The Other Mirror Lake

Posted August 19, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Cultural History, Natural History, Trips

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
"Palisades, Columbia River" This 1880s scene captured by Frank J. Haynes, official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Crown Point (then called "Thor's Heights") and its lacy waterfall are the backdrop for what was known as Echo Bay in the early days of settlement.

“Palisades, Columbia River” This 1880s scene captured by Frank J. Haynes, official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Crown Point (then called “Thor’s Heights”) and its lacy waterfall are the backdrop for what was known as Echo Bay in the early days of settlement.

Though seen by far more travelers than the famous Mirror Lake on Mount Hood, a stunning lake by the same name in the Columbia Gorge is unknown to most. That’s because most of the visitors to the “other” Mirror Lake, in plain sight at the foot of Crown Point, are usually speeding by on I-84. Stealing a glimpse of this lovely lake while dodging the steady stream of Walmart trucks that race through the Gorge is risky business!

This “other” Mirror Lake also has a deeper identity crisis: after all, it has only been around since the modern highway through the Gorge was built in the 1950s, and sliced off what was once an inlet to the Columbia to form the shallow lake we know today.

"Echo Bay, Columbia River" by Frank J. Haynes (1885)

“Echo Bay, Columbia River” by Frank J. Haynes (1885)

When the earliest photographers were visiting the Gorge in the 1880s, the inlet was known as Echo Bay, formed where Young Creek (the stream that flows from nearby Shepperd’s Dell) meandered through extensive wetlands, and finally into the Columbia River.

The idyllic scene of Echo Bay in the late 1800s was framed by stately stands of Black cottonwood and Oregon ash, a rocky basalt island with a gnarled grove of Oregon white oak, flocks of ducks and geese and a wispy waterfall cascading down the massive cliffs of Crown Point, above. All of these scenic ingredients are still found there, today, albeit hemmed in by roads and railroads.

Early 1900s view of Crown Point, Echo Bay, Rooster Rock and the salmon cannery from Chanticleer Point.

Early 1900s view of Crown Point, Echo Bay, Rooster Rock and the salmon cannery from Chanticleer Point.

With an 800-foot buttress on one side and the main steam of the Columbia River on the other, Echo Bay was the path of least resistance when the railroads came to the Gorge in the late 1800s. Today’s Union Pacific tracks generally follow the historic railroad alignment, traversing the base of Crown Point along the south shore of the bay, and passing within a few feet of Crown Point’s waterfall.

This early 1900s topographic map shows Echo Bay as it existed until World War II (under the words Rooster Rock). Crown Point isn't labeled on this early map, but is the marked by the sharp bend in the historic highway directly adjacent to Echo Bay.

This early 1900s topographic map shows Echo Bay as it existed until World War II (under the words Rooster Rock). Crown Point isn’t labeled on this early map, but is the marked by the sharp bend in the historic highway directly adjacent to Echo Bay.

Another early map view, this time from around 1900, showing the steep access road that connected the cannery at Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point and the historic Columbia River Highway on the rim of the Gorge.

Another early map view, this time from around 1900, showing the steep access road that connected the cannery at Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point and the historic Columbia River Highway on the rim of the Gorge.

Later in the 1800s, a salmon cannery opened near the mouth of the bay, at another small cove at the western base of Rooster Rock (the cannery was also located near the spot where the Lewis and Clark Expedition had camped on November 2, 1805 on their westward journey). Until the late 1940s, the only land access to the cannery was along a narrow dirt road that descended from the rim of the Gorge at Chanticleer Point (explorers can still follow that old road, and state parks planners are considering reopening it as a trail in the future).

Rooster Rock and salmon cannery in the early 1900s.

Rooster Rock and salmon cannery in the early 1900s.

Few travelers used the old cannery road, so for more than sixty years of the post-settlement era in the Gorge, Echo Bay was most seen from train windows, or glimpsed from the high cliffs along the Historic Columbia River Highway after it was completed in 1916.

  1920s view east from near Chanticleer Point showing Rooster Rock, the salmon cannery, original railroad, Echo Bay and Crown Point.


1920s view east from near Chanticleer Point showing Rooster Rock, the salmon cannery, original railroad, Echo Bay and Crown Point.

1920s view east from Crown Point showing the wetlands and meadows of Young Creek that extended east from Echo Bay (the edge of the bay is in the lower left corner of this photo)

1920s view east from Crown Point showing the wetlands and meadows of Young Creek that extended east from Echo Bay (the edge of the bay is in the lower left corner of this photo)

By the end of World War II, the old highway was deemed too slow and narrow for the 20th Century and Americans were increasingly interested in traveling by automobile, not rail. So, by the 1940s a massive project to build a river-level, modern highway through the Gorge was underway.

The modern highway through the Gorge was built in a nearly straight line on twenty feet of rock fill across the lowlands below Crown Point. The elevated road kept the highway surface above flood levels, but also served as a dike, cutting off Echo Bay from the river and forming the strong of small lakes we know today.

1920s view from Chanticleer Point with the approximate route of the modern highway shown as the dashed orange line, along with other landmarks in the Gorge.

1920s view from Chanticleer Point with the approximate route of the modern highway shown as the dashed orange line, along with other landmarks in the Gorge.

[click here for a larger view]

At some point in the 1950s, the largest of these lakes became known as Mirror Lake, though the origin of the name is unknown. The newly created Mirror Lake joined a very long list of lakes with that name, and notably a very famous cousin that mirrors Mount Hood.

While the changes to the area that came with the 1950s construction of the modern highway through the Gorge were mostly in the negative column for the natural environment, the convenient new road access did allow ODOT (which once operated our state park system) to build a large new state park at Rooster Rock in the mid-1950s.

This 1954 map shows the (then new) modern highway and Mirror Lake of today, though the lake had not yet been named the Rooster Rock interchange and park developments had not been constructed.

This 1954 map shows the (then new) modern highway and Mirror Lake of today, though the lake had not yet been named the Rooster Rock interchange and park developments had not been constructed.

Land acquisition for the new Rooster Rock State Park began in 1937, and continued well beyond the development of the park, with a total area of nearly 900 acres by the mid-1980s.

The new park included its very own interchange on the highway, though it was built at the cost of pushing the eastbound exit ramp over a filled area of the lake. Hundreds of paved parking spots were build along a half-mile stretch of beach that once lined the Columbia River here, and Rooster Rock became one of the most heavily-visited state parks in Oregon.

The brand-new interchange and Rooster Rock State Park as it appeared in the late 1950s, adjacent to Mirror Lake.

The brand-new interchange and Rooster Rock State Park as it appeared in the late 1950s, adjacent to Mirror Lake.

Today, the beach (and the accompanying crowds) at Rooster Rock have mostly eroded away, in part because of changes in dredging of the shipping channel. Yet, one remnant of the former Echo Bay can still be seen here, as a small, unnamed cove at the eastern foot of Rooster Rock that is the truncated mouth of Echo Bay, cut off by the modern highway. The little cove now hosts a boat dock, and is easily seen by eastbound highway travelers.

