Regional Greenspace Bond Measures: Three Decades of Protecting Nature Close to Home

By Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

Our system of parks, trails, and natural areas is one of the defining features of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region. This system protects biodiversity, cleans our air and water, provides access to nature, creates landscape resiliency in the face of climate change, and helps drive our green economy. From Oaks Bottom to the Chehalem Ridge, it is almost impossible to imagine our region without this incredible network of greenspaces. 

This photo shows Chehalem Ridge, one of the greenspaces protected by the bond measure.
Chehalem Ridge, photo by Mike Houck.

This fall, voters in the metro region will be asked to approve a $475 million bond measure to continue this legacy of protecting the region’s natural resources and ensuring access to nature. This measure would renew a greenspace bond measure passed by the voters in 2006, so there would be no change to the existing tax rate. The funding would be allocated in the following ways:

  • $155 million for Metro to purchase, protect, and restore the most important unprotected landscapes in the region for water quality and fish and wildlife habitat
  • $98 million to create and increase access to opportunities at existing nature parks such as Chehalem Ridge, Oxbow, and Blue Lake 
  • $40 million for Nature in Neighborhoods grants to allow partners to purchase land, restore habitat, or increase access to nature
  • $92 million to local park providers to purchase land, restore habitat, and build and maintain parks in local communities
  • $40 million for walking and biking trails identified in the Regional Trails Plan
  • $50 million for community projects that integrate nature into public projects – such as Willamette Falls – that address other community issues such as jobs, housing, and transportation

Prioritized projects will address climate change and advance racial equity. Bird Alliance of Oregon was pleased to participate with a broad and diverse group of stakeholders that included conservation groups, environmental justice groups, frontline communities, local municipalities, counties, the business community, and others in developing this measure and serves on the measure’s steering committee. Passage of this measure will be our top priority this fall, and there will be lots of opportunities to get involved. Please contact Micah Meskel at to learn more.

This bond measure continues decades of work to create our regional system. As we move forward with the campaign to pass the 2019 Nature for All bond measure, let’s also take a look back at some of the milestones that got us to this point.

1992: Measure 26-1, The Citizens Campaign for Metropolitan Greenspaces

In 1992, a small cadre of grassroots activists led by Bird Alliance of Oregon Urban Naturalist Mike Houck convinced Metro to place a $200 million bond measure on the November ballot. Although it may seem obvious today, the concept of protecting nature in the city was hardly a forgone conclusion in the early 1990s. Urban growth boundaries adopted in 1973 were proving effective at stemming the increasing tide of development onto rural farm and forest lands, but there was little to no protection for natural resources inside the UGB, and beloved natural areas that people assumed were protected were rapidly disappearing. The assertion that urban natural areas had significant ecological value was met with skepticism, and the belief that access to nature should be a fundamental part of any complete urban community was a truly radical concept. 

The groundwork for the 1992 Citizens Campaign for Metropolitan Greenspaces had been laid over the previous decade. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offered Houck the massive sum of $5,000 to take on the task of conducting Goal 5 natural resource inventories for the cities and counties in the Portland region as part of the state’s land use planning program. Houck and Esther Lev and a cadre of others proceeded to walk vast swaths of the metro region, hand mapping its most important natural resource sites. More than three decades later, those crude hand-drawn maps stack up extraordinarily well against today’s technologically advanced mapping. That work provided the foundation for a greenspace master plan adopted by Metro in 1992, which revealed that a remarkable 91 percent of the inventoried high-value natural resource sites were unprotected. Inspired by recent successful greenspace bond measures in Seattle and San Francisco, activists hatched the idea for a regional bond measure over pitchers of Blue Heron Ale at Bridgeport Brew Pub.

Six weeks out from the November election, polling showed that only 18 percent of eligible voters knew about the greenspace bond measure. While Metro had made the referral to the ballot at the behest of greenspace activists, it invested very little in actually promoting its passage. To raise the profile, greenspace activists constructed a massive birdhouse in Pioneer Square, which activists then lived in, conducting interviews and promoting passage from around and inside the lofty perch. 

The efforts did indeed raise the profile of the measure, but not enough. It ultimately went down to defeat with 44.4 percent of the vote. However, the seed for a movement had been planted. It left in its wake a burgeoning region-wide cadre of greenspace activists spearheaded by Bird Alliance of Oregon, and the concept of protecting nature in the city was going mainstream. 

