Hiking Cascadia

Reflections from the trails of beautiful Cascadia

Forest Park and Wilderness Politics (Part 1)

“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
-Henry David Thoreau

Trillium (Trillium ovatum) and wood violets (Viola sempervirens) bloom under a canopy of second-growth Douglas-fir. Nearby, three species of fern—sword (Polystichum munitum), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), and maidenhair (Adiantum aleuticum)—cover the ground under a spreading bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), its massive leaves, a foot across, blocking out the sun on this spring day. In the branches of the maple, near lichens and mosses and singing birds grows the epiphytic licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza). It often spends its whole life on a tree branch and is particularly fond of bigleaf maple. It is not a parasite, but lives on whatever water and nutrients can be captured from the air and whatever happens to land in the moss into which its roots grow. The common name comes from the licorice flavor of its roots, which were chewed by many native tribes. Ferns represent an early stage in the evolution of land plants. They have developed vascular tissue, allowing them to grow much taller than mosses, hornworts, and liverworts, yet they still reproduce via spores as ferns predated the evolution of flowering plants by around 200 million years. Aside from these ferns, much of the ground cover here is provided by dull-Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) with its holly-like leaves and racemes of yellow flowers turning to chalky-blue berries in summer. The closely related state flower of Oregon, Mahonia aquifolium, or tall-Oregon grape, is, well, taller. Around a bend in the trail, where a bit more light can penetrate, a tangle of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), a close relative of raspberry and blackberry, shows off its large white flower, a tempting reminder of the delicious fruit soon to come.

Wood violet in Forest Park.

Wood violet in Forest Park.

This scene can be found in many forests of the Pacific Northwest. It just so happens that this scene took place within the city limits of one of its largest cities, Portland, Oregon. Forest Park is over 5,100 acres and contains around 70 miles of hiking trails making it one of the largest, if not the largest, forested urban parks in the country. Additionally, hundreds of species of native plants, as well as a few notable non-native ones, fill this forest escape. Animals, including black-tailed deer, bobcats, bats, several owls, and woodpeckers are a few of the dozens of animals that inhabit the park, even including the large and wide-roaming Roosevelt elk. While it is an urban park, its size means it stretches to the outer edges of the city limits and it is easy to find yourself relatively alone in the woods while still within a moderately large city. The idea for Forest Park stretches back well over a hundred years. It was one of the central park proposals within the Olmsted Portland Park Plan, first proposed to the city in 1903 by the Olmsted Brothers architectural firm. The plan laid out numerous areas of the city that should be purchased and set aside as green spaces, including Forest Park, Mt Tabor Park, Sellwood Park, and Ross Island. The report also details the value inherent in setting aside public green space: “parks not only add to the beauty of a city and to the pleasure of living in it, but are exceedingly important factors in developing the healthfulness, morality, intelligence, and business prosperity of its residents.” They even went as far as to say that, “a liberal provision of parks in a city is one of the surest manifestations of the intelligence, degree of civilization and progressiveness of its citizens.” One cannot help but wonder what current city leaders, who seem more than happy to let every lot in Portland, vacant or otherwise, be filled with expensive, ultra-modern condominiums, would make of this report. If a liberal provision of parks denotes an intelligent and progressive population, what does a liberal provision of exclusionary condos say?

Thimbleberry flower.

Thimbleberry flower.

The Olmsted report also called for parks which showcased the natural beauty already present in the land, saying, “enormous advantages are gained by locating parks and parkways so as to take advantage of beautiful natural scenery.” Located atop the northwest hills above downtown Portland, called the Tualatin Mountains by local American Indians, this is something Forest Park certainly has. Beautiful vistas provide views stretching across the city and beyond to the Cascade Mountains. In 1903, however, the city owned little of this land. It was necessary they purchased it quickly to avoid what had happened in many other cities in places that could create beautiful parks; as the Olmsteds described: “people built with the backs of their houses upon the rivers and lakes, thus not only excluding the public from continuous access to them but ruining their beauty.” John C. Olmsted believed that where land that contained local beauty could “be fairly well spared from the commercial uses, public squares, parks, and parkways should be located,” and so, seeing the slow pace at which Portland was buying up land, commented that ‘Portland is not awake to her opportunities.” Portland did, however, implement many of Olmstead’s plans, including Forest Park, though it happened decades after the initial proposal. After acquiring the land piece by piece, the city finally dedicated 4,200 acres of land as Forest Park in 1948, and continued to expand it by another 1,000 acres or so to create today’s park.

