Hiking and off-road cycling trails are coming to the North Tualatin Mountains after the Metro Council on April 21 unanimously approved a master plan to provide formal public access.
Metro’s four sites in the North Tualatin Mountains total 1,300 acres and sit northwest of Forest Park. The plan calls for more than seven miles of shared trails at the Burlington Creek Forest site, and about two miles of shared trails at the McCarthy Creek Forest site. Improvements at each trailhead include parking for about 15 cars. Equestrian riders would continue to have local access to former logging roads at both sites.
Improvements at Burlington would be made first, with an opening as early as late 2017 or early 2018. Improvements at McCarthy made later as money becomes available.
There are no planned visitor improvements at Ennis Creek Forest and North Abbey Creek Forest natural areas, except for a provision for the future Pacific Greenway Trail through Ennis. The plan preserves about three-quarters of the 1,300 total acres as habitat.
“To me, we’ve really come to a fantastic place,” said Metro Councilor Sam Chase, whose district includes the North Tualatin Mountains. “Rather than everybody having to have their own big backyard, we have a shared big backyard. By creating access, we’re also creating environmental stewards for the future.”
‘A delicate balance’
Land acquisition, restoration and the public access planning effort are all made possible because of voter investments in the 1995 and 2006 natural areas bond measures and the 2013 parks and natural areas levy.
The North Tualatin Mountains master plan is the culmination of two years of conversations with the community to craft a vision for the future of the area. Metro received hundreds of comments, ranging from wanting to keep all four sites completely closed to public access to wanting extensive trails and other improvements across all four sites.
“Making these decisions is very difficult,” Metro Council President Tom Hughes said. “Often times, it involves a delicate balance between competing values. What we have tried to do here, and I think successfully, is to use scientific testimony and scientific understanding of how those values play out to make the decision.”
In coming up with the plan, the top priority was to protect water quality and preserve large patches of core habitat areas, Olena Turula, a Metro parks planner who led the planning effort, told councilors at an April 14 public hearing.
About 20 people testified at the public hearing, with most supporting the plan, including many off-road cyclists.
“It is absolutely maddening that I have to drive to ride my bike,” said Jocelyn Gaudi, a member of the Northwest Trail Alliance. “These parcels will provide close-in riding options, a safe space where cyclists of all abilities can feel safe and quickly connect with nature.”
Several cyclists said that, although they supported the overall plan, they were disappointed that a previously proposed trail at McCarthy Creek Forest did not make it into the final plan. Metro officials said the trail was removed from the final plan to accommodate neighbors’ wishes to protect an elk meadow near the proposed trail, but that the feasibility of the trail would be re-evaluated when the time came to build improvements there.
Opponents of the master plan said they feared that the plan would threaten elk traveling between the Coast Range and Forest Park, and northern red-legged frogs traveling between Burlington Bottoms along Multnomah Channel and breeding grounds in the North Tualatin Mountains. Some neighbors banded together as the Tualatin Wildlife Alliance and asked Metro to conduct more wildlife studies before allowing public access.
Hank McCurdy, a neighbor and leader in the Tualatin Wildlife Alliance, protested at Metro’s headquarters in Northeast Portland on April 8 with signs decrying the plan as an “adventure park trail plan.”
“This is the narrowest part of the wildlife corridor,” McCurdy told councilors at the public hearing. “In order to understand the baseline impact, they have to know what’s there. Where’s the science? It doesn’t seem very scientific to me.”
A shared future
Jonathan Soll, science and stewardship manager for Metro Parks and Nature, said that the North Tualatin Mountains and its type of habitat – Douglas fir and riparian habitat – has been heavily studied, and his team is “intimately familiar” with the research.
“As a conservation biologist, I love data as much as the next person, but I also know that collecting more inventory data does not necessarily improve decision-making,” Soll said. “Based on what we know, we do not expect severe impacts on wildlife in the North Tualatin Mountains from the trails we are proposing. … While all access has some effect on wildlife, we stand behind this plan as a very reasonable approach to achieving Metro’s Parks and Nature mission.”
The sites will continue to be monitored as people start accessing the sites, and seasonal closures for wildlife would be considered if necessary, Metro staff said.
Habitat restoration will continue at all four sites. Metro aims to restore old-growth habitat, increasing the biodiversity of forests, preserving biodiversity corridors, supporting wildlife and protecting clean water. Unneeded roads will be decommissioned, more native trees and shrubs will be planted and more.
In the last few years, Metro restored 1.3 miles of streams in the North Tualatin Mountains, treated invasive weeds, closed roads due to sedimentation in streams, and strategically thinned trees at the former tree farm in order to allow newly planted native trees and shrubs to grow.
Without voter investments, the North Tualatin Mountains would have looked dramatically different from what it does today – and with a very different future, Dan Moeller, conservation program director for Metro Parks and Nature, told Metro councilors. At one point, some of this land was envisioned for development, he said.
“Instead, we have been able to protect this landscape piece by piece over the course of two regional bond measures that allow Metro to buy natural areas from willing sellers,” he said. “Opening more of this land to visitors has always been called out as part of the vision, too. Now we have the ability to bring that commitment to life.”