The boat docks in the remnant of Echo Bay that still survives north of the highway, below Rooster Rock (the cliffs of Crown Point are in the background; photo Oregon State Pqrks).

The boat docks in the remnant of Echo Bay that still survives north of the highway, below Rooster Rock (the cliffs of Crown Point are in the background; photo Oregon State Pqrks).

Young Creek still flows into Mirror Lake, but is now channeled through a culvert under the highway to the small cove by Rooster Rock, where it then flows into the Columbia River.

For more than a century, the lowlands along Young Creek and Echo Bay were farmed by early settlers in the area, but in recent decades the entirety of the original Young Creek wetlands adjacent to Mirror Lake have come into public ownership as part of Rooster Rock State Park.

1950s view of the Young Creek lowlands east of Mirror Lake and the (then) new Highway 30.

1950s view of the Young Creek lowlands east of Mirror Lake and the (then) new Highway 30.

The State of Oregon has since been restoring the Young Creek lowland to its former natural state as a wildlife reserve, with a lush mosaic of tree stands, meadows, marshes and ponds. Mirror Lake, itself, has become a surprising haven for waterfowl, with flocks of geese, ducks and white egrets resting and nesting there — a surprising and welcome twist in an area so heavily impacted by human activity over the past 150 years.

Visiting Mirror Lake

While a lake flanked on one side by a freeway and a railroad on the other might not seem like a promising hiking destination, the views of Mirror Lake are just as spectacular today as they were when the first photographers visited Echo Bay in the 1880s.

You can visit the modern lake by taking the eastbound Rooster Rock State Park exit. The park access road curves left, across the freeway overpass. Instead, park on the gravel shoulder on the right, where a gated service road drops to the lake.

Modern topo maps of the Mirror Lake, Crown Point and the Rooster Rock State Park area.

Modern topo maps of the Mirror Lake, Crown Point and the Rooster Rock State Park area.

(click here for a larger map view)

You can follow the service road and explore along the lakeshore in about the same spot that Frank Haynes captured the iconic view at the top of this article in 1885. All of the land here is public, so feel free to explore and reflect on both the long human history and natural beauty of this remarkable spot!

Cool news in the summer heat!

Posted July 31, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Blog News, Cultural History, Natural History

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

In my last post, I alluded to some pending good news on the WyEast beat, and in this article I’ll share a trio of pleasantly cool developments for our otherwise scorching summer:

Punchbowl Park Project

Starting off with the big news, the folks behind the Punchbowl Park project learned in late June that they had been awarded a State of Oregon grant of $470,000. These funds will make it possible for Hood River County to acquire the 103-acre Punchbowl Park site in partnership with the Western Rivers Conservancy.

Kayakers at the Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

Kayakers at the Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

This is a huge step forward for this citizen-led movement, a major grass-roots effort guided by Heather Staten of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC). Now that the future of the site is secure, Heather and her organization will be working with the county to begin building a recreational trail network through the new park for the public to enjoy.

Map of proposed trail network at Punchbowl Park

Map of proposed trail network at Punchbowl Park

[click here for a larger map]

Much more work lies ahead for Punchbowl Park, and I’ll continue to post updates here on new developments and opportunities to get involved in the trail building over the coming years. Kudos to Heather and those who pitched in for the tireless work that made this happen. Bringing this area into public ownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that will pay off for many generations to come!

You can already explore Punchbowl Park in its undeveloped state now by following the maze of user trails that already exist there. You will likely notice signs of recent logging — part of an operation to remove diseased trees from the forest in hopes of limiting their spread. The long-term plan for the new park is to let nature take over, and allow the forest to recover to a more natural state after a century of timber harvesting.

Restore Warren Falls

Warren Creek canyon (and falls) from across the Columbia

Warren Creek canyon (and falls) from across the Columbia

For a second bit of cool news, we move west to Warren Falls. In mid-July, I sent a “Hail Mary” plea to local legislators in the Hood River area asking for their (divine?) intervention to somehow prod the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) into decommissioning the Warren Creek diversion tunnel and restoring Warren Falls. I’ve posted several articles on this proposal (as well as this Oregon Field Guide story) in hopes of doing this needed restoration work when the state will have heavy equipment in the area as part of the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, which will soon cross Warren Creek.

My plea for help was answered promptly and with enthusiasm by State Senator Chuck Thomsen of Hood River. Senator Thomsen agreed to me at the Starvation Creek Wayside early one morning last week for an inspection of the Warren Falls site and a briefing on my proposal to restore the falls. After our tour, he offered to write a letter to both ODOT and the Governor’s office asking them to put Warren Falls on their to-do list. Boom!

The author with Senator Chuck Thomsen at Warren Creek

The author with Senator Chuck Thomsen at Warren Creek

More to come, but simply contacting a legislator has already triggered a call from an ODOT surrogate, essentially asking me to cease and desist in my efforts. I assured them that I had no desire to delay the larger state trail project, but still believe the agency should (and can) do right by undoing their illegal diversion of Warren Creek — and restoring Warren Falls in the process.

I’m convinced that if ODOT channeled the spirit of Samuel Lancaster when he designed the historic highway a century ago, they would easily discover both the will and funding needed to make this happen. And if they do, Sam Lancaster will surely approve — wherever he might be!

If you’re interested in more detail, here’s a (large) PDF of my Hail Mary! letter to Senator Thomsen.

Palmer Glacier gets a Reprieve

Like tractors on a corn field, snowcats plow (and salt) the Palmer Glacier for summer skiers

Like tractors on a corn field, snowcats plow (and salt) the Palmer Glacier for summer skiers

Five years ago, I posted this article challenging the Timberline Ski Resort on their practice of “conditioning” the Palmer Glacier with the equivalent of 500 tons (picture 500 pickup loads) of salt on the glacier each summer.

To defend the practice, the resort points to water quality testing downstream showing only “reasonably elevated levels” of salt in the tributaries that feed into the Salmon River, as if there is something reasonable about purposely pouring salt into one of our premier rivers. The Salmon River is not only treasured for its epic waterfalls and rugged gorge, it’s also a wild and scenic river and among the few salmon and steelhead streams in the Oregon Cascades with no downstream dams to block fish migration. There’s a lot at stake, here.

The source of the Salmon River at the terminus of the Palmer Glacier

The source of the Salmon River at the terminus of the Palmer Glacier

The Forest Service, meanwhile, is also of the “well, let’s see what happens” mindset, and officially permits the Timberline resort to keep dumping tons of salt on Mount Hood most fragile glacier. And yes, it’s still a glacier in name, though you may have noticed that the official media term coming from both the Timberline Resort and the Forest Service is the dismissive “Palmer Snowfield”. I can only guess the thinking behind this, but it’s hard to imagine it not being an attempt to downplay the impacts of salting the glacier.

