People often say one of the top reasons they love living in greater Portland is the easy access to nature.
That didn’t happen by accident.
About this series
Metro has invested in community nature projects for more than 25 years. Through this occasional series in 2017-18, we’ll revisit projects that previously received Nature in Neighborhoods grants or local share money to find out where the projects are now and what difference Metro’s investments made.
As of early 2017, Metro is not accepting Nature in Neighborhoods grants applications. Grants paid for with money from the 2006 bond measure and 2013 parks and natural areas levy have all been awarded.
In November 2016, voters renewed the Metro parks and natural areas levy. Money from the levy renewal will be available starting in July 2018, and more Nature in Neighborhoods grants will be available then.
As the population grew in the early 1990s, local leaders in the region worked to protect natural areas in the face of rapid development. Voters in 1995 passed the first Metro natural areas bond measure, dedicating $136 million to acquire land and provide people with access to nature close to home.
The bond measure included $25 million in "local share" money that went to cities, counties and park providers to support community-led nature projects. A second measure, approved in 2006, provided another $44 million in local share. The 2006 measure also included $15 million for Nature in Neighborhoods grants, which provided matching money for community organizations, nonprofits, watershed councils and other groups for nature projects.
Altogether over the last 25 years, Metro has invested more than $90 million to support a broad range of community nature projects across the region, helping to acquire land, restore habitat, build visitor amenities and more. The policies weren’t always popular when they were implemented. But over time, Metro’s community investments left a lasting legacy of incorporating more nature in local parks systems and, more recently, supporting programs to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the environmental movement.
Metro’s community investments program encouraged parks providers that historically focused more on playgrounds and recreation to focus more on natural areas and nature, said Bruce Barbarasch, superintendent of natural resources and trails management at Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District.
“The things that people say they want the most are natural areas, trails and places to spend time with family and community,” Barbarasch said. “By enhancing these natural areas and activities like birdwatching and hiking, we promote this broader vision of how to serve the community. “That extends into areas of human health as well as environmental health.”
History of investments
A variety of programs has allowed Metro to invest in community nature projects over the years.
1991-2004: Metro and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered to create the Metropolitan Greenspaces Program, which awarded $2.2 million in federal grants throughout greater Portland and Vancouver.
1995 Metro natural areas bond measure: $25 million of “local share” money went to cities, counties and parks providers to support locally significant nature projects.
2006 Metro natural areas bond measure: $44 million in local share money for cities, counties and parks providers. $15 million in Nature in Neighborhoods capital grants.
2007-11 Metro funding: Metro provided $2 million from its general fund to support Nature in Neighborhoods grants for restoration and enhancement projects.
2013 Metro parks and natural areas levy: $3.7 million in Nature in Neighborhoods grants for conservation education, restoration and trails projects.
2016 Metro parks and natural areas levy renewal: The renewal of the 2013 levy will provide additional money for Nature in Neighborhoods grants starting in 2018.
Incorporating more nature
Local share money has to be spent on projects that incorporate nature in some way: acquiring natural areas, restoring habitat, or improving people’s access to nature. For instance, the money can’t be used to improve ballfields, but it can be used to provide picnic areas in natural areas.
When the local share program first started in 1995, some organizations wanted to use the influx of new money for other recreational and parks needs rather than focusing on natural resources.
“Some local agencies pushed hard to allow more flexibility,” said Heather Nelson Kent, Metro’s community investments and partnerships manager. “We stuck with our core criteria. As a result, they acquired more of those types of (natural areas) properties.”
Today, the impact of the local share program is visible across greater Portland with numerous property acquisitions and visitor improvements. Since the local share program started, it has helped local parks providers acquire close to 150 properties totaling 691 acres.
About 15 years ago, THPRD was interested in acquiring a 20-acre natural area that became available, Barbarasch said.
“We had no funds to acquire that natural area,” he said. “Portions of it are fully developable. Homes could’ve gone in there, which would have impacted wildlife, trails and any kind of recreational opportunity.”
THPRD used local share money from Metro to acquire what became known as Morrison Woods Natural Area in Beaverton. Visitors to the forested mountaintop today can enjoy views across the valley toward the North Tualatin Mountains.
Around the same time, the district received grant money to restore about 20 acres of oak habitat along Fanno Creek at Greenway Park in Beaverton.
“The grant helped us expand the vision of the project, and we got together with other partners who brought in resources to help pay for construction,” he said. “We ended up getting hundreds of volunteers and ended up with a really unique site that the public embraced. It wouldn’t have happened on our own. We would have chipped away at it for 20 years.”
The 2013 parks and natural areas levy marked a shift in the program, with a specific emphasis on providing better access to nature for historically marginalized groups, such as communities of color.
For Nature in Neighborhoods grants, that meant revamping the application process, selection criteria and the instructions given to grant review committees, which are made up of community members.
“We did get some pushback from traditional environmental organizations who previously received many grants, and some of them weren’t successful, at least that first year,” said Crista Gardner, who coordinates Nature in Neighborhoods grants for conservation education, restoration and trails.
The changes resulted in more grants supporting nature programs created by culturally specific organizations and new partnerships pairing those organizations with traditional environmental groups.
“These organizations often haven’t worked together before,” Gardner said. “It’s a learning curve and relationship-building effort for all of the groups. A lot of them have changed their programming to include more diversity, equity and inclusion, or they’re partnering with a community-specific organization.”
Jessica Rojas, community and environmental engagement manager for the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods in Portland, served on the selection committee for conservation education grants in 2016. The committee was more diverse than previous grant committees she served on for other programs, though she said she would have liked to have seen even more diversity on the committee.
It’s important for grants to help connect marginalized groups with nature, she said. Diverse communities often live in areas where there has long been a lack of investment in access to nature and natural resources, she said.
“Why would you care about pollinators if you don’t have any plants near you?” said Rojas, a multicultural Chicana. “We want people to understand the investments we need to make so we can have a healthy environment for everybody. In order to do that, we need to make sure people have access to nature, not just people who are privileged to live in areas with large lots and a lot of greenspace.”
The Nature in Neighborhoods program has traditionally been willing to be an “early funder,” meaning that Metro’s money can sometimes be the first grant a project receives. The Nature in Neighborhoods grants then serves as a catalyst for other organizations to provide matching money to a project.
“A lot of projects would not have been funded or would’ve taken another 10 years to have been funded if we hadn’t said ‘we’re going to give you this grant,’” said Karen Spencer, a Portland resident who has participated on capital grant review committees. “These are projects driven by the community for the community, which is very different from a large government works project.”
The grants fill an important niche in supporting community-led nature projects specifically in urban areas. The grants allow for more resilient communities that are more ecologically diverse, that can better withstand the effects of climate change – and that are more responsive to a community’s needs, said Mary Rose Navarro, who coordinates capital grants and local share projects.
“There’s a different outcome that happens when it’s not a public agency directing it,” she said. “The community’s needs are more fully met. There’s a greater sense of pride and ownership, and it makes the space more accessible.”
Nature in Neighborhoods grants are competitive, with applicants requesting seven times as much money as there is available, statistics show.
Even after fully reading through applications, making site visits and hearing presentations, it’s really hard to choose which projects to support, Spencer said. Still, Metro’s community investments program overall has had a “tremendous” impact on greater Portland, especially when paired with investments other parks providers make, she said.
“Part of the reason why so many people want to move here is our commitment to nature and giving people access to it. It’s not just a bunch of trees, a thriving bunch of trees,” Spencer said. “I just hope voters really understand the benefits to the community, not just the big projects, but also the little ones, where you allow kids to play in the neighborhood.”