The air in the room filled with excitement as people arrived for the Metro Council nature meeting. People talked enthusiastically while surveying a suite filled with design plans for green space projects like trails and community centers.
Metro representatives wore bright lime green t-shirts, grant recipients were adorned with dark green ribbons under their name-tags, the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Town and Gown room at Mt. Hood Community College revealed the verdant display of the Beavercreek natural area below.
Thursday was all about the green – colors, natural spaces and investment.
The Metro Council hosted this unconventional meeting to make key decisions about regional parks, trails and natural areas and hear updates on how the region is investing a 2013 levy and 2006 bond measure.
First, an update to the regional trails map added 11 new pathways that will be designed and built in the future. The council also voted in favor of a master plan for a 38-mile loop around Mt. Scott and Scouters Mountain, which will connect Portland, Happy Valley, Gresham and Damascus.
Metro Council President Tom Hughes said the update of these trails was part of a hundred-year-old vision to connect Portland parks with a trail network.
"In some respects, this started at the turn of the century with the 40-Mile-Loop plan," Hughes said.
Natural areas program director Kathleen Brennan-Hunter gave an update on regional investments in nature, highlighting the 17,000 acres of parks and natural areas that voters have protected – and the first year of levy spending to improve those sites and build partnerships across the region.
The next step, Brennan-Hunter said, is a parks and natural areas system plan to establish a cohesive identity for Metro’s parks, trails, natural areas and nature programs.
"We have come from a collection of great places to making it a great place," Brennan-Hunter said.
The largest event of the meeting was the announcement of Metro's expanding Nature in Neighborhood grants. Capital investment and conservation education grants totaled a little over $5.2 million, divided among 27 community projects.
The City of Tigard, for example, received $390,000 to improve Dirksen Nature Park. The grant will restore a forested wetland, install a boardwalk and overlook and build two nature play areas.
The Dharma Rain Zen Center received both capital and conservation education grants to advance the Siskiyou Pathway, transforming a former landfill into a natural space and learning laboratory.
Many of the projects reflected multiple partnerships. At Gateway Green, for example, 18 non-profits, seven private businesses and eight public agencies have teamed up to rehabilitate a public right-of-way in east Portland.
As the grants came to a vote, Metro councilors expressed their appreciation for the process and community involvement.
"It's an honor and a pleasure to say 'Aye' when voting on this," said Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick, who welcomed the crowd to her district.
After the meeting adjourned and the strawberry shortcake was devoured, attendees were invited to tour the neighboring Beavercreek natural area. Members of Metro's Youth Ecology Corps were stationed at multiple stops along the tour. They gave brief, informative talks on invasive species, salmon restoration and water quality.
Funded by the parks and natural areas levy, the Youth Ecology Corps built a partnership with Project YESS at Mt. Hood Community College to teach conservation skills to at-risk youth.
After each presentation, the day's nature guides told the tour group how the corps had changed their lives. One spoke about a deeper appreciation of nature and the inspiration to start her own garden. Another, Hanah, said the experience helped her push her boundaries and face her fears.
"We had to do this challenge called the leap of faith where we had to climb 150 feet up into this tree and jump out. My biggest fear is heights and I was like I am not doing that," she said. "But with the encouragement of my teammates and my crew mates, I climbed up and jumped out, teaching myself that I could trust my teammates."
On the nature walk, Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette described the nature meeting as a different kind of leap of faith – the public trust of investment.
"When we asked the voters, especially for the levy, we were asking them to take a leap of faith, to help us restore areas they would help us buy," Collette said. "Now we could go back to the voters… to tell them 'here's what your money bought,' because it's something we can be extremely proud of."