Wednesday, April 8, 2015

doth they protest too much? on mountain bike trail access in the heart of a city

Over the past several weeks, a controversy has been brewing among mountain bike enthusiasts in Portland. For several years they've been lobbying the Portland City Council and related stakeholders for more and better access to Forest Park, an old-growth forest that sits partly within the city limits and is a popular park with hikers, joggers and nature-lovers; and more recently have been working on continued access for bikes in the River View Nature Area, a popular area for mountain biking in Portland.

About a month ago, the Portland City Council suspended the public process without warning, and summarily ended all discussion on increased mountain bike access to the trails in the River View area. After years of wrangling over trail access in Forest Park and getting nowhere, mountain bike advocates felt screwed, and rightly so; an organization has filed a lawsuit against the City Council saying that they acted in bad faith and possibly broke laws concerning public process.

Meanwhile, mountain bikers didn't take this lying down. Instead, they held a protest ride, illegally riding on trails in Forest Park that had been closed to bicycle access. One woman even boasted about it at her blog. The upshot of this has played out over at, where the mountain bike enthusiasts are loudly bleating their case to anyone who will listen -- and a sympathetic Jonathan Maus (Bikeportland's founder/owner/editor) is giving them all the rope they could want with which to hang themselves.

Wait a minute -- did you read me right? Yes.
I think that filing a lawsuit is an appropriate response to being screwed by the City Council.
Poaching trails in the woods is not.
Especially when you poach trails in the rain.
It's been raining for the past few days here in the Rose City, and all that rain translates to a lot of mud; ride a mountain bike over it too many times and you risk degrading the trail and the vegetation on either side of that trail. None of which in and of itself would be a big deal -- except that Forest Park is a protected natural preserve, home to many native species, and with some very specific rules about where and how the public may access this little gem of wilderness on the edge of the city.

Now, let's be clear. I have ridden a mountain bike off-road. The majority of my mountain biking has been at Portland International Raceway, where for several seasons I raced in the Portland Racing Short-Track Series. The series takes place on and around the motocross track at PIR, an area set aside for such activity and cared for under a public-private partnership between Metro and PIR. It's a controlled, contained environment. I've enjoyed myself heartily at those races. But it has not aroused in me a burning desire to go and ride singletrack wherever I can find it. Call me crazy.

Or call me realistic.

The fact is that my life, set up as it is, is not conducive to traveling all over hither and yon to ride singletrack. The closest spot with really excellent singletrack is probably Sandy Ridge, which requires that you toss your bike on a car and drive up there. Living car-free, that option is not a priority for me. In fact, because all my rides begin and end at my front door, I simply am not part of the car-dependent recreational biking set. I'm not trying to be an elitist. This is simply how I've lived for decades. I don't see it changing anytime soon.

Portland has become, in many ways, like a miniature San Francisco; its particular quirkiness has become a bonafide brand, attracting people with means to move here from everywhere else. Developers with hard cash and buying up properties left and right, effectively shutting out longtime residents who find their rents increasing -- or their rentals being demolished in favor of the chic rowhouses now dotting the landscape and making it difficult for young couples with conventional mortgage and loan products to become first-time homeowners. Low- and lower-middle-income Portlanders are being shuttled further east as property values in the central city are rising through the roof. Many in that demographic will eventually be forced to leave Portland altogether -- it's already beginning to happen -- as Portland becomes a city for People With Money.

Homelessness in our city is on the rise. The Springwater Corridor bike-ped path, once the crown jewel of the 40-Mile Loop, is now home to dozens (maybe more) of people reduced to camping along the parts of the path east of Portland. Granted, Portland has long been a town where it's relatively "easy" to be homeless; our mild climate and multitude of services for homeless people make it so. But the reality is that it's hard for me to be a cheerleader for people clamoring for trail access in a nature preserve when other people are living in a thicket year-round. Many of these same people are angry that a number of those same campers are stealing bikes and selling the parts to survive. The self-righteous bicycle enthusiasts, constituting some odd Greek chorus over at, regularly demand that everyone adhere to the same set of ethics, regardless of their lot in life.

Would you steal to survive if you had no other options? I might, and I admit it.
I think you have the ethics you can afford to have.

But I digress. Maybe.

In the end, Portland may become too expensive for me and Sweetie to remain in, especially since the likelihood of our transitioning to a more "corporate" work-life balance is pretty damned low. We're freelance creatives who are cobbling it together. At some point, it may become so expensive to live in Portland that the creatives who bring this town much of its vibrancy and quirkiness may all have to leave. This cycle is nothing new, and it will happen again and again under our current economic template. Which makes the passionate clamorings of a handful of recreational mountain bikers for trail access seem, well, sort of pathetic.

How does all of this connect to the mountain biking protestors and their right to due process? I won't argue with anyone's right to protest; it's how this nation came to be. But I wonder at the wisdom of this protest, when there are far more pressing issues affecting many more people than a couple of hundred mountain bike enthusiasts. I wish these same bicyclists would turn their energies and passion to sounding the alarm about real livability issues -- like the chasm between rich and poor, the shrinking of a middle class; and the unchecked growth of Portland's population and, by extension, its automotive traffic -- all of which will lead us down a road to a less liveable and less affordable city. In the face of such a dire bigger picture, it's hard for me to take this trail access protest seriously.

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