On Thursday, the Metro Council unanimously approved a road map that will guide property acquisitions for natural areas and connections between regional trails for years to come. The approval gives the green light to Metro staff to begin to more fully invest up to $155 million available for conservation purchases and $10 million for trail connections.
Both sets of money come from the $475 million parks and nature bond measure approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2019. Metro acquires land only from willing sellers.
As with plans from past bond measures, Metro staff relied on extensive scientific data and the input of experts from across greater Portland. These road maps also were shaped by insights from communities of color, members of the disability community, people with low incomes and other communities who haven’t been included in past planning processes. In particular, Indigenous community members were closely involved in the conservation road map.
Councilors Shirley Craddick and Christine Lewis both emphasized the long-term nature of this work. Before becoming a councilor, Craddick was part of creating Metro’s 2006 natural areas bond.
Lewis recently attended the ceremonial grand opening of Newell Creek Canyon Nature Park in Oregon City, though the park opened to visitors last December. The park became a reality thanks to investments from the bond measure and the parks and natural areas local-option levy.
“When cutting the ribbon at Newell Creek Canyon, I was reminded it took 30 years from when the first measure passed to where we are today, having gathered enough parcels and then being able to invest in trail access and bike access,” Lewis said. “I want us to keep in mind how long some of this work takes, and we can only achieve it if we have a very clear and well-articulated North Star.”
The 2019 bond measure’s conservation program provides money for land acquisition and large-scale restoration projects. At $155 million, it is the largest share of bond dollars.
“The priorities outlined in this document comprise a strong, science-based list of exciting opportunities that will indeed advance ecological healthy, biodiversity, climate resilience and equity across our landscape,” said Bob Sallinger, the conservation director at Portland Audubon. “It is time to move forward expeditiously.”
The bond’s trail program helps the region’s cities and other governments purchase land to fill in gaps in regional trails and connect trails. Trails like the Springwater Corridor, Fanno Creek Trail and the Trolley Trail provide commuting routes and recreation opportunities.
Centering community engagement, racial equity
The planning process for these roadmaps was different from the work done on in previous bond measures in 1995 and 2006. The 2019 bond measure made racial equity and community engagement key criteria for all of its programs.
Metro continued to work closely with local park providers, service agencies and conservation organizations across greater Portland.
The new bond measure requires Metro to build on those practices and bring in people and communities whose expertise and perspectives had not been previously included. Working with virtual engagement tools for the first time, Metro staff connected with community members through multiple large virtual gatherings and dozens of focus groups, many geared toward specific communities.
Judy BlueHorse Skelton, an Indigenous nations studies assistant professor at Portland State University and an Indigenous community member, laid out the reasons for this type of engagement.
“The commodification and industrialization of land, water, flora and fauna – and the resulting pollution and destruction of healthy ecosystems and the greatly diminished salmon runs – contributed to untold losses of plants and animals, and further marginalization of Indigenous, Black and communities of color from the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health provided by connection to the natural world,” she said.
Indigenous community members worked closely with Metro staff to create assessments tools for each of the 24 target areas around the region where acquisitions will be made.
BlueHorse Skelton said she felt honored and excited that Indigenous community members continued to come to the table, stayed engaged and built relationships.
“I appreciate and recognize Metro’s commitment to developing long-term relationships,” she said. Those long-term relationships are apparent in the very Salmon Celebrations we’ve been having on park land, on Metro land at Oxbow Park, reviving our prayers, our dances, our gatherings, welcoming all to celebrate salmon coming back.”
This engagement with specific communities helped establish priorities in each program. For instance, the road map prioritized trail projects in areas with limited existing trails, which often correspond to neighborhoods with higher proportions of people of color and people with low incomes.
“I’ve been really appreciative of staff’s approach to community engagement, and have been able to participate both as a member of the general public and as a councilor,” Metro Councilor Duncan Hwang said. “I want to thank staff for doing a great job on outreach and even going back to community and reporting back on how their input mattered.”
Connecting with nature close to home
Past conservation plans had included parts of urban areas in greater Portland. The 2019 bond added a new target area that prioritizes acquisitions and conservation work across nearly the entire urban growth boundary.
Hwang’s district stretches from the tree-covered hills of southwest Portland to East Portland, which includes the region’s worst heat islands. “All of the communities that I work with, especially in East Portland, are impacted by climate change, especially during heat waves and smoke events,” Hwang said. “East Portland lacks significant tree canopy for cooling, so I really appreciate that the bond has multiple ways to invest in nature across the region.”
“Investments to restore urban centers must continue, said Sallinger, from Portland Audubon. “Although the opportunities are smaller and more expensive, it is an absolute imperative if we are committed to creating an ecologically healthy, climate resilient and equitable urban landscapes.”
Now that the refinement plans are approved, Sallinger urged Metro to accelerate spending to advance conservation work as quickly as possible.
“Put the pedal to the metal,” he said. ”I truly appreciate the challenges of COVID, and I appreciate that Metro is trying to do things differently, and I appreciate the challenges of reaching out to audiences that are hard to reach.”
While the vote by the Metro Council does fully open the land acquisition money pipeline, land acquisitions had still been in the works and several were completed over the past two and half years.
Right after the bond passed, the Metro Council directed staff to purchase properties that met the bond’s goals and aligned with previous land acquisition plans.
In the past few months, Metro purchased 117 acres next to Sunshine Butte on the Multnomah-Clackamas county border, 52 acres of rare peat wetlands at Killin Wetlands Nature Park, 32 acres on the Clackamas River, and several smaller purchases.