Yup, still the Palmer Glacier…

Yup, still the Palmer Glacier…

Meanwhile, the Palmer Glacier continues to shrink, along with the rest of our Cascade glaciers in this period of global climate change. The Timberline Resort actually posted a letter to President Obama on their website proclaiming their “strong support for policies to address climate change”, all the while purposely accelerating the melting of their bread-and-butter glacier. Given the contradiction, it’s fairly easy to differentiate the empty rhetoric from the short-term profit motives.

How salty is this runoff from the Palmer Glacier? Enough for the Timberline Resort to be on the defensive, apparently.

How salty is this runoff from the Palmer Glacier? Enough for the Timberline Resort to be on the defensive, apparently.

Ski areas don’t just bring invisible pollution to the Salmon River -- here, a broken boundary pole and ski trash litter the Salmon River headwaters.

Ski areas don’t just bring invisible pollution to the Salmon River — here, a broken boundary pole and ski trash litter the Salmon River headwaters.

The greatest tragedy is that we own the land and the glacier, not the resort. They’re simply leasing the space. So, after the glacier is gone, we’ll own the polluted alpine slopes left behind by the salting practice — as the effects of salt pollution are long-term in nature, and of little concern for ski resort balance sheets or Forest Service concession permits.

So, where’s the cool news in this story? Just that the Timberline resort is closing down the Palmer ski season this weekend — a full month before their advertised “June through Labor Day” summer season concludes.

The Palmer Glacier won't miss those snowcats, skiers or tons of salt this August!

The Palmer Glacier won’t miss those snowcats, skiers or tons of salt this August!

This bit of good news for the Palmer Glacier and Salmon River is real: it translates into hundreds of tons of salt that won’t be spread on the glacier over the month of August this year, and that in turn equals less salt in the river and fragile alpine slopes in a dangerously low water year. It might even mean less melting of the glacier than might happen otherwise.

So, it’s cool news of a sort… and might just help keep the Palmer Glacier around just a bit longer.

WyEast Roundup: the good, the bad and the ugly!

Posted June 30, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Uncategorized

Mount Hood from Hood River Mountain in 2014

Mount Hood from Hood River Mountain in 2014

Lots of activity on Mount Hood this spring, so this roundup is a mash-up of three updates: one good, one bad and one just plain ugly. We’ll start with the latter, and get that part over with!

The Ugly: Hood River Mountain Logged!

Anywhere else, this would be a national park or preserve… here, just another clearcut (same spot as the opening photo)

Anywhere else, this would be a national park or preserve… here, just another clearcut (same spot as the opening photo)

Last winter the SDS Lumber Co. of Bingen, Washington quietly put the word out to the hiking community that the beloved Hood River Mountain trail would be closed this year for a logging operation. Not included in the announcement was the fact that the trail would actually be destroyed in the process, never to reopen.

It was their right, of course, and as the company SDS Lumber has been more generous than most timber companies in allowing hikers and cyclists to visits its forest holdings. The company had been planning this for a while, sending requests to hiking websites as long as two years ago to pull trip guides describing the Hood River Mountain trail.

Before-and-after views of the savaged summit area

Before-and-after views of the savaged summit area

(Click here for a larger view)

But the logging operation that began this spring turned out to be worse than anyone who loved Hood River Mountain could have imagined. Not only was the old trail to the summit completely destroyed, SDS pushed a 25-foot deep pile of gravel and debris over the actual summit of the mountain, burying the gorgeous meadows and boulder garden where countless hikers used to take in the stunning views.

Then-and-now views toward Hood River from the summit

Then-and-now views toward Hood River from the summit

(Click here for a larger view)

The destruction of the summit area wasn’t out of malice, though arguably, there’s a certain amount of malicious disregard for the environment required to treat any piece of land with this degree of brutal disregard, no matter who owns it. But in fact, the bulldozers flattened the summit simply so it could serve as the log yarding area for logs cut from a large clearcut encompassing the entire north slope of Hood River Mountain.

Then-and-now view north toward Mount Adams from the summit

Then-and-now view north toward Mount Adams from the summit

(Click here for a larger view)

As tragic as this turn of events is for local hikers, it’s also a useful reminder that scenic gems like Hood River Mountain belong in the hands of the public, not timber companies whose sole master is the corporate bottom line. According to one local activist, SDS Lumber declined an offer from a national land trust for the property a few years ago, so that option seems to be out of the question — or is it?

Ironically, the recent logging might open the door for another offer from a land trust, now that the lucrative timber has been logged. Another possibility could be a land swap of less prominent Hood River County or Forest Service lands for this site. A swap offer could also be timely, now that the land has less immediate value to the timber industry for the standing board feet it represents.

Panorama of the "new" summit piled on top of Hood River Mountain

Panorama of the “new” summit piled on top of Hood River Mountain

It’s tempting to judge SDS Lumber for the destruction of Hood River Mountain — and for those keeping track, SDS was also involved in the notorious clearcut that marred the south wall of the Columbia River Gorge two years ago, above Koberg State Park.

But the function of a corporation is to make money, after all, and cutting trees at maximum profit is how STS does it. That said, clearcutting is discredited practice and scientifically indefensible. So is spraying the clear-cut with massive quantities of herbicides after logging to block any sort of natural recovery process and allow for a monoculture Douglas fir plantation to replace what was so recently a biologically diverse forest.

Panoramic view of the new clearcut from the "new" summit

Panoramic view of the new clearcut from the “new” summit

If SDS allows the new clearcut on Hood River Mountain to recover naturally in the coming years, with no herbicides, it will show itself to be better than most timber corporations. Most notable in the latter practice is Weyerhauser, which has picked up the baton in the continued deforestation (and conversion to monoculture plantations) of the nearby West Fork Hood River valley that began when the private lands there were still owned by Longview Fibre.

We’ll know next spring, when the clearcut will either be green with recovering understory species (and over time, young conifers) — or brown and completely dead following an herbicide treatment. Let’s hope SDS allows nature to be part of the recovery, now that the trees have been cut.

The Bad: U.S. 26 Widening…

What the slope across from Mirror Lake looks like now

What the slope across from Mirror Lake looks like now

If you haven’t driven the Laurel Hill section of U.S. 26 lately, you’re in for a shock. As described in a series of articles in this blog, ODOT is in the processing of widening this stretch of highway to “improve safety”. Translation: they are adding passing lanes to allow skiers to “safely” speed just a little faster down the mountain on busy winter weekends.

As its main “safety” feature, ODOT is also adding a center median barrier from the base of Laurel Hill all the way to Government Camp to prevent head-on collisions (though these are exceptionally rare, according to ODOT’s own data) as part of the $37 million widening project. ODOT’s own safetly consultants suggested that simply lowering and enforcing speeds during the few snowy evenings on weekends when their data show crashes happening could have accomplished the same goal for less, and with much less impact on the mountain, but widening the highway was always the goal.

The tradeoff for installing freeway-style median barricades will be more difficult access to the Mirror Lake and Laurel Hill trailheads, with those approaching from Government Camp forced to drive to the bottom of Laurel Hill, complete a U-turn, then drive several miles back up the hill to park at the trailhead.

