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A rogue path for the bicycle cause

The Oregonian: A rogue path for the bicycle cause

By The Oregonian Editorial Board
February 25, 2010, 9:23AM

One of the many things Portlanders count as inspiring -- and outsiders find breathtaking -- is Forest Park, a wild and accessible 5,000 acres home to native elk, deer, all manner of birds, fish-bearing streams, explosive rhododendrons, the occasional mountain lion. It's unmatched, nationally, in being a rugged ridge that collides with city streets and likely serves as many people as it does other creatures.

Now it competes with New York subways in the daring of its vandalism.

The park's newest park feature is a mile-long, higher-elevation mountain bike trail tracing the established pathway of native elk and deer. Bolstered in steeper sections with red cedar branches freshly cut for the purpose, it's an unmapped, mud-rutted mess whose runoff could sully downstream waterways. Probably cool to ride, it's an ugly, in places oozing, gash in a quiet, not-too-accessible place.

Unlike proud punks with spray paint, however, the builders of this bicycle track are methodical, competent ghosts: unknown and untagged out to prove a point while permanently installing something that they'd dare to return to and use.

How bold. How illegal.

How knuckleheaded, frankly, just as the city presses forward to expand off-road cycling opportunities in its parks. Tonight, in fact, the Forest Park Single Track Cycling Advisory Committee meets to refine its definition of single-track bicycling while weighing a surging interest in off-road biking throughout the park.

There's history for this sort of thing. Portland knew nothing of skateboarders a few decades ago but responded to demand and built some quite tricked-out skateparks, most recently the state-of-the-art Ed Benedict Skate Plaza, at Southeast 104th and Powell Boulevard. That's called meeting the needs of an emerging user group.

Now we're awash in user groups, some emergent others not -- strollers, walkers, hikers, backpackers, wildlife-gawkers, recreational and competition bicyclists and mountain bicyclists, single-track mountain bicyclists.

The park can only do so much if it is to retain a functioning ecology that supports wildlife and the growth of native plants and trees. Forest Park, for all its fecund ferocity, is a living breathing thing that can only take so many insults.

Anyone who has walked the park's road-wide Leif Erickson Trail above Northwest Thurman Street knows what it is to have a trio of downhill cyclists careen by -- just as it is harrowing to be one of those bicyclists when rapt leaf-peepers, arm in arm with a dog in tow, decide the trail is all theirs.

Assigning the best use for trails, roads and fire cuts, including segregating users on some and connecting pathways that could support mountain bicycling, is an importantt part of the civic conversation.

But single-track biking is its own animal, a narrow rollercoaster ride through trees on which it can be impossible, even, for two bikes to pass each other. No telling how the elk feel about it.

It makes sense now to map what city Parks Commissioner Nick Fish calls that "sweet spot" where single-track mountain bicycling could safely occur in Forest Park. Then we can have at it, with abandon, without messing up complex natural systems.

It makes even more sense, right now, for a few wreck-the-cause cowards to stand up for their handiwork and face criminal prosecution for tresspassing, defacing public property, and sullying streams that contain struggling fish.

They didn't tag a subway car, "gone" the next minute. They scarred something fragile and lasting while threatening their own cause with a flat tire.