Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!

The plowed surface of the Palmer Glacier shows up on summer evening view of Mount Hood’s south face

A recent article in Willamette Week by Adrienne So goes where The Oregonian and other media have not dared in the nearly 30 years since the controversial Palmer Lift opened the Palmer Glacier to year-round skiing. In her article, So asks the obvious question: is it really such a good idea to pour nearly a million pounds of salt on the glacier each summer to melt the ice for skiers?

But So also asks the more maddening question: how can it be that the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are fine with this practice? The sad answer lies in the cozy relationship the Forest Service maintains with the ski resorts and the ironic fact that the DEQ can only regulate the salting when damage finally shows up downstream. In other words, when it’s too late.

The Palmer Glacier is not the smallest on Mount Hood, but surely the most fragile thanks to its low elevation and southern exposure

What lies downstream from the Palmer Glacier? Initially, a steep maze of alpine canyons carries melt water from the glacier to the tree line. Soon, these mountain streams combine to become the Salmon River. The river flows just a few miles before reaching Red Top Meadows. A short distance beyond, the river enters wilderness and the broad expanse of Salmon River Meadows, by far the largest wetland complex on Mount Hood.

From the meadows, the rapidly growing river turns west, then drops into one of the wildest, deepest canyons in Oregon, thundering over a string of tall waterfalls that are so remote as to have only been discovered in the 1960s. The Salmon River National Recreation Trail follows the canyon section, and is among the most popular hikes in the Pacific Northwest, year-round.

Beyond the steep gorge section, the river slows and broadens, rambling through ancient forests where it is recognized as one of the state’s premier salmon and steelhead habitats. Here, it is strictly managed for its fisheries with special seasons and limits. Trails follow the river in this section, too, leading to shady forest camps and fishing holes. The giant cedar groves along the lower river are the most accessible ancient forest in the region, just 45 minutes from Portland.

For their part, the Timberline operators make a point of never calling the Palmer Glacier by its true name. Instead, they use the term “Palmer Snowfield” in their marketing, apparently to downplay the fact that their summertime skiing is putting one of Mount Hood’s most vulnerable glaciers at risk.

Since the construction of the Palmer Lift, Timberline ski resort operators have plowed the Palmer Glacier like an icy farm field, with the benefit of salt to soften the surface

The motivations of the Timberline resort are easy enough to understand: it’s a commercial venture (albeit on public land and in a public structure), and they are not in the business of protecting the Salmon River ecosystem for the public at large. The salting makes money for the Timberline resort, after all, or they wouldn’t do it.

But to wrap your head around the Forest Service policy of allowing the salting is to believe that dumping just under 500 tons of salt (that’s about 500 pickup loads) on Palmer Glacier each year won’t have an environmental impact. That the impacts could extend from the headwaters of this river complex to the pristine meadows, forests, waterfalls and fisheries that lie below makes the policy that much more appalling.

As destructive and shortsighted as this policy seem, there’s really nothing you and I can do about it – at least not until the salt starts showing up downstream in concentrations that constitute “pollution”. If that seems like a Catch-22, well, that’s because it is.

In the meantime, the only available alternative is awareness. You can start by reading So’s excellent article, over here (PDF):

Salt and a Wound: Summertime and salting is easy on Palmer Glacier

Next, share what you learn with those who love Mount Hood – and especially those who ski at the Timberline resort. It’s likely they don’t even know about this obviously reckless practice, and Timberline hasn’t been particularly up-front about it.

Next, print this bumper (or rear-window) sticker to kick off your own awareness campaign:

Click here for a bumper-sized version to print

There’s a worn adage that when you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Until more is understood about the impacts of the salting practice on the Palmer Glacier and the sensitive environments that lie downstream, it’s time to stop the salting. Now.

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