ODOT is still cutting away the north side of Laurel Hill near the historic Chute

ODOT is still cutting away the north side of Laurel Hill near the historic Chute

To fit all of these “improvements” in, ODOT is carving away massive chunks of Laurel Hill, from the Mirror Lake trailhead all the way down to the “map curve” — the corner with a pullout near the bottom of Laurel Hill where Mount Hood first comes into view. These scars along a route designated as a “scenic byway” by ODOT will take generations to heal, if ever.

To highway engineers, the $37 million price tag for this project might not seem a lot (just a quarter of what was spent to design a bridge that will never be built over the Columbia River, for example!). But just think what $37 million might have bought at Laurel Hill: how about a parkway design that would have managed the ski traffic by calming it, not speeding it up, while also respecting all those who seek a calm and scenic driving experience as explore Mount Hood?

Or better yet, how about restoring the extensive abandoned segments of the old loop highway, just as ODOT has been doing in the Columbia River Gorge, to provide a world-class way for bikes and hikers to travel through the area?

Nope. These alternative projects will have to wait for another day — and new mindset at ODOT.

The rock wall opposite the popular pullout at the "map curve" is being massively cut back, supposedly to prevent loose rocks from landing on the highway… and to widen the road, of course

The rock wall opposite the popular pullout at the “map curve” is being massively cut back, supposedly to prevent loose rocks from landing on the highway… and to widen the road, of course

Most of the destruction thus far is according to plan, though the quality of the concrete medians is still an open question: ODOT promised “architectural” medians that would attempt to complement the scenic nature of the highway, but has since been backing away from that commitment. Generic Jersey barricades (like those found on urban freeways) are more likely, and would be strangely appropriate, given the overall travesty of this project. Anything better would just be lipstick on a pig, after all.

A post-mortem of the widening project will be posted in this blog upon completion next year. For background, here is a previous articles on the U.S. 26 widening project: Highway 26: Last Chance to weigh in! (scroll to the bottom of the linked article for additional links to articles about the highway project).

The Good: Mountain Goats!

The lone WyEast goat on Yocum Ridge skedaddles (Photo courtesy William Imholt)

The lone WyEast goat on Yocum Ridge skedaddles (Photo courtesy William Imholt)

Thankfully, not all of the news on Mount Hood is ugly or even bad! Consider that local hiker Bill Imholt not only spotted a mountain goat on Yocum Ridge a few weeks ago, he also captured a photo of it! The above photo shows the

Bill then contacted the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), who speculate that the goat (a male) migrated to Mount Hood from a group of goats introduced to the east side of Mount Jefferson in 2010. That’s amazing, when you consider the 50-mile journey would mostly be through forest and crosses several paved roads along the way!

In this 2011 blog article, I proposed reintroducing goats[/link] to Mount Hood based upon the relatively large areas of wilderness now protected on the mountain. So, while the ODFW has no plans to bring more goats to the mountain at this time, it’s heartening to know the goats may have their own plans to come back to Mount Hood! Nature bats last!

…and a teaser… watch for more good news to come!

Zack Frank’s Undiscovered America

Posted May 30, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Blog News, Cultural History, Natural History, Proposals

Tags: , , , , , , ,
The intrepid Zack Frank visits Mount Hood country

The intrepid Zack Frank visits Mount Hood country

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Zack Frank, the young photojournalist behind Undiscovered America, his project to photograph 56 places across the country that should become the next generation of national parks — Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge among them! With this ambitious project, he hopes to contribute to a new vision for the next 150 years of conservation in America.

We met at Punchbowl Falls on the West Fork Hood River, a fitting spot for a conversation about overlooked gems that could stand next to the nation’s best-known national parks with a little vision and restoration. Our meeting was made possible by local filmmaker Christopher Alley, whose Ampersand Productions is currently filming a documentary dedicated to the new national parks movement, and featuring the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, in particular.

The film crew: Emily Wahl, Eric Macey and Christopher Alley

The film crew: Emily Wahl, Eric Macey and Christopher Alley

Zack came to the Undiscovered America idea from seeds sown in his youth, when his family drove from Pennsylvania to the great parks of the northern Rockies, including Yellowstone. These early experiences helped shape Zack’s refreshingly holistic vision for the national parks that would focus on restoring gems like Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge as unique ecosystems that are not represented in the national park system today.

His 6-month grand tour of future parks is funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign that drew nearly 300 backers and set a record for nature photography projects. Zack will be the first known photographer to visit the 50+ sites proposed for national park status.

Once his tour is complete, Zack will release a 200-page Undiscovered America book documenting his journey, and hopefully rallying a new parks movement in the same way that earlier photographers brought places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods and North Cascades to the public conscience for the first time. Images from his trek will also be displayed as a traveling show in art galleries across the country, further helping to spread his vision for a new era of national parks.

Stage 1 of Zack's journey focused on the southern part of the country

Stage 1 of Zack’s journey focused on the southern part of the country

Though Mount Hood and the Gorge are part of Zack’s tour, they are different in that they are anything but “undiscovered”! Yet, they do fit perfectly the larger frame of bringing more enlightened and sustainable land management to these special places under the unique stewardship of the National Park Service.

Zack brings his experience as a photojournalist in the United States Marine Corp to the project. After meeting with him, it was clear that also he also brings a remarkable degree of wisdom, confidence and determination to the project that are beyond his years, a reflection of his time spent in Iraq during his service to our country.

We’re also very fortunate that Zack has chosen to continue his service to the country in the form of his Undiscovered America project. Hearing about his vision for the next wave in the American conservation movement was a breath of fresh air. Too many in the old guard of the movement have become prisoners of playing defense, a necessary posture during an era of intense attack on the environment, for sure, but now suddenly out of touch with a new generation of Americans looking for a more compelling and sweeping new vision.

Zack’s project avoids that the fear tactics and hot-button issues approach to conservation that no longer resonates with younger people, who instead are responding more to messages of hope, new ideas and opportunities to work collaboratively for broader solutions than the false choice of “wilderness-or-nothing”. National parks offer a great fit for this generation.

Stage 2 of Zack's tour begins in the Pacific Northwest and travels across the northern states

Stage 2 of Zack’s tour begins in the Pacific Northwest and travels across the northern states

Zack says that he marches to the drum of the likes of John Muir, Timothy O’ Sullivan and Ansel Adams, and embraces the same sweeping vision that caught the imagination of the American mainstream and helped build the National Park System we treasure today. Most importantly, he thinks in increments of decades and centuries — not just the next election campaign or fundraising cycle. In that way, he is true to the pioneering conservationists he holds as his inspiration.

I challenged Zack with a series of defeatist arguments I have heard against protecting Mount Hood and the Gorge as a national park — all too often from some of Oregon’s conservation leaders: how can an area with ski resorts, major highways, utility corridors and cut-over forest lands even be considered for national park status?

