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The Intertwine Alliance: Restoring nature in the city

Through summit meetings, happy hours, and task forces, the Alliance creates opportunities for different kinds of interaction; the more interactions that occur, explains Wetter, the richer the patterns that can emerge.

Imagine yourself at a park in your neighborhood. You might be playing basketball or soccer, running or jogging, lounging in the grass, letting your dog run in the off-leash area, or pushing your kid on the swings. Do you envision this park as part of a network of natural areas, parks, and trails that stretches for hundreds of square miles across a metro area? In Portland, this vision is now becoming a reality thanks to the Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of public, private, and nonprofit organizations launched in 2011 and currently expanding its programs.

 

Graham Oaks park in Portland. Courtesy of Intertwine Alliance.
Graham Oaks park in Portland. Courtesy of Intertwine Alliance.

Formerly an initiative of Portland’s Metro regional government, the Alliance launched itself as an independent nonprofit in 2011 with a coalition of 28 partners. Today, the number of partners has blossomed to 98; the list of partners will reach 100 any day. Momentum for the Alliance is growing.

By becoming independent from Metro, the Alliance gains the ability to cross state borders from Oregon into Washington. “Habitat knows no political boundaries,” noted Executive Director Mike Wetter at a recent meeting at Ecotrust. Including Clark County, Washington allowed the project to represent the region fully on both sides of the Columbia River. The nonprofit now acts as a neutral convener, bringing together representatives from health care, sportswear, and utilities at the same table as conservation groups, landscape architects, parks developers, and municipal governments.

Mike Wetter notes boldly that the vast, diverse coalition follows chaos theory in getting most things done. “We introduce a few principles, and then allow the group to self-organize,” he explained. Through summit meetings, happy hours, and task forces, the Alliance creates opportunities for different kinds of interaction; the more interactions that occur, explains Wetter, the richer the patterns that can emerge. Organizations that often battle one another, such as the Audubon Society and the Port of Portland, can meet in a neutral space and find common ground.

 

A deer makes an appearance at Tualatin Hills Nature Park, part of Metro Portland's network of nature areas. Courtesy of Intertwine Alliance.
A deer makes an appearance at Tualatin Hills Nature Park, part of Metro Portland’s network of nature areas. Courtesy of Intertwine Alliance.

As a “single portal to nature” for the entire two-state, five-county region, the Intertwine’s website currently offers a wealth of information on the region’s vast network of natural areas. From an interactive map, the visitor can explore virtually all of the region’s existing hiking, biking, or horseback riding trails, places to swim or paddle, or wildlife viewing spots. A separate page lists upcoming events hosted by the Alliance’s partners: hikes, bike rides, wildlife viewing, and even trail maintenance work parties are included.

Engagement with the public is one of the Alliance’s main concerns. The Our Common Ground campaign will present the Intertwine’s activities to the public using eye-catching images of wildlife, meant to inspire people to “get people off their couches and out of their cars,” in Mike Wetter’s words. The scientific language often used in the conservation movement tends to be unsuited for this task; for example, the concept of a “habitat corridor” tends not to be as intuitively appealing as the image of a local alder grove filled with beautiful, chirping migratory birds. The campaign aims to make nature more accessible to the public; a prime example is the idea of a “Daycation” promoted by one of the advertisements. The idea is simple: nature is right out your door, not just a two-hour drive into the mountains or the woods. Why not take the time to enjoy it?

 

The Willamette River is habitat to humans and critters alike. Photo by Mike Houck, Intertwine Alliance.
The Willamette River is habitat to humans and critters alike. Photo by Mike Houck, Intertwine Alliance.

Beyond stoking the public’s appreciation for natural beauty, the Intertwine aims to spark recognition of nature’s importance to our health and well-being. Trees clean the air and trap greenhouse gases; wetlands filter and clean stormwater; healthy forests nurture thousands of valuable and useful plants and animals. Exposure to natural areas has been shown to alleviate attention disorders in children; using natural modes of transport such as bicycling and walking promotes a healthy workforce. The benefits that nature provides, which policymakers and scholars call “ecosystem services,” are as tangible—and sweet—as the tree fruit brought to you by the bees or the bees’ gift for pollination. Thanks to the efforts of the Intertwine Alliance, these benefits are being highlighted and made accessible to all Portlanders.