Posted tagged ‘Latourell Falls’

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 2)

January 8, 2013
Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls

In the first part of this article, I focused on recent improvements that have greatly enhanced the Historic Columbia River Highway wayside at Latourell Falls. This article looks at the balance of Guy Talbot State Park, where a number of improvements are needed to keep pace with the ever-growing number of visitors who now hike the Latourell loop trail year-round.

Improving the Loop Trail

Hiking the loop in the traditional clockwise direction from the wayside, the first stop is bench located a few hundred yards up the trail. This memorial bench was donated by the Sierra Club, and though it’s not a great architectural fit for the area (a rustic style would be more appropriate), it’s still a welcome resting spot for casual hikers.

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Not coincidentally, the bench faces a lovely view of Latourell Falls, but there’s a story behind the view, as someone has made the effort to do some “scene management” for photographers. Take a look at the photo below, and you can appreciate the waterfall scene in its graceful glory, framed by firs and moss-covered maples. But a closer look reveals a sawed-off stump with a fresh cut. Why here? Because a trail steward (authorized or otherwise) trimmed off the broken shards of a maple that split off in an ice storm a few years ago — leaving a sore thumb that marred this classic view. You can see in these after/before comparisons from now and in 2010:

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the telltale stump!

…and the telltale stump!

If this was sanctioned “scene management” pruning, then kudos to the State Parks folks for putting classic views on their maintenance list. If this is a guerilla effort by a frustrated photographer, then perhaps State Parks managers will take note, and keep this view intact..!

Moving up the loop, the trail soon approaches a heavily trampled bluff above Latourell Falls. Here, the first apparent problem is a decades-old shortcut at the first switchback. A sign begs hikers to stay on the trail to protect “sensitive plants”, but so far, the boots are winning, despite logs and debris purposely scattered across the shortcut.

Tossing more logs across this shortcut might help, but borrowing an idea from the beautiful new stonework at the trailhead (or recently built stonework along the Bridal Veil Falls trail), and adding a rustic stone retaining wall here to corral traffic would be a nice option that would have lasting value.

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

The viewpoint atop the well-worn bluff is really starting to show its age. The 1950s-vintage steel cable fence and mix of concrete and steel pipe posts were never a good aesthetic fit for the Gorge, but more importantly, they’re not doing anything. Visitors have recently pushed a scary boot path past the fence, and down to the brink of Latourell Falls (shown below), so a near-term fix is in order.

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The trail at the overlook has already been stomped into a wide “plaza” of sorts, and that would be a good design solution here, with a stone wall replacing the rickety old handrail. A layer of crushed gravel (another design feature of the recent improvements at Bridal Veil Falls) would further help minimize the mud slick that forms in wet months.

The lone (and beleaguered) wood bench at the overlook is well-used, and a redesign should include two or three places to sit and admire the view. For most visitors who venture beyond the lower falls overlook, this bluff above the falls is the turnaround point.

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

Adding a stone wall to better define the overlook would help curb foolhardy visitors from following the boot path to the falls brink. However, the overlook also needs some vegetation management in order to simply maintain the view back down to the trailhead — this is what most hikers who push beyond the handrails are looking for, after all.

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A few steps beyond the bluff overlook, an unmarked trail forks to the right, descending to Latourell Creek. At first, this seems like another informal boot path, but a closer look reveals a well-constructed trail. In fact, this is where a lower loop once crossed the creek, connecting to the main loop where it returns (and is clearly visible) on the far side of the creek. This is an old idea that still makes sense, and should be embraced with a new bridge and refurbished connector trail.

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

In reality, hikers are already using the lower loop, though a series of slick, dangerous logs a few yards upstream from the brink of Latourell Falls serve as the “bridge”. Reconnecting and restoring these old trail segments would be a good way to provide a shorter loop for less active hikers, and also resolve this hazardous crossing that is clearly too tempting for many hikers to resist.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen -- and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen — and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Moving along the loop to its upper end, the Latourell trail has a few issues at Upper Latourell Falls that deserve attention in the interest of protecting the lush landscape from being loved to death. For many years, this upper section of the trail was only lightly used, but the proximity of Talbot State Park to the Portland Metro region and the family-friendly nature of this trail has clearly made the full loop a very favorite destination.

Upper Latourell Falls

Upper Latourell Falls

The trail approach on the east side of the falls is in good shape, but problems start to emerge on the west side of the footbridge. This is not coincidental, as an adventurous early trail once switch-backed up the slope on the west side, and led to a precarious bridge across the mid-section of the falls (shown below).

The location of this old trail was uncovered only recently. Century-old rockwork and obvious paths heading uphill from the falls have always hinted at an old trail, but a geocache has now been placed along the old path, drawing enough visitors up the slope to add some urgency to addressing the off-trail impacts here.