One by one, he knocked these arguments down with real examples of existing parks where these supposed deal-killing obstacles like these are managed within a park context, in concert with a broader conservation philosophy that still ensures a sustained natural legacy.

The author meeting with Zack at Punchbowl Falls

The author meeting with Zack at Punchbowl Falls

Zack Frank doesn’t see himself as a standard bearer, simply part of an emerging coalition. But what I saw in Zack is the face of a new generation of conservation leaders — whether he knows it, or not — who are unencumbered by false dichotomies and narrow orthodoxy that have too often muted the conservation movement. He is solidly a millennial, and like so many of his generation that I encounter, Zack gives me a renewed energy and sense of optimism that we can once again do great things on the conservation front, and starting with a new national parks movement!

We’re just passing through, after all…

Tribal fishing at Punchbowl Falls

Tribal fishing at Punchbowl Falls

During our visit on the high cliffs above Punchbowl Falls, we watched as a group of tribal fisherman worked the massive pool below the falls for spring Chinook. As they went about their tasks, it struck me that these men were fishing in the footsteps of generations of ancestors who had harvested salmon at this spot for millennia — and that that the stakes are very high for the Mount Hood region, right now.

For centuries, the abundant ecosystems of Mount Hood and the Gorge have supported a large Native American population with a natural bounty that only now is at risk, thanks to just a few decades of rapid development and over-harvesting of resources. In this context, the broader frame that Zack Frank raises for Mount Hood the Gorge is this: we’re just passing through, so what will we choose to leave behind for future generations?

Tribal fishermen at Punchbowl Falls

Tribal fishermen at Punchbowl Falls

While the ecosystems in the Mount Hood region have so far been resilient in the face of these new pressures (the forests have continued to recover after repeated harvesting, salmon return to ancient habitat when we reopen once-damned streams like the West Fork), we are now facing an unprecedented onset of global climate change. Will the sprawling maze of new clear cuts that now mar the upper West Fork valley recover, once again? Probably. But for the first time in millennia, we don’t really know for sure, and so our margin of error grows narrower in just how far we can push the ecosystem to meet our needs.

Selective thinning at the Punchbowl Park site

Selective thinning at the Punchbowl Park site

On our walk to Punchbowl Falls, Zack and I talked about some of the answers that were all around us. Restoring Mount Hood means thinning plantation thickets, where industry efforts to short-circuit the natural reforestation cycle on clear cuts has left dangerously crowded stands of unhealthy, fire-prone trees. One such thinning project was underway at the Punchbowl site, where the Western Rivers Conservancy has carefully removed several insect-compromised trees from the forest.

The Punchbowl property, itself, provides another answer: private land trusts working with local communities and governments to restore and bring into public ownership the most important sites and habitats. This continues to be the winning formula for Mount Hood and the Gorge, with much work to be done — and still a need for a larger national park vision to guide often fragmented efforts. Like most of the sites on Zack’s tour, the broader vision for Mount Hood and the Gorge will require a creative blend of acquisition, restoration and new partnerships.

Wy’East Comes to Visit

As I finished my interview with Zack Frank, the tribal fisherman below us were packing up their harvest for the day — a string of salmon that would soon provide food for their families or perhaps be sold in one of the familiar roadside fish stands.

Wy'East makes an appearance at Punchbowl Falls

Wy’East makes an appearance at Punchbowl Falls

As we watched them scale the cliffs above the falls with their catch, the crest of Mount Hood — Wy’East — suddenly emerged from the clouds, brilliant with a fresh dusting of snow. Zack had spent the morning on the mountain, socked in by a lingering Pacific front, so it was his first sighting of the mountain on this leg of his trek.

The scene unfolding at that moment could not have made a better case for why Mount Hood and the Gorge deserve better: the raw beauty, the amazing collection of ecosystems, from rain forest, fire forests and oak savannah to alpine and desert ecosystems; and perhaps most unique to the area, the rich, unparalleled human history. It was all right there in front of us, and I was thrilled that it could be part of Zack’s journey!

How to support Zack

Zack’s current project was successfully funded through his Kickstarter campaign, but you can still support him by visiting his website and ordering a copy of his forthcoming Undiscovered America book.

Mockup of Zack's forthcoming book about his journey

Mockup of Zack’s forthcoming book about his journey

You can also be a friend of the national parks. Zack recommends the National Parks Conservation Association (and be sure to let the know you support new parks!), but I would suggest an even broader offering: an open mind to what might be, and a willingness to help a new generation of leaders realize their bold aspirations — including a new national parks movement!

An Overdue Warren Falls Update (…and a bombshell!)

Posted April 30, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Blog News, Cultural History, Natural History, Proposals

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Time is running out on the Restore Warren Falls! project. This summer the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail project will begin construction of a segment that will pass right in front of the falls.

The new trail construction in the area is not simply an ideal opportunity to finally undo what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) did to this magnificent waterfall 76 years ago — it’s probably the only opportunity in our lifetimes.

In that spirit, I thought an update on the project and Warren Falls was in order — plus share a bit of a bombshell that was sent to me recently!

Checking in on Warren Falls

First, a quick visit to Warren Creek: in mid-April I made a couple visits to Warren Falls as part of my twice-annual Friends of the Gorge hikes. As has become the norm in recent years, the natural falls clearly flowed again this winter during heavy runoff that overwhelmed the diversion weir at the top of the falls.

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

These regular overflows make more sense when you look at the condition of the weir — the following photos from the top of the falls show just how clogged the giant “trash rack” has become, and also how badly the upper lip of the rack has been exposed as the concrete diversion dam continues to erode:

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The Friends of the Gorge hikers always marvel at the strange, unsettling scene of a dry waterfall. Like most who visit Warren Falls, many are also saddened by the idea that the ODOT could have been so cavalier in altering such a beautiful scene at Warren Creek so grotesquely.

While the original decision to divert the falls can arguably be blamed on the thinking of the era (late 1930s), I would submit that allowing this tragic mistake to continue to exist is equally cavalier and dismissive of the natural landscape at Warren Creek. Thus, my campaign to attach the burden of undoing the mess at Warren Falls to ODOT — and in particular, their looming state trail construction project that will soon begin in the area.

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

While researching Warren Falls over the winter, I finally found a definitive story on the official naming of the creek. The name “Warren” comes from Warren “Barney” Cooper, and early forest ranger in the Mount Hood area (and part of the Cooper family described in this previous article).

This Oregonian article documents (in the last paragraph) when Warren Cooper’s name finally became the official name of the creek in 1948, though it had been in unofficial use for years:

WarrenFallsUpdate07

So, we now learn that Warren Lake and creek were once called “Warm Lake” and “Warm Creek”. Warren Lake is situated on a high, rocky shoulder of Mount Defiance, and shallow enough to be “warm” in late summer, so that could be the simplest explanation for this early name.

The name “Warren” appears on maps and early documents from well before this 1948 decision, so the timing of the article is interesting, especially so long after Warren Cooper’s death in 1920. Was the naming in 1948 simply cartographic housekeeping or an overdue recognition of a pioneering forest ranger by those who followed him?

