FOREST PARK’S NEW RANGER stands barely north of five feet tall with thinning red hair and a pair of square tortoiseshell glasses. Smokey Bear he is not. But this summer, as legions of Portlanders fan outward to commune with nature, Bob McCoy will be a similarly potent symbol as the first-ever full-time guide, guard, and all-around go-to guy for Forest Park.
McCoy’s daily presence in the woods (the city promoted him from a seasonal ranger to full-time in September) is meant to help solve one of Forest Park’s most elemental yet vexing challenges: a vacuum of information. Despite its status as one of the largest city-owned wilderness areas in the country—a 5,100-acre, fir-studded blanket that cradles some 80 miles of trails and more than 60 native species of mammals and 100 species of birds, all within yodeling distance of a city of more than 500,000 people—Forest Park has some glaring omissions. There is no park visitor center. No central trailhead. No singular place to a grab a brochure. The few permanent metal trail maps that are scattered inside the park are old, faded, and hard to decipher. Trails are signed, but it’s not always clear who has a right to use them, leading to clashes between the park’s myriad user groups: mountain bikers, hikers, runners, equestrians, and dog walkers. And until McCoy started walking the beat, there was nobody to provide a compass, or a referee’s whistle.
True, Portland has always employed a stable of a 10 or so seasonal urban rangers. But these positions had to be split among dozens of city parks, so none could devote the kind of day-in-day-out attention that a wilderness on such a vast scale demands, much less effectively enforce any rules or educate visitors about their impact on the park.
McCoy now patrols up to 15 miles a day in the park—by foot and mountain bike—logging user stats and wildlife sightings, and fielding questions about everything from what trail to hike to the complexities of the park’s watersheds. But with rule-enforcing powers that include handing out citations to owners of off-leash dogs, he is fully aware that not every park lover will welcome his badge-carrying status. “I’ll probably piss off half the people I meet,” he chuckles.
A former Philadelphia-based editor and publisher who decided to switch career paths when his wife wanted to relocate to her native Portland, McCoy says he’s no stranger to conflict. “I used to deal with authors,” he says, “and they’re the most difficult people you’ll meet.”
If ever Forest Park needed a smooth-talking Smokey, it’s now. In 2010, the park suffered a series of sieges both physical and political. First, in February a rogue mountain bike trail was hacked out of the woods in an area north of Germantown Road, in the park’s pristine North Management Unit, an area frequented by migratory elk. The discovery effectively soured the public and elected officials to even law-abiding mountain bikers like members of the Northwest Trail Alliance, a mountain bike advocacy group that had been in the process of negotiating with the city to add more singletrack trails to Forest Park. Two months later, a Linfield College professor released a study that concluded that young trees were dying in the park at an alarming rate.