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

The best solution here is to embrace the lowest segment of the old path by repairing the stonework, or perhaps adding steps where a shortcut has formed, and provide hikers with that close-up view from behind the falls that is responsible for the bulk of the off-trail traffic (the hikers in the photo above are making this irresistible trip).

The upper sections of the old trail are much less traveled, and a simple solution here might be to simply ask the geocache owner to remove the cache. The cache risks not simply re-opening the old trail, but also bringing inexperienced hikers to the potentially dangerous rock shelf where the log footbridge once stood. If the geocache is removed soon, it’s unlikely that visitors would even notice the upper portions of this trail.

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

Turning downstream along the west leg of the Latourell loop, the trail passes a couple of spots where some TLC is needed. First, another potentially dangerous log crossing (shown below) has drawn enough traffic to form its own boot path.

It could be decades before this old log finally collapses into the creek, so a better plan is needed to stem the damage now. Sawing out the log seems possible, and is a job that could be easily in early fall, when water levels are at their lowest, and fire danger has passed. This might even be a job for volunteer trail stewards with crosscut skills.

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

A bit further downstream along the west leg, the loop trail passes the old trail leading to the former footbridge (described previously). Here, the new trail launches uphill along a steep, slick segment built to bypass the bridge.

Reopening the old trail section (and adding a new bridge) would therefore have a spinoff benefit here: not only would a shorter loop be possible (and safe), but the short, badly designed new section of the current trail (shown in yellow on the map, below) could be decommissioned, with the main route using the old section of trail, once again (shown in red). This would be a terrific project for volunteers, including bridge construction.

LatourellLoop16

(click here for a large map)

Another scary feature suddenly appears as the west leg of the loop trail curves above Latourell Falls: an old viewpoint spur trail heads straight down to a very exposed, rocky outcrop rising directly above the falls. The view from this exposed landing is impressive, but completely unsafe, given the thousands of families with young kids that walk this loop each year. There is no railing and no warning of the extreme exposure for parents attempting to keep kids in tow.

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The safety hazards of the west overlook are twofold: certain death for someone slipping over the 280 foot sheer cliff to the north and a tempting, sloped scramble to the falls brink for daredevils and the foolhardy.

A simple solution could be a handrail or cable encircling the viewpoint, but a more elegant option would be a more permanent viewing platform in the stonework style of the improvements at the trailhead, serving both as a safety measure and to encourage visitors to comfortably enjoy the airy view.

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

Next, the loop trail curves away from the creek and out of Latourell canyon, passing an overgrown viewpoint (that probably deserves to be retired), then descending in a long switchback to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Here, the route crosses the road, and resumes on an attractive path that suddenly ends in the Talbot State Park picnic area. Though a bit of searching gets most hikers to the resumption of the loop hike, some signage would be helpful here — both to direct loop hikers back to the main trailhead, but also pointing picnickers to trail to both the upper and main waterfalls.

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Beyond the picnic area, the trail re-enters Latourell canyon and quickly descends to the base of Latourell Falls, the final area where loop trail improvements are sorely needed. At this point along the loop, we are within a few hundred yards of the main trailhead and wayside, so the crush of year-round visitors is evident everywhere — and thus the paved trail surface in this portion of the loop.

Most of the human impact is absorbed by the trail, but in recent years a messy boot path has developed along the west side of the creek, starting at the lower footbridge, and branching as it heads toward the base of the falls.

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

There isn’t a good way to convert this boot path into a formal spur or viewpoint because of the unstable slopes and visual impact it would create, so the challenge is how to best manage the off-trail activity. The simplest option would be an extension of the bridge hand-rail to block the boot path, making off-trail exploring a bit harder.

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

But there is also an opportunity to embrace the first part of the boot path, where a “mud plaza” of sorts has been stomped into the ground. This spot features one of the best angles for photographing the falls, after all, so a stone masonry mini-plaza with seating would be a terrific way to both discourage the off-trail travel, and give waterfall admirers an inviting place to stop and photograph the falls, out of the main flow of foot traffic.

Honoring Guy W. Talbot

One last bit of unfinished business at Talbot State Park is a debt of gratitude to Guy Talbot, himself. At the west end of the historic highway bridge, a large gravel pullout serves as overflow parking for this popular park. The loop trail crosses the highway near the pullout and in recent years, heavy use has turned this into an overflow trailhead, as well.

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

At first glance, it seems nothing more than a broad, gravel shoulder. But upon closer inspection, it’s home to the only real monument to Guy Webster Talbot — the man whose profound generosity spared Latourell Falls from some other fate, and gave us the park that we know today. After all, the property wasn’t simply an undeveloped tract of forest, but rather, Talbot’s beloved country home. He gave the place he loved most to all Oregonians, in perpetuity.

Few traces of Talbot’s home and the surrounding estate survive, so this would be the perfect spot for a third interpretive sign (the first two are on the east end of the bridge, at the refurbished wayside) focused on Talbot, and why he was such an important historical figure in history of the area.

