouring across it. This type of trail frequently has erosion problems, resulting in environmental damage and an unenjoyable experience for people using the trail. Their poor design also makes them more challenging to ride safely.
- People riding off-road are generally looking for rides of 30 minutes to 2 hours in length, or about 3 to 15 miles. Other than on Leif Erikson, opportunities to ride longer distances in the park are limited, as many of the cycling trails do not connect to each other.
What is guiding this discussion?
The Off-road Cycling Master Plan’s Project Advisory Committee and the project team are using a variety of plans and studies in this discussion. They include:
- The Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan
- A variety of other studies, reports and plans about natural resources, wildlife, and recreation in Forest Park
- The Project Objective Screening Tool, which is used to evaluate project proposals in Forest Park
- The Draft Forest Park Planning Principles developed by the project team and the Project Advisory Committee for use in the Off-road Cycling Master Plan
- Background reports on off-road cycling needs, impacts and benefits, and best practices.
What options are being explored?
Regardless of whether off-road cycling changes are recommended, the Off-road Cycling Master Plan will include recommendations to improve the health of the park. These draft management recommendations are:
- Expand and enhance a comprehensive education and outreach program regarding trail rules and etiquette. Improve signage for wayfinding and trail use expectations.
- Increasing funding and partnerships for restoration, management, enforcement and trail maintenance.
- Monitor impacts of trails and recreation use on vegetation, wildlife and users.
- Practice adaptive management, including trail closures, to address unintended negative impacts. Decommission unsanctioned trails.
The Off-road Cycling Master Plan is exploring potential ways to expand off-road cycling access in Forest Park while advancing the City's restoration goals and the Off-road Cycling Plan's Planning Principles. These trail concepts will focus on:
- Achieving a net ecological benefit. This means avoiding negative impacts to the park’s healthiest and most critical habitat and natural resources – the Northern Unit, interior forest, the Balch Creek and Miller Creek Watersheds, and other ‘core preserves’.
- Creating narrow- to mid-width contour trails (i.e., trails that are less than 6 feet wide and that cut across hills rather than running straight down them) for off-road cycling. These types of trails best match the types of riding experiences desired, follow nationally accepted best practices, and have lower environmental impacts than wider, steeper trails.
- Connecting off-road cycling trails into longer riding loops.
- Preserving high-use pedestrian trails for walkers and hikers.
Implementing any of the changes would require significant additional planning, community involvement and robust environmental review.
The Project Advisory Committee reviewed initial draft trail concepts for Forest Park at their March meeting. These concepts are being refined based on their feedback. Revised draft trail concepts will be posted for public review and feedback by March 31, 2017.
Could the Wildwood Trail and other pedestrian trails in the park accommodate off-road cycling?
The Off-road Cycling Master Plan recognizes the need to preserve walking and hiking opportunities in Forest Park. Walking and hiking is the most popular use of dirt trails, both locally and statewide, and creating more hiking trails is a statewide priority.
Shared-use trails are a way to create more places for both walking and cycling. They function well in other parts of Portland and across the country, and research shows that environmental impacts from hikers and cyclists on well-designed trails are similar (though all recreational activity in natural areas has negative impacts).
However, given the high-level of pedestrian use of many trails in Forest Park, converting them to shared-use would pose significant management challenges. That’s why the draft Forest Park Planning Principles recommend keeping the highest-use pedestrian trails — the Wildwood Trail, Maple Trail, and all pedestrian-only trails in the Southern portion of the park (such as Dogwood and Alder) — open only to pedestrians.
The Off-road Cycling Master Plan is exploring converting less busy trails to shared use. The Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan requires that this type of change be reviewed for environmental impacts to safeguard the health of habitat, natural resources and wildlife in the park. Therefore, any proposed new off-road cycling trail would go through a thorough environmental review process, including public input.
What are the next steps to decide on recommendations?
The Off-road Cycling Master Plan is looking for community input on the draft management recommendations and trail concepts. Community input will be combined with input from Portland Parks & Recreation, other City agencies and the Project Advisory Committee. The project team will also consider the goals and criteria established in the Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan, the Project Objective Screening Tool (POST), the Off-road Cycling Draft Planning Principles and other guiding documents. Environmental and off-road cycling specialists will visit the park to verify on-the-ground conditions, further assess suitability, and identify major factors that should be considered in the design, construction or management of any recommended trails. City Council will ultimately decide whether the Off-road Cycling Master Plan includes any recommendations in the final adopted Plan.
How would changes be made?
If projects are recommended, they will require environmental review and multiple approval and refinement steps before they can be built or implemented. Community input is a critical component of each step. Trail design, construction and management would follow current best practices, which promote safety, sustainability and positive user experience.
- Conceptual approval: First, new projects must be conceptually approved by City Council in the Off-road Cycling Master Plan. Community members can provide feedback in the planning process and testify to City Council.
- Funding: Then Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) and the City would consider the new projects for funding through the capital improvement and budget processes. In this step, they would be measured against PP&R goals and against other park, recreation and citywide needs and priorities. Both the PP&R and City budget processes include opportunities for community input.
- Design: If a project is funded, the City could begin to design the project. Design work would involve detailing the proposed trail improvement, gathering community input, assessing environmental impacts (such as on wildlife, habitat and water), designing for the needs and safety of intended trail users, and identifying any needed mitigation strategies.
- Permitting: As part of the permitting process, the project would go through environmental review. The Forest Park Natural Resource Management Plan designates environmental review as the way that new projects are assessed and (potentially) approved. The goal of environmental review is to safeguard natural resources and the ecological health of the park. It also requires public notification of proposed changes and allows for public comments and appeal of the decision.
- Construction: If the project is successfully permitted, construction or implementation can begin.
- Ongoing management: Management of existing or any new trails involves continuous maintenance; monitoring for unintended negative impacts on wildlife, water, habitat, or users; enforcing trail rules; and taking action to address any recurring problems.