The value of natural urban parks to humans is obvious to those of us lucky enough to live in a city with access to these places. They represent a refuge of quiet and beauty in our backyards, an escape from the cars and buses. There are few treatments for stress or anxiety better than a walk in the woods. It is obvious urban parks provide an escape for humans, but an interesting question, is what do they do for wildlife? These spaces cannot be called wilderness, yet they do provide a home for many species who would otherwise be pushed out by development. The value of natural urban areas depends, for one, on the species. It is much easier for smaller species to find refuge, as well as animals able to safely travel through urban space to find the park. Thus, we find that for migratory birds and small mammals, these natural spaces can be very beneficial. This leads to another important factor: the size of the park. Forest Park is large enough to hold a decent population of deer, yet the elk seen there are only passing through. Elk herds need a very large space to roam and so cannot be contained in the park. Forest Park just happens to be near enough natural space, both public and private, that elk can travel through it. There are also animals that simply cannot live with large amounts of human disturbance. Northern spotted owls, those beautiful endangered birds who have done as much for Northwest forests as just about any human, need undisturbed forests to thrive. Disturbance levels in preserved lands are determined by edge effects, meaning that the edges of natural areas are more exposed to human activity such as roads and buildings and general development and thus uninhabitable for many of these sensitive species. Urban spaces, even those as large as Forest Park, are essentially all edge, at least for sensitive species such as spotted owls or mountain lions.

Anemone flower, Forest Park.

Anemone flower, Forest Park.

Where these urban natural areas truly show their value, however, is in giving people easy access to nature, including those who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to wild things. Anyone can hike and explore without having to invest time and money in traveling to a distant or remote preserve. Parents in Portland and Seattle and many other cities can take their kids into the woods without driving through hours of sprawl and farmland. They can walk or bike or ride the bus to the edge of these natural areas and find bright yellow banana slugs moving across the trail, watch a woodpecker search for insects under the bark of Douglas-fir, watch a bumblebee bouncing from flower to flower, collecting pollen as it goes. The love for nature can be discovered in our own backyards. Additionally, backpacking isn’t for everyone, it often involves long drives and time off work or away from home and is physically demanding, but anyone can visit Forest Park, anyone can see native plants and animals and listen to the birds instead of the cars. To fight for nature, to stand up to those who would let it slip away in the name of profits or progress or apathetic procrastination, one must first experience nature. This is the greatest gift urban green spaces can give us. Not only are they important for “developing the healthfulness, morality, intelligence, and business prosperity of its residents,” they are also important in developing a sense of the significance, scope, and beauty of the natural world and hopefully strengthening our will to protect it.

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot

Conservation has a relatively long history in the United States. The first large-scale effort to protect lands was our National Forest system. Beginning in 1891, the Forest Reserve Act allowed Presidents to declare lands as forest reserves. This was done by several Presidents, but when Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, conservation reached new heights. Along with Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service and close friend of Teddy, Roosevelt placed 230,000,000 acres of land into the hands of the federal government. Today, the Forest Service controls about 193,000,000 acres. An important question, however, is just how are those lands managed? It is true that these lands are far more protected under the federal government than they would be if they were left to the free-market, this is made obvious by the extreme resistance to the Forest Service by industrialists and the very wealthy of the time who stood to make a lot of money exploiting forest resources. However, these are not preserves in the strictest sense. Pinchot saw forest management as “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.” (The Training of a Forester). To Pinchot and Roosevelt, conserving a forest was not the same as preserving it. Preservation meant setting it aside and sparing it from all destructive human practices, something Pinchot and Roosevelt had neither the will nor the ability to do. In fact, it was this idea which led to a rift between Pinchot and his wilderness mentor John Muir. Where Pinchot was practical, a wealthy politician well-versed in compromise, who believed the land should work for the people, Muir was idealistic and saw the land as sacred and best when left alone. This came to a head in Muir’s beloved Yosemite National Park. San Francisco wanted to dam the Tuolumne River, flooding the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley, near the comparably beautiful Yosemite Valley, to provide more water for its growing population. Pinchot supported the plan while Muir vehemently opposed it. In 1923, after Muir’s death, the dam was completed and the valley flooded, soon to be joined by Glen Canyon, over the protests of fellow conservation idealist Edward Abbey, on the list of beautiful canyons lost to the world under reservoirs. This aside, however, we as a nation owe Roosevelt and Pinchot a tremendous amount of gratitude for the lands they saved, something Muir himself realized before his death, as his Sierra Club dedicated a giant sequoia to Pinchot in the Muir redwoods. It is fair to say that the American populist conservation movement can be traced back to these men.