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

The pullout, itself, could also be improved to become a more formal secondary trailhead for the loop, as well — perhaps not as substantial as the newly rebuilt main trailhead and wayside at the other end of the bridge, but something better than the pothole-covered pullout that exists today.

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

Finally, there’s one more interpretive opportunity near the Guy Talbot memorial: a tale of two bridges. One is the towering, 300-foot long Latourell Bridge along the old highway, to the east. The unique history of its construction in 1914 is a story that should be told, especially since visitors can walk both sides of the bridge on the beautifully designed, original sidewalks.

The second bridge is a curious phantom of history — a former footbridge that once connected the two halves of the Talbot property in an elaborate, Venetian-style arch. Though long gone, the footings for the bridge can still be seen, and are a reminder of the elegance of days gone by.

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The good news is that both the Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) are on a roll when it comes to enhancing the Historic Columbia River Highway trails and waysides. Many recent improvements to the Gorge parks and the old highway, itself, have already been completed in recent years, and more are already under construction.

Hopefully, polishing up the rest of the Latourell Falls loop and Talbot State Park can find its way into the State Parks and ODOT work program, too!

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Addendum: after posting this article, I heard from the owner of the geocache mentioned above Upper Latourell Falls. File this under the “small world” department, but it also happened to be someone I’ve known for many years, and who sets the highest standard for conservation ethics. Had I checked the cache ownership and known this, it would have erased any concerns about potential impacts the cache will have on the area. I now know it is in very good hands!

The cache owner also shared some numbers behind the cache that support that last point: only 50 users have logged it in the 3-plus years since it was placed, so not enough to have a noticeable impact on the terrain. Thus, the impacts that we’ve seen in recent years are likely just more of what we see elsewhere on the loop, where the crush of thousands off feet hitting this trail each year is running the landscape a bit ragged.

At its core, geocaching is a terrific way to introduce people (and especially children) to our public lands, which in turn, helps create advocates for conservation — something very much in line with this blog. Hopefully this article didn’t leave other geocachers thinking otherwise. After all, I own several caches myself, and like most cache owners, do my best to ensure they bring people into the wilds while also having minimal impact on the landscape.

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 1)

December 26, 2012
Today’s wayside is located at the east end of the Latourell Bridge, where the Falls Chalet roadhouse once stood in 1914 (shown here)

Today’s wayside is located at the east end of the Latourell Bridge, where the Falls Chalet roadhouse once stood in 1914 (shown here)

Over the past few years, Oregon Parks & Recreation has set the high bar for recreation improvements on the state lands it manages in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. The latest project is a handsome, thoughtful makeover of the Latourell Falls wayside, located along the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in Talbot State Park.

The Latourell wayside serves thousands of Gorge tourists each year, and also functions as the trailhead for the very popular Latourell Falls loop trail. The site has a long history, and was once home to a pair of roadhouses during the heyday of Samuel Lancaster’s world-class highway in the early 1900s.

The Falls Villa roadhouse was located across the road from today’s wayside through the 1930s, now marked only by a stand of mature bigleaf maple

The Falls Villa roadhouse was located across the road from today’s wayside through the 1930s, now marked only by a stand of mature bigleaf maple

Modest improvements to the wayside over the years included interpretive historic signs added in the 1990s that tracked the colorful human history of the area, but for the most part, the site was dated and dingy. The restoration work completed last summer is thus a major upgrade that deserves a review here. The work was completed with a special grant secured by the Oregon State Parks department

Makeover Review

Front and center in the rebuilt wayside is the official state park sign, constructed in the standardized style used for both national forest and state park units throughout the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area (CGNSA). The sign is mounted on a newly constructed basalt base, also designed in the uniform CGNSA style.

Welcome (again) to Guy W. Talbot State Park!

Welcome (again) to Guy W. Talbot State Park!

One missed opportunity in repurposing the existing entry sign was the chance to tell the story of Guy Talbot (picture below, in the early 1930s), one of the business titans of early Portland. Talbot donated the land containing Latourell Falls and the gorgeous canyon above the falls, so deserves more than passing mention in the human story of the area (along with other benefactors who donated the lands we now know as the state parks gems dotting the Historic Columbia River Highway).

Guy W. Talbot as he appeared in 1933 on the front page of the Oregonian, announcing his retirement

Guy W. Talbot as he appeared in 1933 on the front page of the Oregonian, announcing his retirement

Two enamel interpretive panels installed at the wayside in the 1990s were salvaged and reinstalled in the new layout. One focuses on the history of the historic highway (the photos of the roadhouses, above, are from this display) and is now mounted in outside a new restroom (below). It’s a well-trafficked location, albeit sorely lacking in aesthetic appeal! The second interpretive sign is located at the main falls overlook, and briefly describes the history of private land donations for parks in the Gorge.

The new restroom is located at the east end of the wayside, tucked away from most of the picnic tables and a good distance from the new falls overlook plaza. While modern budgets probably require the low-maintenance advantage of pit toilets, the more civilized flush toilets that were removed were an aesthetic notch above the smelly nature of a chemical toilet.