Activist constructed giant birds nest in Pioneer Square used as a conversation piece to get folks to learn about the 1992 bond measure. Photo by Donna Matrazzo

1995: Ballot Measure 26-26 to Protect Open Space, Parks and Streams

In 1995, greenspace activists again prevailed upon Metro to refer a greenspace bond measure to the ballot. This time it was a more modest $135.6 million measure. There were also two other significant changes. First, elected leadership at Metro took on a much larger role to complement the grassroots effort. Second, while the majority of the funding went to acquiring the highest priority natural areas in the region, $25 million was set aside as a “local share” to allow local park providers to acquire smaller-scale parks and natural areas to meet the needs of local communities. This earned the measure support of local governments throughout the region. 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this measure was the decision to purchase lands both inside and outside the Urban Growth Boundary. Ultimately this model prevailed, with proponents successfully arguing that while it was critical to protect nature in our most urbanized and underserved areas at places like the Columbia Slough, it also would be a wise investment to buy up larger and typically much cheaper parcels beyond the UGB to serve future generations. This approach seems even wiser today: what were once viewed as remote sites now sit in close proximity to some of our fastest growing and most diverse communities, and in an era of climate change, something hardly on the radar screen in 1995.

The 1995 bond measure passed with a resounding 63 percent of the vote. Over the next decade, the measure would result in the permanent protection of more than 74 miles of river and stream frontage and 8,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including sites such as Whitaker Ponds, Gresham Buttes, Killin Wetlands, Clear Creek Canyon, Newell Creek Canyon, Cooper Mountain, portions of Forest Park, Johnson Creek, Columbia Slough, and many more. 

2006: Ballot Measure 26-80 to Protect Natural Areas, Parks and Streams

By 2006, the 1995 bond measure had been spent down, and greenspace advocates again prevailed upon Metro to refer a ballot measure to the voters, this time for $227.4 million. The measure retained the structure of the 1995 measure. However, an important new element was added: $15 million in funding would be dedicated to a capital grants program, known as “Nature in Neighborhoods,” to promote innovative nature projects and engage local groups with a focus on the most underserved communities in the region. 

The new Nature in Neighborhoods grant program marked a significant evolution in the way the community was thinking about urban conservation. Whereas in the 1990s, protecting nature in the city was viewed as a radical concept, by 2006 there was a growing emphasis on ensuring that the benefits of a healthy environment be equitably distributed, especially with regards to communities of color and low-income communities that had historically borne the brunt of environmental degradation. The Coalition for a Livable Future (1994-2015)–founded by Bird Alliance of Oregon, 1000 Friends of Oregon, Urban League of Portland, Oregon Ecumenical Ministries, affordable housing advocates and others–had been promoting an intersectional approach to developing livable urban communities that included preserving affordable housing, protecting environmental health and open spaces, creating living wage jobs and providing real transportation choices, and ending hunger. The soon-to-be published Regional Equity Atlas (2007) was providing early maps and raising consciousness about how disparities were distributed across the region. 

The Nature in Neighborhoods grant program reflected a growing understanding that more innovative approaches would be needed to reach underserved communities. Notably, the political consultants working on the measure reported that inclusion of an equity-focused component did not improve and potentially undermined its chances of passage—it was included because proponents felt it was the right thing to do and many, including Bird Alliance of Oregon, fought to make the share significantly larger.

The 2006 bond measure again passed in all three counties with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Sites protected by the resulting funding included Chehalem Ridge, Tonquin Geologic Area, Nadaka Nature Park, Cully Park, Dirksen Nature Park, parcels in the North Tualatin Mountains near Forest Park, and Grant Butte Wetlands, along with increased public access at Cooper Mountain, Gabbert Butte, Graham Oaks, and many more. As of 2019, the 1995 and 2006 bond measures have added more than 15,000 acres of protected natural areas. 

Looking Forward

Over the past three decades, regional bond measures have become one of our most powerful tools for protecting water, fish and wildlife habitat, landscape resilience, and access to nature on our urban landscapes. We have come a long way since Houck was told by local land use planners in 1982 that there “was no place for nature in the city” and the 1992 citizen-led bond measure, but we still have a long way to go–many critically important sites remain unprotected, and many communities, especially historically marginalized communities, lack access to nature. 

The 2019 measure not only will build on past efforts in terms of adding acreage, it also continues a long-term evolution in terms of how we think about equity, access, and engagement. What began more than 30 years ago with a few visionary greenspace advocates pushing a radical concept that nature is an essential component of our urban landscape, now is viewed as a critical strategy for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, an essential component of protecting clean water, clean air and biodiversity, and a fundamental part of building healthy equitable communities.