Though dotted with logging roads and other reminders of people, the second growth Douglas fir forests, creeks and meadows in the North Tualatin Mountains are home to elk, black-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, Douglas squirrels, Townsend’s chipmunks, red-legged frogs and mountain beavers.
The list, a local biologist says, has hardly changed since Meriwether Lewis catalogued species nearby in 1806. Soon, the area may become even more diverse, in one sense of the word.
After a final, packed public meeting at the Skyline Grange Nov. 17, Metro officials have recommended plans for the 1,300-acre North Tualatin Mountains Natural Area, which Metro’s council could vote on this spring. The plans preserve 800 acres for wildlife habitat, while developing 500 acres for recreation: mountain biking and hiking, with new restrooms, parking lots, viewpoints and picnic areas.
The plans represent a historic win for mountain bikers in Portland, who have long fought for trails near the urban center. Mountain bikers packed Metro’s meetings to support the plans, and bike advocates say they’re happy with the process.
“A lot of people in the bicycle community feel it’s nice, fair, fresh, exciting news,” said Jonathan Maus, editor of BikePortland.org. “That’s the huge story here: Metro’s saying, ‘Look how easy this is. We’re going to do something awesome.’”
But opponents counter that Metro’s plans favor recreation over conservation and threaten Portland’s crown jewel—Forest Park—by severing wildlife migratory routes.
“Not everybody experiences nature in the same way,” said Dan Moeller, conservation program director for Metro Parks and Nature. “Some people enjoy it from binoculars, or the saddle of a horse; other people enjoy it from a bicycle. When we looked at it, that [balance] was our objective.
“Also, at the heart of our mission is protecting wildlife habitat and water quality. At the end of the day, from my experience, not everybody’s going to be happy.”
Moeller could be referring to conservationists and locals near Skyline Grange are gearing up to fight what neighbor Michael Baker calls “an adventure park.”
Elliot Michael has lived in the area for 25 years. He has used a chainsaw to cut dangerous snags from elk trails after seeing one with a broken leg.
“It’s the last [natural area], until you get out farther,” Michael said. “That’s why everybody’s up in arms.”
A herd of 25-30 elk often calves in McCarthy Creek, one of four properties in the natural area, Michael said, and if current plans are approved, “the animals will just disappear.”
Metro purchased the outer Multnomah County lands, which once provided logs for Linnton mills, as part of a grand strategy to conserve 13,000 acres primarily to protect water quality. Metro spokeswoman Laura Odom told The Oregonianin 2012 that the agency spent $5.3 million on the area’s four parcels, McCarthy Creek, Burlington Creek, Ennis Creek and North Abbey Creek, funded by1995 and 2006 bond measures and a 2013 levy.
The plan sets aside Ennis and North Abbey as conservation areas with no recreation trails; forest roads will be decommissioned there, Moeller said. Burlington Creek, which lies along Highway 30, will be most heavily used.
But McCarthy Creek, a remote-feeling place with stunning views of the coastal mountains, is the area of most concern to plan opponents.
“Metro says they’ve done studies, but they really haven’t,” Michael said. “They didn’t know that this was a major elk refuge. … Metro has never done a species inventory in this area.”
Moeller said Metro and close partners like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have a “good understanding” of where elk use and calving is occurring.
“Studies like [opponents] are suggesting don’t really give us any more information to adjust our management,” Moeller said. In an email, he clarified that the area “is not a major elk refuge according to the state,” which has designated it a “de-emphasis zone for elk.”
But Bob Sallinger of Portland Audubon Society disagrees. He describes his organization as supportive of the plan overall, but concerned about the “intensity of trail installation” in areas. Burlington Creek, for example, is adjacent to an old growth stand called the Ancient Forest Preserve, owned by the Forest Park Conservancy.
“The elk should be featured … not sacrificed,” Sallinger wrote.
“I would argue for a closure [of elk habitat areas] from about May 15 to June 15 in the proximity of the calving area,” Oregon State University professor and former chair of Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission Dan Edge wrote in an email.
Asked about the potential impact of mountain biking trails, Edge wrote, “Elk readily habituate to very regular types of disturbance (i.e., heavy traffic on a highway), but tend to be much more sensitive to disturbances that are irregular with respect to amount, noise and spatial distribution.”
In Metro’s first public meeting, in September 2014, comments mostly supported conservation: “Let’s reserve this ridge primarily for animals, with people as visitors,” wrote one citizen.
In the second meeting in December 2014, a typical comment was,. “Please let us have mountain biking trails in Portland. It’s clean and healthy fun!”
Maus and other bike advocates say Metro is opening a door the city has long barricaded.
“We’re pretty happy with the process,” said Kelsey Cardwell, board president of the Northwest Trail Alliance, a mountain biking group that could help construct and steward trails in the area.
Mountain bikers insist their sport can coexist with wildlife habitat, and Metro staff seem to agree. In recommended plans, both McCarthy and Burlington Creek will retain “large patches of core habitat, 30 acres or larger,” Moeller said.
But the nature versus active recreation debate is far from over.
Marcy Houle, former wildlife biologist with Oregon Parks Foundation and author of “One City’s Wilderness: Portland’s Forest Park,” believes current plans could effectively cut Forest Park biodiversity off at the knees.
“There are five things that make Forest Park unique among every park in the nation,” she said. “It’s not the size. I call it, to remember, UWILD: U—the only designated Urban wilderness in the nation. W—Wildlife corridor. I—Interior forest habitat. L—the longest hiking trail, Wildwood. D—the greatest Diversity of wildlife.”
Another opponent, Catherine Thompson, points out that Metro’s plans are inconsistent with stated policies for its natural areas.
In a 2012 article still posted on the Metro website, spokeswoman Laura Odom wrote, “To protect natural resources, Metro prohibits ATVs, hunting, biking, horses and dogs at its natural areas.”
After an online comment period extending into January, a draft master plan will go before the Metro Council for approval, perhaps as early as February.