The new restroom is (unfortunately) the standard pit-toilet style found elsewhere along the old highway

The new restroom is (unfortunately) the standard pit-toilet style found elsewhere along the old highway

Considering the volume of visitors to this park, plumbed toilets may be essential — we shall find out soon enough! Fortunately, flush toilets at historic highway waysides still survive at Bridal Veil, Multnomah Falls, Ainsworth State Park, Eagle Creek, Bridge of the Gods and Starvation Creek.

But a major improvement that comes with the new restroom is the location on the south side of the old highway, adjacent to the parking area — the old restroom required crossing the highway. The new toilets are also ADA accessible, along with the drinking fountain located outside the restroom and two of the nearby picnic tables.

Accessible drinking fountain located outside the restroom

Accessible drinking fountain located outside the restroom

An unexpected benefit from the relocated restrooms: it turns out the old restrooms blocked a very nice view of the Latourell Bridge (below), framed by mossy bigleaf maple trees. The old restroom site is marked only by a flat spot below the highway. The low-headroom trail under the bridge that once accessed the restroom has also been decommissioned.

The view that used to be behind the restroom..!

The view that used to be behind the restroom..!

Other details of the new wayside design include basalt curbs that edge the repaved parking area (below), and bicycle racks for cyclists touring the old highway to safely stop and admire the upper viewpoint, fill water bottles, picnic or use the restrooms.

Stone curbs show the attention to details paid by the designers

Stone curbs show the attention to details paid by the designers

One thoughtful aspect of the new bicycle racks is the central location: too often, bicycle parking is relegated to an unused corner. This makes for much less secure parking than a more prominent location, where the public eye is more likely to deter sketchy behavior.

Centrally located bike racks front the main parking area

Centrally located bike racks front the main parking area

The west end of the wayside is the primary focus for visitors, with a handsome plaza and several new visitor amenities. A concrete-capped stone wall in the Gorge style wraps around the plaza, with notched insets for visitor information and interpretive sign installations.

An attractive, new visitor information sign (below) is an excellent addition to the wayside. While it contains the standard park information found at most state parks, an excellent trail map describing the Latourell Creek loop hike is also featured. Even better, the map isn’t of the cartoonish variety often found at tourist waysides. Instead, it shows accurate trail information and even includes elevation contours!

The handsome new visitor information sign at the Latourell wayside

The handsome new visitor information sign at the Latourell wayside

The visitor map does a good job of showing the hiking options and trail highlights, as well as helpful tips on the multiple (and somewhat confusing) trailheads that provide access to the loop. A nice cartographic touch is attention to showing private lands that abut the park (though hopefully some future version of this map will show those lands in public ownership, through the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area acquisition program!)

The excellent, new Latourell Falls Loop map

The excellent, new Latourell Falls Loop map

One minor map glitch exists: the labeling of “Upper Falls” and “Lower Falls” may work for most people, but using the proper place name for Latourell Falls (instead of “Lower Falls”) would be more accurate and informative to those visiting the park for the first time (the upper falls is known unofficially as “Upper Latourell Falls”, so not an issue). There’s rarely a good reason to deviate from official geographic names on maps, after all.

A closer look at the excellent detail on the new park map

A closer look at the excellent detail on the new park map

Hopefully, the State Parks folks will also provide a downloadable, online copy of this map at some point — one that non-profits like Portland Hikers could also offer on their user-created Field Guide, for example.

Another nice touch on the visitor information sign is the high-profile shout-out to the Columbia Group of the Sierra Club, the volunteer trail stewards for the Talbot State Park (thanks, Sierra Club!). Not only are the signs a welcome recognition of trail volunteers, but also a subtle tool for raising public awareness to the unfortunate reality that volunteers have become an essential partner to public agencies in keeping our trail system open.

Kudos to the Sierra Club volunteers!

Kudos to the Sierra Club volunteers!

The photo below shows the new visitor information sign from the perspective of the new plaza, with the restrooms visible in the far distance.

The view toward the visitor signboard and steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint from the new plaza (interpretive sign in foreground)

The view toward the visitor signboard and steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint from the new plaza (interpretive sign in foreground)

This view also shows the second notched inset in the curving basalt wall that defines the plaza overlook, where the second refurbished interpretive sign has been installed. This sign briefly describes how Latourell Falls and other nearby parks came into public ownership in the early 1900s, and is the only mention of Guy Talbot in the wayside beyond the entry signs — an oversight that is a missed opportunity in the redesign (more about that coming in Part 2 of this article).

Latourell Falls from the new plaza overlook (with the interpretive sign on the left)

Latourell Falls from the new plaza overlook (with the interpretive sign on the left)

The new plaza corrects many serious problems with the old design, starting with the need for a more spacious falls overlook that respects the historic design of the Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway. The new plaza meets this test with flying colors, including a subtle, but helpful detail of steps replacing ramps at both the upper and lower loop trailheads.