John Muir

John Muir

In addition to the National Forest Service, the National Park Service was established in 1916, formalizing the preservation of land as National Parks that had begun with Yellowstone National Park in 1872. While they do not control as much land as the Forest Service, National Parks are much more focused on preservation than National Forests, which still allow some logging and other industrial and agricultural practices. None of that is allowed in National Parks, though tourism certainly is. These parks receive millions of visitors each year, many of whom remain in their vehicles for most of their tour, watching vistas and animals framed through a car window, before returning to their cozy hotels at night. Edward Abbey took pity on these tourists: “They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.” National Parks contain some of the most extraordinary wilderness in the world, however, one cannot truly experience this from a car, a road, or a hotel. I spent two summers working in Yellowstone National Park, and the times I remember most dearly were not peering over tourists at Old Faithful or standing among crowds at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, they were on a trail, away from the roads and the hum of cars, in wilderness, true and untamed. National Parks are an undoubtedly great idea and have introduced many, myself included, to nature. Yet they often fall short when it comes to sparking that love and reverence for the natural world that the conservation movement needs. There could be many ways to change this, but I’ll let Edward Abbey give his proposal as only he can: “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs–anything–but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.” (Desert Solitaire).

Aldo Leoplod and fellow conservationist Olaus Murie.

Aldo Leoplod (left) and fellow conservationist Olaus Murie.

A major step forward in American conservation was the Wilderness Act of 1964. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson, this monumental legislation created a mechanism for designating formal wilderness areas. Currently, nearly 110,000 acres of land are protected as wilderness. The Act defines “wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Also, it must retain “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” It also declares that “there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” This act gave us the true wilderness that was lacking from the Forest Service and National Park Service. Here we have lands truly wild and free, where we can enjoy them, and then leave them as they are for future generations to do the same. The best hikes I have ever taken were in these wonderful places, far from roads or cars or buildings, surrounded by nothing but nature. The primary mover and advocates of the Wilderness Act was the Wilderness Society, a group founded by some of our nation’s greatest conservationists: Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKay (the “Father of the Appalachian Trail”), Bernard Frank, Robert Sterling Yard, Harvey Broome, and Bob Marshal, who was independently wealthy and thus funded the Society in its early years. Through political advocacy and public persuasion, the group was able to successfully promote wilderness as an essential American right, a place to escape from civilization and to be alone with nature. We owe these men, and many other advocates a great debt.

Hetch Hetchy Valley before the dam.

Hetch Hetchy Valley before the dam.

Well,  there is part 1 of this long entry. In the second and final installment, we explore the politics of wilderness and what we as a society must do to ensure the protection of wilderness and our global environment. Stay tuned to find out!

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Finally,  let me know what you think. How has wilderness affected your life? How do you see the the pros and cons of our various forms of federal land protection? What have you seen while exploring Forest Park?



  1. Bill Cunningham

    October 5, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    I am halfway through my 18th time of walking all the trails in Forest Park; my fourth time this year alone. I still find something new every time I go. One of the treats for me is finding mutations of trillium. I have found ones with 2, 3, 4, 5, and even six petals. I dearly love FP.

    • Oliver Anderson

      October 6, 2015 at 5:35 pm

      Very cool! It is a beautiful place.

      An interesting thing about trillium is the change from white to pink color could be a signal to insects that they have been pollinated.

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