After a closure of the city’s biggest trail network, cyclists wonder if Portland has it out for the sport's off-roaders.
Portland regularly tops the list of America’s most road bike-friendly cities, but that goodwill apparently doesn’t extend to mountain bikers.
Last month, city commissioners announced a ban on mountain biking in River View Natural Area, a 146-acre parcel of land within Portland city limits that’s been open to cycling for over 20 years. The change in policy follows the city’s purchase of the land in 2011 from a private holder, which was fraught with its own controversy. The ban was announced in a joint memo from Portland Parks and Recreation and the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services, with the closure to bikes going into effect on March 16.
The letter cites the need to protect “water quality and watershed health” as rationale for the closure, referencing seven streams on the property that support steelhead, coho, and Chinook salmon. It notes that the trails will remain open to “passive nature-based recreational uses,” including hikers and runners. No evidence was provided to show that mountain biking affects the waterways more or less than other activities.
Prior to the decision, a Project Advisory Committee was created to inform the decision-making process, with representatives from all users. The group was set to wrap up its work this fall, however city commissioners cancelled the committee meetings last June and thus seemed to announce the closure in March without public input.
As part of that process, River View’s Technical Advisory Committee had identified four main risks to the property: Dogs, off-trail use by cyclists and pedestrians, wildfire risks created by illegal camping and party spots, and climate change.
Mountain bikers did not figure as a threat. Why then, cyclists are asking, are they being singled out? “The committee determined that dogs were the biggest threat to the area, not bikes, yet dogs are still allowed,” points out Kelsey Cardwell, president of the Northwest Trail Alliance. “The City of Portland abandoned an ongoing public process and went against the counsel of technical advisers to exclude one type of trail user with no explanation based in data or reason.” (The city declined our request for comment.)
The closure all but eliminates mountain biking in Portland, with the nearest access to any extensive singletrack now some 40 miles east of the city at the BLM-managed Sandy Ridge. “It's a huge step backward. It means driving at least an hour to go ride. But the loss is a lot bigger than those 146 acres,” says Charlie Sponsel, a professional mountain biker who sat on the advisory committee for the property. Sponsel says that the city has never been a mountain-bike friendly destination, with only around 14 miles total of rideable singletrack, now cut in half with the River View closure. And a few years back, an effort to add mountain bike trails to the city’s Forest Park was derailed by environmental and neighborhood concerns. “River View was supposed to be a step in the right direction. But the city cut us out of the process.”
The Portland mountain bike community has rallied against the decision. The day the ban on mountain biking went into effect at River View, more than 300 cyclists gathered to protest the closure, many wearing T-shirts that read “Portland hates me,” and “Mountain biking is not a crime.” The plan had been to walk some of the trails at River View while carrying bicycles, but organizers opted to keep out of the park as a symbolic gesture of respect for the trails.
A few days later, the NWTA announced that it would take legal action against the city of Portland to appeal the closure to mountain bikes. “We are going to do our best to keep the conversation going. We would much rather work in partnership with the City to resolve the issue,” Cardwell says. “But if it is determined in the River View Natural Area management plan that bikes are not allowed, then it would be highly unlikely that a citywide master plan could identify River View as an acceptable place for bikes. That is our fear. And that’s why we simply cannot stand idle.”
The issue has caught national attention. A few days after the ban took effect, the International Mountain Bicycling Association, People for Bikes, and The League of American Bicyclists sent a joint letter to Portland’s Mayor, Charlie Hales, objecting to the “arbitrary and capricious” decision-making process that lead to the sudden closure: “The offered explanation for the prohibition cited environmental/ecosystem concerns without any scientific evidence that bicycle use has negative effects.”
The letter concludes with an entreaty. “We look forward to Portland living up to its status as a progressive thought leading city that embraces bicycling in all forms.”
Veiled in that appeal is the implication that there’s more at stake than simply a few miles of singletrack. The question is: Can Portland truly be called progressive and cycling friendly if it isn't also mountain-bike friendly?