Another view from the plaza showing the interpretive sign (in the distance) and steps leading to the lower end of the Latourell Falls loop

Another view from the plaza showing the interpretive sign (in the distance) and steps leading to the lower end of the Latourell Falls loop

Because the opening segments of the loop in both directions are paved, there has always been a temptation for people with strollers (or worse, wheelchairs) to assume the trail is safe for wheeled vehicles — it is not! Thus, the new steps will help visitors with strollers and mobility devices to avoid the dangerous mistake of venturing onto the loop trail.

The plaza forms a semi-circle in order to incorporate a second view of the spectacular Latourell Bridge in addition to the falls view. This is an unexpected discovery for visitors arriving over the bridge, unaware of its soaring height and graceful arches.

Wayside details: Samuel Lancaster would approve!

Wayside details: Samuel Lancaster would approve!

On this detail, the designers hit a home run, with a series of arches built into the basalt walls that beautifully echo the bridge design, and seamlessly tie the wayside into the highway, itself, as a natural extension of Samuel Lancaster’s masterpiece. Each arch also includes a painted steel grate – a nice detail that will keep kids and pets on the plaza-side of the stone walls.

A newly installed, arch-back bench at the head of the lower loop trailhead gives a similar nod to the historic bridge, while also helping terminate the decommissioned path that once accessed the old restroom, via a narrow, sketchy path that ducked beneath the bridge (the wood post rails in the photo below block the route of the old path).

This stately bench salutes the old highway bridge, a nice touch!

This stately bench salutes the old highway bridge, a nice touch!

In the center of the new plaza, the designers have incorporated a long planter-bench (below) that will be a welcome respite for visitors to sit and enjoy the view. However, the design of the bench planter is problematic: The narrow planting compartment is not irrigated, and thus presents a tough landscape dilemma. The designers planted mahonia nervosa, or longleaf Oregon grape that should be drought-tolerant enough to survive, and compact enough to fit the narrow space. But it will also a prickly companion to share the bench with! Perhaps this was intentional (as a means to keep the plants from being crushed)?

The other dilemma with planters of this type is the frustrating reality that it will become an oversized ashtray over time. In the end, it might have made more sense to simply design a wide bench with a solid top for the plaza (which is certainly an option for retrofitting this bench, as needed).

A large planter bench anchors the new plaza

A large planter bench anchors the new plaza

The revamped wayside also includes improvements to the popular upper viewpoint, located just east of the visitor information sign. The upper viewpoint path is also the trailhead for the upper portion of the Latourell Falls loop.

The stairway to the upper viewpoint path (below) also forms the terminus of the stone wall that defines around the plaza, and is nicely designed to simply lead wandering visitors to the overlook. Like the steps at the opposite end of the plaza that lead to the lower trail, these steps may help deter wheelchairs and strollers from the steep, unsafe climb to the upper viewpoint.

New steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint and loop trail

New steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint and loop trail

Unfortunately, the upper viewpoint path is one of the disappointments in the Latourell makeover. The short, existing section of paved trail to the viewpoint is steep and slick even for able-bodied hikers. Worse, it becomes a terrifying skating rink in winter ice conditions — which happens to be a time when the Gorge is often crowded with visitors admiring the spectacle of waterfalls transformed into ice cathedrals.

While the new handrails help, a home-run design here would have been a series of steps and landings all the way to the viewpoint — picture a scaled down version of the stairs approaching the lower Multnomah Falls viewpoint as an example. Instead, the improved steps at the base of the path taper onto the old path in a fairly awkward transition, an understandable budget constraint, no doubt, but a missed opportunity, nonetheless.

Unfortunately, this ugly, occasionally dangerous path remains a sore thumb…

Unfortunately, this ugly, occasionally dangerous path remains a sore thumb…

After walking the brief section of old paving, visitors suddenly reach a completely reconstructed upper falls viewpoint (below) with nice attention paid to views. The basalt surround at the viewing platform has a subtle cutout where a steel fence allows the falls to be more fully viewed when approaching the overlook. This design replaces an old stone wall that once blocked the view from the trail, so is an especially thoughtful detail.

The revamped upper viewpoint platform is a major upgrade, albeit marred by the ugly approach on a steep, outmoded old trail

The revamped upper viewpoint platform is a major upgrade, albeit marred by the ugly approach on a steep, outmoded old trail

The awkward transition from the ugly remnant section of the old pathway to the new platform detracts from the otherwise beautiful scene, but is also something that can be remedied with future enhancement to the viewpoint.

The disappearing Latourell Falls view: a thorny problem?

The disappearing Latourell Falls view: a thorny problem?

