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Preserving Washington Park must be priority moving forward

Times Observer photo by Josh Cotton The view from Washington Park at the top of the hill on Warren’s west side. The access road to the park is off of Liberty St. north of the city.

The conflict is more than a century old, dating back at least to California’s famous Hetch-Hetchy dam controversy, and can be generally characterized as the John Muir preservationist vs. “conservation through use” Gifford Pinchot utilitarian dynamic for our natural areas. It is everywhere a perpetual, exhausting tug-of-war.

The preservation point of view is in reality correct at least ninety percent of the time, but more often than not utilitarianism tends to hold sway to some degree. This is part and parcel of human nature. Most of the Earth’s livable surface is now impacted. Every once in a while, however, there comes a time for citizens to draw a line in the sand in the name of preservation for a particularly special natural area.

Such is the case with Washington Park, long one of Warren’s official “Passive Use” city parks. Its 65 acres feature an upland forest with outstanding views up and down the National Wild & Scenic Allegheny River. From its elevation 400 feet above the Allegheny, the confluence with Conewango Creek, around which Warren has been built, is striking. It is one of the few places where the elevated plateau topography of our region is obvious.

According to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, the forest type here is oak-hickory with large red and white oaks dominating. Interspersed Norway spruce and Scotch pine, planted decades ago by forward-thinking Warrenites, have now reached great heights. Blueberry, witch-hazel, and the occasional American chestnut (once an important part of the canopy across Allegheny Plateau forests), are found in the understory.

Having been a member of the City’s Parks and Recreation Commission for nearly a decade, I have seen some truly crass and cringeworthy development ideas floated which would diminish — not enhance — the naturalness of Washington Park. These include things like a frisbee golf course, and a large zip line leading from the park down across the Allegheny River. Now we are hearing about an idea to crisscross the peaceful Washington Park forest with mountain biking trails.

For many years I have wanted to prepare a detailed report outlining the concept of an enduring nature reserve at Washington Park, on par with an Audubon Nature Center, or Anders Run Natural Area, to cite two local examples, but have not had the time. So this brief essay will have to serve as an introduction instead.

There is no justification for suddenly reneging on the formal Passive Use designation for Washington Park, and the idea of mountain biking on hiking trails on public lands anywhere is unsafe on its face. And now, a rapidly growing threat to public safety on hiking trails — particularly for our vulnerable young children and elderly hikers — has emerged. Stealth motorized mountain bikes, or “e-bikes,” have exploded in popularity in recent years.

Aided by hidden electric motors, e-bikes can reach unnatural and unsafe speeds with relatively little effort. Alarmed, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have established that e-bikes are motorized vehicles (just like motorcycles, ATVs, and snowmobiles) and that they, therefore, cannot be used on non-motorized trails.

Forest Service law enforcement officials point out that they cannot differentiate e-bikes from regular mountain bikes. Since the use of e-bikes is growing exponentially, and a large percentage of mountain bikers are cavalier scofflaws, it follows that these dangerous machines will be regularly, surreptitiously used on trails that are intended to be non-motorized, such as what is being described for Washington Park.

I have initiated a Facebook page, “Protect and Preserve Washington Park,” for those who would like to follow this issue. I had to finally get off the dime due to the urgent defensive nature of this latest mountain biking threat. However, the vision is larger. Any momentum gained through the successful defeat of the mountain biking idea should be paid forward into an extended campaign — likely to take years or even decades — for comprehensive permanent preservation measures at Washington Park.

A Washington Park Nature Preserve would establish that no timber cutting or management of any kind shall take place in the park ­– in perpetuity. The idea would be to simply let nature ‘roll the dice’ at Washington Park and accept the results with interest and scientific curiosity, as is the case at Anders Run.

Establishing formal hiking trails might be nice, but if we are making a list of priorities for the park, the acquisition of subsurface properties from willing sellers should take precedence. Along with funding to decommission and cap off existing oil wells, once the rights are acquired, in order to work toward naturalizing the entire area to the greatest degree possible. When one walks through the woods there as it is, the smell of the wells is noticeable. And they are of course unsightly. It would be nice to phase that activity out over a period of time.

Washington Park should always be a place for people to picnic, view the overlook, and maybe stroll through the forest on foot in peace and quiet. Let us permanently protect it from all forms of development ideas by the next ‘snake oil salesman.’ And the next, and the next, and the next. Remember that mountain biking would also be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, paving the way for additional obtuse and inappropriate developments as the years go on.

Like-minded city residents, and even people from outside the city, should get involved. We could form an ad-hoc group, or perhaps even eventually a formal non-profit organization, “Citizens for the Preservation of Washington Park,” to pursue this good-hearted, magnanimous vision for the permanent protection of this long-cherished public resource for all future generations of Warrenites and out-of-town visitors to enjoy in its natural condition.

Please contact me at preservewashingtonpark@gmail.com if you would like to get involved.

Kirk Johnson is a resident of the City of Warren, and an eight-year member of the Parks and Recreation Commission. He holds a masters degree in environmental studies.

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