As always, every answer brings a few new questions!

Friends of Warren Falls… are everywhere!

Since the Oregon Field Guide story on the Restore Warren Falls! project first aired the fall of 2012 (watch the documentary here), several anonymous “friends” of Warren Falls have quietly contacted me with offers to help.

OFG's Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

OFG’s Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

Most surprising among the proposals were offers to simply “monkey-wrench” the weir at the top of the falls to speed up its demise! While I’m sympathetic to both the frustration and impatience behind the monkey-wrenchers out there, I’m also concerned that tinkering with the weir might actually be illegal (though it’s hard to see how a decaying structure that no public agency will claim responsibility for could somehow also become the basis for legal action..?)

More importantly, I’m concerned that formally removing the weir and associated debris will become increasingly difficult if the structure is further compromised. I’ve therefore thanked the monkey-wrenchers for their passion, but encouraged them to be patient and allow the slow wheels of government to turn a bit further..!

…and the bombshell…

Another piece of information that trickled in from an anonymous attorney and friend of Warren Falls is found in plain sight: in the Oregon Revised Statutes. Specifically, ORS 538.200, which exists solely to prohibit the diversion of “streams forming waterfalls near the Columbia River Highway” for “any purpose whatsoever”.

While quite clear in its intent, this might seem like a very general reference. But the statute (which was signed into law in the early 1900s, before the Warren Falls diversion) goes on to list each of the streams and waterfalls that fall under this protection — including Warren Creek, in ORS 538.200(26)!

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

What does this new information mean? For starters, it means that ODOT — at the time, called the Oregon Highway Division — broke the law in 1939 when it blasted a diversion tunnel and erected a dam and weir to pipe Warren Creek away from its natural falls and streambed. That is quite clear.

What is unknown is whether the ODOT decision to defy the law in the late 1930s was brazen in its intent. As hard as that possibility is to believe, it is also very hard to believe the agency wouldn’t have known about the law, given that it had been enacted just a few years prior the Warren Falls diversion project being concocted in the early 1930s — and was specifically aimed at the state’s premier highway of the era.

What does it mean today? In my view, it means that ODOT now has BOTH a legal and ethical responsibility to undo what it has done to Warren Falls. That couldn’t be more clear.

The End Game?

For the past four years I’ve been beating the drum to connect the restoration of Warren Falls to the massive, multi-million dollar Historic Columbia River Highway state trail project, without much success. So far I have:

• been turned away by both Oregon State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, both claiming the falls lies on the other agency’s property (though it quite clearly falls on Oregon State Parks land)

• unsuccessfully pitched the cause to three of the premier conservation groups active in the Gorge, including on-site tours, but did not persuade any of the groups to adopt the cause.

• unsuccessfully made the case twice before the Historic Columbia River Highway steering committee, with some sympathetic interest from the committee, but a deep reluctance to seriously consider the idea. It was added as an item “for consideration” — but later dropped due to cost concerns.

• successfully pitched the idea to the producers of Oregon Field Guide story, and while ODOT staff involved in that effort were sympathetic to the state of Warren Falls, the publicity created by the story did not change their recommendations to their steering committee for any further consideration of restoring the falls.

• posted a string of articles on this blog and started a Facebook group two years ago to continue to rally the cause, but these efforts haven’t made a noticeable dent at ODOT, either.

We are now in the end game, and I don’t think the Warren Falls will ever be restored if the work doesn’t happen when ODOT has heavy equipment in the area later this year. After that, it will most likely be up to Mother Nature, and that’s would be such a sad commentary to future generations when they judge the state of the world we choose to leave them.

From the beginning, I have argued that restoring the falls isn’t about money, but rather, about responsibility. ODOT created the mess that now exists at Warren Creek, and for a whole variety of safety, ethical, environmental — and now, legal — reasons that I’ve argued over the years, it’s time for the agency to own up to their responsibility.

No fooling, ODOT has $2 million annually in a “contingency” fund for exactly the kind of work that restoring Warren Falls would entail — and just allocated another half-million dollars to cover additional costs for the state trail project in the Warren Creek area.

It turns out the money has always been there, too. On April 1, ODOT quietly pulled nearly a half-million dollars in “contingency” funds into this latest phase of the state trail as a consent item before the Oregon Transportation Commission. The new money is for a previously unplanned bridge over nearby Gorton Creek, a worthy addition at the east end of the current phase of construction. Warren Falls could be restored for a fraction of that amount – if only the will and sense of agency responsibility at ODOT existed.

My next efforts will focus beyond ODOT, given my fruitless efforts to work with the agency. At the top of my list of arguments is the newly discovered fact that the agency violated state law when they built the project in 1939 — underscoring the notion that ODOT has both ethical and legal obligations to own up to restoring the falls. The agency clearly has funding available for worthy efforts like this one if the desire exists. I will be making that argument, as well.

There's still time to realize this vision… but not much.

There’s still time to realize this vision… but not much.

I’ll post a follow-ups to article with more details soon, and especially how you might be able to help get the restoration of Warren Falls unstuck from our state bureaucracy. Most of all, a big thanks to all who have offered to help — and as always, thank you reading this blog and caring about Mount Hood and the Gorge!

Punchbowl Park Update

Posted March 25, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Cultural History, Natural History, Proposals

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

PunchbowlUpdate01

In late January, I posted an article on the proposed Punchbowl Park project at the confluence of the east and west forks of the Hood River. Since then, community activists have worked with Hood River County officials to move the project forward with a remarkable public outreach effort and bold vision for the new park.

Heather Staten, executive director of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC) and the leading force behind the project took a few minutes this week to give an update on the project, and what lies ahead for this exciting proposal.
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WyEast Blog: How did the Punchbowl Park project get started, and what is the role of the HRVRC?

Heather Staten: Hood River County and Western Rivers Conservancy, the property’s current owner, had worked unsuccessfully for several years on grants to fund acquisition of the 100-acre property as a County Park. Those efforts had flown under the radar of most local people, even those with close associations to the property. Last summer, David Meriwether, the County Administrator approached me about conducting a robust public process where we would really discover the community’s vision for the property.

My organization, the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC), was well-placed to run such a public outreach effort. We’re Oregon’s oldest local land-use advocacy group, with a 38-year history of protecting farms, forests and special natural places. David also knew me from the campaign to reopen Hood River’s libraries when they were closed due to budget cuts. So he knew we had both the local knowledge and organizational capacity to run a really inclusive public process.

WyEast: You’ve made a real effort to involve the broader community in this planning effort. What are some of the most common themes you’re hearing?

Staten: This was a community planning effort. I can’t imagine many planning processes that involved as many people as intensely as this one. Part of it is the nature of the property–it is spectacularly beautiful. People are passionate about it so they have strong opinions. They use it, love it and want to protect it.