Some unfinished business exists at the upper viewpoint, and it might fit into the State Parks operations budget: any photographer will attest to some much-needed “view management” here. Over the past decade or two, the brushy slope below the viewpoint (below) has swallowed up the bottom third of the falls. It’s something that a bit of pruning would greatly enhance. As recently as the 1990s the splash pool at the base of Latourell Falls was clearly visible from the viewpoint.

A Legacy Achievement

Though there will always more work to do in bringing the Gorge trails and byways closer to the national park standard, the Latourell Falls makeover is a terrific step in that direction. The project achieves a level of quality and permanence that few improvements manage.

Latourell Falls from the new wayside plaza

Latourell Falls from the new wayside plaza

The new space created and constructed by the State Parks team will easily last for decades, joining the rest of the historic Columbia River Highway as a stunning blend of nature and architecture that continue to thrill visitors from around the world. It’s truly a legacy project, and all who were involved in the design and construction deserve our kudos – thank you!
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(Next up in the Part 2 of this article: a look at the Latourell Loop trail and possible improvements that would bring this popular trail to its full potential)
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Read an article on the Latourell wayside makeover

Read an article on the local stone masons uniquely skilled to do the kind of work on display at Latourell Falls

2013 Mount Hood National Park Calendar

November 23, 2012

Each year at about this time I assemble the Mount Hood National Park Scenic Calendar. The proceeds are modest, but do help support the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, WyEast Blog and related project expenses. But the main purpose is to simply promote the national park concept, and make the case for the campaign with pictures.

What the calendar looks like – oversized 11×17” pages you can actually use!

I’ve published the calendars since 2004, so this year’s calendar marks the ninth edition. All of the photos in the calendar are from trips and trails I’ve explored over the past year. I get a surprising number of questions about the photos, so in addition to simply announcing the 2013 calendar, this article tells a bit of the story behind the new images — and some are surprising!

The 2013 Scenes

The cover image for the 2013 calendar is Upper McCord Creek Falls, located just west of Cascade Locks. This is a popular destination for Columbia Gorge lovers, though often overshadowed by its more famous downstream sibling, Elowah Falls.

Cover Scene: Upper McCord Creek Falls

Upper McCord Falls is unique in that it flows as a twin cascade. A little known fact is that a third segment used to flow during the rainy season as recently as the 1970s, just to the left of the two segments shown in the photo (above). The third segment has since been blocked by stream debris, however, so for now, Upper McCord is best known as a twin cascade.

The falls is popular with photographers, but in 2010 was briefly obstructed by a large treetop that had split from atop a nearby maple, landing perfectly on its head, directly in front of the falls. While the local photography community simply grumped and groaned about this unfortunate development, Gorge waterfall explorer and photographer Zach Forsyth did something about it: he scrambled down the slope, and neatly tipped the 40-foot up-ended tree on its side. Thus, Zach made this year’s calendar cover possible – thanks, Zach!

Upper McCord Creek Falls with “the stump” in 2010

Upper McCord Creek Falls is tucked away in the hidden upper canyon of McCord Creek, just a few hundred yards from the brink of Elowah Falls. The trail to the upper falls is especially spectacular, following a ledge chiseled into sheer cliffs in the early 1900s to pipe water to the former Warrendale Cannery, below (portions of the pipe system can be seen along the trail). The falls is hidden from view until you abruptly arrive at the dramatic overlook, directly in front of the falls – one of the finest and most unexpected scenes in the Gorge.

The January calendar scene is a wintery view of the rugged west face of Mount Hood, just emerging from the clouds after a fresh snowfall. This view was captured just a few weeks ago near Lolo Pass, as the evening light was briefly catching the summit.

January Scene: West face after an early winter storm

Like most “mountain in the mist” images, this one was a reward for patience: I waited for two chilly hours for the clouds to clear! It worth the wait, though I’ve also had my share of disappointments when that glorious glimpse of the mountain didn’t materialize.

For the month of February, I picked an image from a trip last winter along the Little Zigzag River. I had planned to snowshoe to Little Zigzag Falls from the Kiwanis Camp, but there were only about 18 inches of snow on the ground, much of it fluffy and new. So, I simply trudged through leaving some very deep boot prints in my wake — and happily, the only footprints on the trail that afternoon.

February Scene: Little Zigzag River in winter

The weather was extremely cold on this visit, revealing one of the surprising effects of running water in winter: it turns out the sheer volume of relatively “warm” water (that is, above freezing) flowing down the Little Zigzag river actually heats the narrow canyon, much like an old steam radiator heats a room.

Following this radiator analogy, the temperate gradient is most noticeable when air temperatures are really cold. It was about 12º F that day, yet the air right next to the stream, and especially in front of Little Zigzag Falls measured in at a “balmy” 30º F. I found myself peeling off layers while shooting the stream and falls, only to hurriedly put them back on as I ventured back down the trail and into the real cold!

For the month of March I chose another waterfall scene, this time the lush, verdant base of popular Latourell Falls in the Columbia Gorge.

