Infinity Loop could link key open spaces in Portland

In July, Metro offered a challenge grant for the purchase of a majestic oak tree on Overlook Bluff, a North Portland landmark that somehow escaped the developer’s ax. The grant would protect 0.8 acre of grasses and madrone trees dwarfed by the lonely oak east of the Fremont Bridge, with views of downtown Portland.

But there’s a catch: Metro’s $288,000 grant won’t be nearly enough to meet the seller’s demand of $864,000. A neighborhood group, Friends of Overlook Bluff, has just one year to come up with the remaining $576,000. But so far this year, they’ve held yard and plant sales, raising only modest sums of additional cash.

If they fail to raise enough money, the Metro grant will be offered to other community projects, says Mary Rose Navarro, coordinator of Metro’s natural areas program.

Metro recently gave a similar nature grant to the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, protecting 20 acres of habitat for native plants along a 2-mile stretch of the creek and its tributaries.

Limits to Metro approach

These grants are examples of the piecemeal method currently used in Portland to preserve natural landscapes. By protecting wild Portland acre by acre, this strategy offers no certainty that one day they will be part of a large, fully protected wildlife corridor or a recreational trail before key segments are developed, potentially fragmenting the area.

Fragmented areas offer limited value for wildlife or trails.

Michael Wetter, executive director of the Intertwine Alliance, says the acre-by-acre approach is proceeding so slowly that it will take 190 years to acquire enough land to meet the region’s two primary open-space protection goals: protect enough habitat to preserve the urban area’s rich biodiversity, and develop an extensive network of recreational trails near where Portlanders live and work. The alliance is a coalition of more than 100 nonprofit organizations and government agencies formed in 2009 to study the problem and find solutions.

One reason it will take so long to meet these goals, besides the lack of money, is the absence of any regional master plan for weaving open space into the urban landscape, Wetter says. Moreover, there’s also no coordinated regional strategy to raise the necessary funds. Metro’s new natural areas measure, a $50 million property tax levy passed in 2013, only pays to maintain natural areas acquired under two prior

Metro bond measures.

Over the years, there’ve been multiple attempts to integrate the natural and built environments in the Portland region, starting more than 100 years ago when the Portland parks bureau called for the preservation of a 40-mile loop of interconnected greenways circling the city.

In 1992, Metro adopted its Greenspaces Master Plan, which resulted in the addition of some 15,000 acres of publicly owned natural areas on both sides of the Columbia River.

To infinity and beyond

In 2012, the Intertwine Alliance released its vision of a regional conservation strategy that would go far beyond those efforts. Wetter, the former chief of staff to ex-Metro President David Bragdon, says the strategy would ensure that large and small refuges are interconnected in every part of the region.

The group intends to apply this strategy to a broad area extending far beyond city, county or even state boundaries — the 3,000 square miles from the Lewis River in Southwest Washington to the Molalla and Pudding Rivers in Clackamas County, and from the Coast Range to the Cascades.

Within this rectangle, the alliance has identified about 30 square miles of “ecologically high-value” lands, equal to about 1 percent of the entire area, as worthy of protection. This land is important to several species of fish and wildlife in danger of extinction, including four runs of salmon and steelhead. It’s used by the region’s large bird population, about a quarter of which is experiencing long-term population declines, such as the Western meadowlark.

As the region adds another 1 million residents to the current 2 million population, people and their needs for roads, housing and jobs are likely to displace many of the fish, birds and animals that now live here.

In April, the alliance refined its strategy, offering recreation as a driving economic force that could propel wildlife protection. It’s proposing to crisscross the region with a 450-to-500-mile Infinity Loop of recreational trails, giving hikers and bicyclists a way to roam the region from mountain to coast on pathways up to 15 feet wide without encountering an automobile. The trails also would benefit wildlife.

A map of the loop resembles a figure eight laid on its side, also known as the infinity symbol. Thus its name.

The alliance is starting to air the idea before the public, starting with a Regional Trail Fair in late July.

Wetter says the effort will be led by a permanent coalition of regional leaders — executives in local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations. The region would no longer depend on ambitious but underfunded neighborhood groups to shoulder the responsibility of raising the money necessary for meeting the region’s wildlife protection goals.

Going beyond ad hoc

The region has passed several modest bond measures for parks in recent years. Each time, Wetter says, an ad hoc coalition of leaders steered the campaign. After each election, the coalitions dissipated.

The Intertwine Alliance, he says, was created just for the purpose of assembling a permanent coalition that would maintain the long-term focus necessary for accomplishing “big things” like the Infinity Loop.

Some components of the Infinity Loop already are in place, including the Springwater Corridor, Salmonberry Trail, Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, Cazadero Trail, Banks-Vernonia Trail, and the Coast Trail. The loop would connect iconic landmarks such as the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood, Haystack Rock and wine country in a unified network of nonmotorized byways, creating what Mark Davison, Metro’s director of parks and planning, believes will become an international tourist magnet. On Mount Hood, it would connect to an even broader network of trails, the Pacific Crest Trail.

“This trail would show off the beauty of Northwest Oregon like nothing else,” Davison says.

Similar long trails are popular in Europe, and have been found to benefit the local tourism economy. The Infinity Loop could benefit the economy of outlying towns from Tillamook to Troutdale, Davison says. He compared it to a bicycle loop in Greece that connects 22 towns and villages.

In the end, Northwest Oregon may find that protecting its natural landscapes for wildlife and creating a massive network of recreational trails for people are mutually beneficial, with economic benefits that could be enormous, if not infinite.

(This story was originally published in the Portland Tribune on Aug. 14, 2014).

Paul Koberstein