One of the things that was interesting to me was how people prioritized protecting the place over whatever they did there. There was real consensus that preserving the natural and ecological features of the place was the most important thing. Whenever there was choice that provided greater convenience for users but at the price of degrading the resource, the public always chose to protect the resource. For instance, they rejected campgrounds and drive up boat ramps.

Heather Staten (holding notebook) on one of her many community tours of the proposed Punchbowl Park

Heather Staten (holding notebook) on one of her many community tours of the proposed Punchbowl Park

WyEast: What makes the site special in a way that warrants a public park?

Staten: Everyone falls under the spell of the rugged wild beauty of the site and its unique and stunning combination of basalt columns, fast moving water and rich flora and fauna. It packs a lot of diversity in a relatively small site — two waterfalls, the confluence of two rivers, basalt canyon, conifer forest on the west side of the property and a really lovely Oregon white oak woodland on the east side.

There is the thrilling experience of walking along the ridge of the canyon with the water crashing far below then a very different experience down at the confluence when you stand at water level with rivers on either side of you joining together. The site provides rare and precious access to the river for anglers, kayakers, rafters and swimmers. In 15 miles, there are only a couple of legal public access points to the river.

WyEast: The proposal includes several new trails. Aren’t there already trails on the site? What would the new trails offer and how would they be built?

Staten: Until now the trail system has consisted of an old logging road and a spider web of social trails that people have created all over the ridge above the West Fork. People know about the waterfall, they can hear and see the water so they cut their own paths to get there. There are so many of these social trails that they are causing environmental damage.

The big idea is to build a new trail to go where people want to go. The new trail will run along the ridge and connect the major, stunning views and access points along the west fork offering kind of a curated experience of the river canyon. Also as part of Phase One we’ll build a forest loop through the woods.

We’ve got an even grander plan for Phase Two, a wooden footbridge over the East Fork that would link the east and west sides of the property. It will greatly expand the length of the trail system and offer a greater diversity of experience. The east side of the river is a hidden gem, with an intact Oregon white oak forest, great vistas of the confluence and river access to the main stem Hood River.

The trail building will mostly be a volunteer effort. We were lucky to meet with Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) several months ago — their advice has been invaluable. Trailkeepers will provide the professional expertise and tools and Hood River will provide the local volunteer muscle. It’s a model that Hood River County has used successfully for all of their mountain bike trails on county forest land.

Trail concept proposed as part of the Punchbowl Park plan

Trail concept proposed as part of the Punchbowl Park plan

[click here for a larger view]

WyEast: Punchbowl Falls has been a traditional Native American fishing site, were tribal interests involved in the park planning? If so, what sort of themes did you hear from the tribes?

Staten: The area around Punchbowl Falls, particularly the bowl just below the falls, has been a fishing site for members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Springs (CTWS) and their tribal ancestors for centuries. Tribal members attended the public meetings and we consulted with the manager of the CTWS hatchery program in the area.

Tribal members were concerned with interference with their fishing season and with the protection of the riparian corridor for salmon and steelhead habitat. Along with ODFW, the Tribes have been working for the last few years to restore a spring Chinook run to the Hood River. Spring Chinook used to be a very productive fishery on the Hood River but was effectively extinct by the late 1960s, a casualty of dams and detrimental logging practices.

Fishing platform at Punchbowl Falls (courtesy Heather Staten)

Fishing platform at Punchbowl Falls (courtesy Heather Staten)

In 2010, the Powerdale Dam was removed from its location downstream from the Punchbowl area, making the Hood River a free-flowing river again. It’s still early, but there are signs that the chinook run is coming back, so tribal members were concerned that any development at the park, like trail building, be done in a way that did not effect water quality.

Along with their treaty fishing rights, the tribes have some exclusive fishing rights at the property: only tribal members are permitted to fish within 200 feet of Punchbowl Falls. Sport anglers must stay downstream of that boundary, just north of where Dead Point Creek falls enters the Hood River.

WyEast: When you visit Punchbowl Falls, it’s hard not to notice the concrete fish ladder that was built in the 1950s, as it’s a bit of an eyesore. What is the long-term plan for the fish ladder?

Staten: Yes, it is an eyesore, but it is used by fish as part of the salmon recovery program. There is not yet a plan for the fish ladder. Investigating whether the fish ladder could be removed was outside the scope of this project but definitely worth further research.

Punchbowl Falls is one of the most photographed locations in Hood River County so we have seen hundreds of old photos of the falls before the fish ladder was constructed in 1959. It does kind of break your heart when you see the basalt columns on the west side of the falls that have been replaced by that concrete.

Punchbowl Falls in 1942, before construction of the fish ladder (in 1959)

Punchbowl Falls in 1942, before construction of the fish ladder (in 1959)

WyEast: Last week the Hood River County Board of Commissioners endorsed the Punchbowl Park proposal. What are the next steps?

Staten: The Board of Commissioners endorsed the park proposal, committed to a budget to develop the park and authorized the County to apply for grants to fund the park’s acquisition. The Commissioners were supportive, enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to create this park. The big deadline coming up is April 1, when we need to have our grant application in for the Local Government Grant Program of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD).

WyEast: Anything else you’d like to add?

Staten: At the end of our presentation to the Board of Commissioners, the chair asked if anyone in the audience would like to speak. A gentleman stood up and said that whenever he went to a National Park, somewhere in experiencing the park, he felt a moment of gratitude because he realized that 100 years ago someone had the vision and the drive to save it for the public, like John Muir at Yosemite. He said that at Punchbowl, we had the opportunity to be the people that saved it for future generations. This is a park not just for us, but also for our great-great grandchildren.

WyEast: Heather, thanks for taking the time to talk about the project, and for all your work in leading this effort. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you’ve really galvanized the community with your vision for protecting this amazing place!

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To view a copy of the Punchbowl Park plan, click here to download a PDF version.

Good News from the Hood River RD!

Posted February 16, 2015 by Tom Kloster
Categories: Blog News, Cultural History, Natural History, Proposals

Tags: , , , ,
The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

A few weeks ago the Forest Service contacted me about a recent article posted on this blog, It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

The article proposed some simple solutions for restoring a washed-out section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which has been offically closed for nearly a decade, and is quite dangerous for those who choose to ignore the closure signs.

The article critiqued Forest Service inaction on the problem, and especially the agency obsession with the “million dollar bridge” solution of somehow installing a supension bridge over the disintegrating canyon of the Eliot Branch. This stream is the unruly outflow from the Mount Hood’s Eliot Glacier, largest of the mountain’s glaciers.

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

The proposed susppension bridge would have been prohibitively expensive, and had little chance of ever being funded. Worse, any bridge built here stands a very good chance of being destroyed: the steady retreat of the Eliot Glacier will continue to unravel the canyon below for the foreseeable future as the Eliot Branch carves into new ground once covered by glacial ice.

Because of the critical nature of the article, I expected some grief from the Forest Service. Instead, I learned the Hood River Ranger District has now scrapped its “million dollar bridge” solution and is pursuing a simpler downstream crossing, very similar to what was proposed in the blog article. That’s great news!