March Scene: Latourell Falls in spring

On this visit to the falls, Oregon State Parks construction crews were starting work on several major upgrades to viewpoints along this busy trail. As a result, the most popular trailhead at the Latourell Wayside was closed. Instead, I took a back route to the falls and had the place to myself for the better part of an hour — nearly unheard of on what should have been a busy spring weekend at Latourell Falls.

The April calendar scene is from Rowena Plateau at the McCall Preserve, in the dry, eastern Columbia Gorge. The iconic yellow balsamroot and blue lupine were in peak bloom on this sunny afternoon in mid-spring, and the glassy surface of the Columbia River in the background reveals a rare day of calm in the normally windy Gorge. The very tip of Mount Adams peeks over the hills on the horizon, on the Washington side of the river:

April Scene: Balsamroom and lupine on Rowena Plateau

The trip to Rowena was especially memorable for me, as I was hiking with an old college friend who was visiting Oregon for a few days. Rowena was a great place to catch up on news and old memories.

My friend also happens to be an eminent geologist working for the federal government, so we had a great conversation about the mystery of “desert mounds” (also known as “biscuit scablands”), which found on Rowena Plateau and in other areas in the Columbia Basin (watch for a future WyEast Blog article on this subject…).

Hikers passing one of the mysterious desert mounds on Rowena Plateau

Continuing the balsamroot-and-lupine theme, the May scene in the new calendar comes from Hood River Mountain, a tract of private land that is (for now) open to the public, but at risk of closure, due to heavy use by hikers.

This is one piece of land that will hopefully come into public ownership someday, before a less responsible private owner places trophy homes on these beautiful slopes. I wrote about this unfortunate oversight in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act in this article from a few years ago.

May Scene: Hood River Mountain in May

On Memorial Day last spring, I made a trip to Dry Creek Falls, a beautiful waterfall saddled with one of the most unfortunate and uninspiring place names in the Gorge! The June calendar image is from that trip, and captures Dry Creek rambling through the forest a few hundred yards below the falls.

June Scene: (not so) Dry Creek in spring

This area has a unique history: an old, derelict diversion dam and waterworks survives at the base of the falls, where the City of Cascade Locks once tapped the stream for municipal water in decades past. Perhaps this is the origin of “Dry Creek” name — did the stream below the diversion actually go dry when the dam was installed? Perhaps, but today it flows year-round, and makes for a beautiful streamside hike in spring.

Dry Creek Falls and the remains of the old diversion dam and waterworks

The July scene in the 2013 calendar is from a trip to Elk Cove last August. This is one of my annual pilgrimages, and I have photographed this particular spot just east of Cove Creek too many times to count — yet I’m always excited to get there, and recapture the stunning scene.

July Scene: Summer wildflowers at Elk Cove

The wildflower bloom on Mount Hood was delayed by several weeks this year, so even though I was a bit late in visiting Elk Cove, there was still a bumper-crop of purple aster mixing with the blue lupine and mop-heads of western anemone, or Old Man of the Mountain.

Not visible in the calendar view of Elk Cove are the blackened forests directly behind me: the Dollar Fire of 2011 swept across a 5-mile swath along the northern foot of Mount Hood, charring the northern fringes of Elk Cove, including several large stands of mountain hemlock that frame the view from 99 Ridge.

The Dollar Fire burned a 5-mile swath across the north slope Mount Hood

Though it’s initially shocking to see healthy forests killed by fire, it is also part of the natural cycle of forest renewal. Thus, we’ll now have a front-row seat to the fire recovery process that will unfold over the coming years along the popular north side trails. I wrote this blog article on the Dollar Fire earlier this year.

For the August calendar image, I picked a less familiar scene from an otherwise popular hike: the soaring trail to the 8,514’ summit of Cooper Spur. To beat the crowds, I set my alarm for 3 AM and raced to the trailhead at Cloud Cap. I was the first to arrive at the string of dramatic viewpoints along the trail, and caught the first rays of sun lighting up the northeast face of the mountain.

August Scene: Eliot Glacier from Cooper Spur

This view is from the north shoulder of Cooper Spur, just below the summit, and looking into the impressive jumble of crevasses and icefalls along the Eliot Glacier. Though the sky was crystal clear (you can see the moon setting to the left of the mountain), the winds from the south were strong and blustery. So, getting this shot from the lee side of the spur also meant enjoying some respite from the intense wind and blowing volcanic grit.

For the September image, I selected a lesser-known view of the mountain: the remote and rugged Newton Canyon, on the southeast side, where Mount Hood has a broad, massive profile.

September Scene: Rugged Newton Creek Canyon on the east side of Mount Hood

Glacial Newton Creek is best known for the havoc it brings far below, where the stream has repeatedly washed out Highway 35 with violent debris flows that toss Toyota-size boulders and whole trees across the road in their wake. Construction crews were busy this summer completing yet another repair, this time for damage that occurred in the 2006 floods. As always, the new road is bigger and higher than the old. We’ll see if Newton Creek is persuaded to flow through the new series of larger flood culverts this time…

The October scene is from Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek, a popular family hike that also provides terrific viewing of spawning salmon and steelhead in early autumn.

