"IF IT SEEMS BARREN,” the publicist for L.L. Stub Stewart Memorial State Park told me before I drove west to visit the attraction, which opened this summer in the Coast Range, “just try to imagine what it will look like when the trees and the shrubs grow in and the buildings start aging.”

I tried, but after I ground up the long hill away from the visitor’s center, and into the heart of the first state park built in Oregon since 1972, I was mostly overwhelmed with dismay. The 1,650-acre site, 30 miles from Portland, seemed so institutional, so
Smokey Bear square, so devoid of natural charm that I felt as though I’d rolled into the parking lot of a mobile home dealer.

Carved into a patchy hillside forest that has been repeatedly logged for about 75 years, Stub Stewart State Park is home to 15 log cabins, which occupy a stump-riddled swath of land, and a 43-slot RV park that is likewise denuded. The trails winding among these clear-cuts offer none of the sinuous wonder that one gets upon reaching, say, Oswald West State Park on the coast and weaving down the narrow forest path toward the surf. No, at Stub the 15 miles of trail are set on wide-open old logging roads—and they don’t go anywhere spectacular. They just wind pointlessly beside the park’s main road, sometimes dead-ending into it, and once even crossing it. Covered by either dusty dirt or crushed rock, the trails are open to hikers, bikers and horseback riders.

Trudging along, I worried about this mismatched trio of users. (Say a cyclist came barreling head-on toward an ill-tempered horse.) I also lamented how sorely Stub, which cost $16 million to build, failed to live up to the hype of the summer’s TV commercials: In those, we beheld a mossy forest, a sunset and a marshmallow roasting over a crackling campfire, while a warm female voice burbled about “a place to get away” and “just escape.” Now, I kept coming within sight of the road. I had to concede that

Stub wasn’t designed to please the wilderness backpacker, but as I labored along the park’s steep slopes, I also wondered if it was even suited for the average marshmallow-roaster. If you wanted to take an 8-year-old cyclist out here—well, he’d need some serious cardio training.

The state should have spent its money on a less ravaged site.

Stub Stewart’s poor design looms large because in 2004, Governor Ted Kulongoski pledged to end a decades-long budget crunch for state parks by using lottery funds to develop a “park per year” until 2014. It’s too early to tell if the forthcoming parks will be more user-friendly than Stub, but a truism obtains in the world of landscape architecture: Great parks are always the spawn of a single genius. They require a designer (or a team of designers) with a coherent aesthetic—a vision. When Frederick Law Olmsted planned New York’s Central Park, for example, in 1858 he famously conceived of it as a “single work of art.”

In researching Stub, I looked for an Olmsted, for someone who could explain the concept behind the park. I left messages all over Salem before being shunted to Chris Havel, the communications coordinator for Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Havel explained that Stub’s design came from a collaboration with CH2M Hill, a Denver-based engineering firm that has maintained a Portland office for over 20 years. Founded in Corvallis in 1947, the company has helped with projects in several state parks, like Silver Falls and Fort Stevens. Of course, they’ve also had a hand in building freeways and oil pipelines in the Arctic.