The Hood River District staff invited me to meet with them and have a look at their new proposal, so I sat down with one of their Forest Service planners in late December to hear the details. The following are highlights from that conversation.

While they are still in the very early stages of laying out a route, the following map shows the general corridor (in green) the Forest Service has scouted for a “low trail” solution, compared to the new trail concept proposed in the earlier blog article (dashed red):

EliotCrossingRedux03

(Click here for a larger version)

The conceptual Forest Service route would descend the east wall of the Eliot Branch canyon in a series of short switchbacks, just upstream from the ravine where the route was proposed in the blog article.

Once across the Eliot Branch, the Forest Service route would traverse along the ridge that forms the west wall of the canyon, while the route proposed in the blog article followed a tributary stream up a ravine that leads to the Timberline Trail. The Forest Service route is a bit shorter, at 1.2 miles, but follows the same “keep it simple” principles laid out in the blog article.

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

Here’s the best news: the Forest Service hopes to have the new trail under construction in 1-2 years, and have already begun scouting possible alignments. Even better, they hope to involve volunteers in some aspect of the construction, and have reached out to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to begin that conversation (note: the author is also active in TKO).

This has been a long time coming, and kudos are in order for the Hood River Ranger District for getting this project unstuck — and especially for new staff at the Hood River office who have been instrumental in putting the “million dollar bridge” fiasco behind us. While much more work lies ahead for this project to become a reality, it’s a promising change of direction and a new level of commitment from Forest Service to finally fix this problem.

I’ll post updates on the project here over the next couple of years as the details come into view, of course!

A Mea Culpa is in Order…

When I arrived at the Hood River Ranger District last December for the Timberline Trail meeting, I was surprised to see that the visitor facilities had been dramatically upgraded! This was to my chagrin, as I had lamented the need to do so in this blog article in early 2014. It turns out that the finishing touches to the remodeled Hood River offices were being made at about the time I posted those comments here, so a mea culpa is in order!

Like me, you probably won’t notice the changes to the Hood River Ranger Station when driving by on the Mount Hood Loop Highway, as the public face of the building has been redesigned to face south, not toward the highway to the east. In fact, the building looks much the same from the highway to the casual eye — though an addition to the main building, new signage and an outbuilding have been constructed in what was once a very large parking lot (see below).

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

The new orientation makes perfect sense when you stand in front of the building, however. A picturesque view of Mount Hood rising above orchards fills the scene — a view echoed and embraced by the pyramid-shaped wall of windows that define the new visitor center.

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

The revamped building exterior has ADA-compliant parking and ramps, a small plaza, updated informational sign kiosk, carved welcome sign, bike rack and a new pit toilet. The latter is a much-needed addition that is less elegant than the flush toilets provided at the new Zigzag Ranger Station, but still a nice step forward.

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

Once inside the new visitors center, you will find a main desk staffed by a Forest Service ranger, and a nice mix of interpretive displays, ranging from historical artifacts to a collection of mounted wildlife specimens found in the Mount Hood region. The center also has a very good selection of field guides and maps for sale, in addition to many free USFS informational materials.

A nice touch inside the building is a terrestrial telescope mounted on a tripod in front of one of the large picture windows, allowing visitors to take a closer look at the mountain that looms above the ranger station.

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

The wildlife specimens will be fun and informative for families visiting the center, as kids are universally drawn to animal displays. Each mounted display has a detailed info card to help parents become instant experts on the different species represented, or for older kids (and adults) to simply browse and learn from.

Owls on display at the front desk

Owls on display at the front desk

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

Black bear roaming near the front desk

Black bear roaming near the front desk

The bookstore is located at the west end of the visitor center and creatively designed as a rolling, self-contained portable display. The book offerings are excellent, including many of the most popular regional hiking, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing guides, plus field guides to area flora, fauna and history. Posters and coffee-table books celebrating Mount Hood are also featured.

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The map offerings in the rolling bookstore are also excellent, including USFS maps for most National Forests in Oregon and Washington, and official Forest Service maps for wilderness areas in the more immediate Mount Hood region.

The map selection also includes several independently published trail and ski maps, including the exceptional National Geographic Trails Illustrated series for Mount Hood and the Gorge and maps for the Pacific Crest Trail. There are even Green Trails topographic maps for the Mount Hood region (below).

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Historical interpretation is somewhat more limited at the new center, anchored by a fine carved sign (presumably Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps?) that once stood at the Cloud Cap junction on the old loop highway. The impressive old sign is flanked with captioned photos of north side history on the mountain.

History displays at the west end of the new facility

History displays at the west end of the new facility

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

A mounted poster from the Mount Hood Scenic Byway series provides a bit more history of the Cloud Cap Inn and the early climbing history of the north side.

Hopefully, new displays will be added over time to explore more of the rich history of the upper Hood River Valley and north side of Mount Hood: the long Native American history in the area, settlement of the upper Hood River Valley in the 1800s, early Forest Service history on Mount Hood and completion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the 1920s are just some of the stories that deserve to be told here.

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

There are still some gaps in the visitor experience at the revamped ranger station that could use some attention. First, heavy landscaping hides the Ranger Station from southbound highway traffic (which is how most visitors travel to the mountain), and the signage along the highway is easy to miss. Adding a simple “Visitors Center” sign to the existing entrance marker would be helpful.

Second, the visitor center hours posted at the door differ from what appears on the official Mount Hood Forest website. At least two variations appear on the website, depending where Google takes you: the main website listing shows a M-F schedule, while the dedicated Hood River Ranger District page includes Saturdays in the daily schedule.

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The signs at the main entrance to the Ranger Station split the difference, showing M-F hours, but extending to include Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In all of these variations, the actual hours are the same: from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, closed on all federal holidays.

Obviously, Saturday operating hours are at a premium, both for the Forest Service in covering their expense of keeping the building open, but also for visitors, who are more likely to be traveling here on weekends than weekdays.

Hopefully, the agency can someday find a way to keep the visitors center part of the Ranger Station open on Saturdays (and even Sundays?) year-round. Weekends are undeniably the busiest visitor time on the mountain, and Mount Hood is busy year-round.

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Finally, the pit toilets located outside the new visitor center are currently locked when the visitors center is closed — an unwelcome and unfortunate surprise for travelers who stop early or late in the day, or on weekends.

In the long term, a better way to address the mismatch between federal government hours and those when the public is most likely to be recreating (weekends and holidays) would be to expand the outside informational and interpretive displays to better serve visitors when the main building is closed. This could even include locating interpretive displays some near the pit toilets, and leaving them unlocked on weekends and holidays.

Despite these rough edges, the new visitor center really shines for the Hood River Ranger District. The new facility should greatly enhance the visitor experience for those seeing the area for the first time.

But even if you’re a seasoned Mount Hood hiker, the new center deserves a stop on your next trip through the area. Plan for 20-30 minutes to explore the displays and browse the books and maps.


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