October Scene: Wahclella Falls in autumn

Fall colors were somewhat muted in 2012, thanks to an unusually long, dry summer that extended well into October. As a result, the broadleaf trees in many areas had already dropped a lot of leaves due to the stress of the drought, before they would even have a change to change with the seasons.

While fall colors at Tanner Creek were less affected by the summer drought, the autumn scene in this year’s calendar has to make due without without the help of the particular tree, the Wahclella Maple I wrote about earlier this year. You can see the hole it left by comparing this year’s image (above) and a 2010 image (below).

Wahclella Falls in 2010 with the Wahclella Maple still standing above the footbridge

Since 2007, I’ve made annual trips with friends and volunteers to tend to the Old Vista Ridge Trail on the north side of Mount Hood. This historic gem from the early 1900s was an overgrown, forgotten victim of the Forest Service clear-cutting juggernaut for some 40 years, but somehow managed to escape their chainsaws.

Volunteers re-opened the Old Vista Ridge Trail in 2007, spurred in part by a Forest Service scheme to turn the area into a playground for dirt bikes and ATVs — an appalling plan that was eventually abandoned, in part because the rediscovered trail had revealed the beauty of the area to so many.

In 2010, the trail became the official northern boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, when President Obama signed a new wilderness bill into law. This change should close the door on future Forest Service threats to the area, and today the hike into one of the best on the mountain.

November Scene: Mount Hood from Owl Point

The November calendar scene is from a viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail known as Owl Point, the rocky outcrop with stunning views of the mountain. Bright red huckleberries light up the foreground in this scene, and the first dusting of snow highlights the mountain. In the distance, you can also pick out the browned forests on the slopes of Mount Hood, where the Dollar Fire swept across the base of the mountain in 2011.

The final image in the new calendar is another taken from Lolo Pass, perhaps one of the most spectacular views of Mount Hood. This image was taken just before sundown after a fresh snowfall had blanketed the mountain.

December Scene: Winter arrives at Lolo Pass

I paid the price for taking in the sunset that night at Lolo Pass, as my car was broken into at the trailhead – something I’d somehow managed to avoid in all my years of hiking! As frustrating as it was to deal with the repairs and lost belongings… I’d do it all over again just to spend those magical hours watching the mountain that night — it was truly breathtaking! Here, take a closer look, and see for yourself:

Mount Hood from Lolo Pass | 2012
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The thirteen images I chose for the 2013 calendar are from a few thousand images I’ve taken this year on something just shy of 40 outings to Mount Hood and the Gorge — a bit less time on the trail than a typical year would allow, but no complaints! As always, these adventures took me to new places and discoveries, as well as fond visits to my favorite old haunts.

And as always, the magnificent scenery further confirmed my conviction that Mount Hood should (and will!) be set aside as our next National Park! Hopefully, the calendar makes the case, as well.

How can you get one, you ask?

The new calendars are available online:

2013 Mount Hood National Park Calendar at CafePress

They are large and functional, measuring 17” across by 22” tall when hung, with plenty of room for writing notes and scheduling activities. CafePress packages them carefully, with each calendar sealed against a corrugated cardboard backing for support.

The calendars sell for $29.99 + shipping, with about 25% of the proceeds going to support the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. They make terrific stocking stuffers (…although you’ll need an 11×17” stocking…), and CafePress now makes it even easier by offering PayPal as an option.

And as always, thanks for your support!
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Addendum: Gorge uber-Guru Scott Cook set me straight on a couple of comments in the above article:

Hey Tom, so of course I read your blog like a good Gorge denizen. A couple of points…I’m not trying to sound like a know-it-all…but I know that you do like to get at the bottom of things and eschew conjecture:

The pipes visible on the Upper McCord trail are from Myron Kelly’s pulp mill, not Warren’s cannery. There are some pix on my blog of Kelly’s mill and iterations of his pipes. I have another old pic too showing the pipe running along the cliff cleft, illustrating to me that the cleft was a pipeway instead of a WPA/CCC construction.

2013MHNPCalendar16
(author’s note: here’s a photo I shared with Scott that shows CCC crews clearing out the old waterline shelf to make way for the trail to Upper McCord Falls — note the Historic Columbia River Highway, far below, and the CCC crew bosses in full uniform)

…and, about Dry Creek falls, the Creek was called Dry Creek before the water works were installed. The reason is that just downstream of the PCT trail bridge, just down the access road 200yards, the creek dries up in the summer to nothing, just a dry creek bed as the creek goes subterranean until re-emerging downstream of the powerline corridor.

If you walk down the access road in the summer, the stream is of course flowing under the bridge, but when you walk downstream the sound goes away and you just figure the stream curved away from the road, but nope, if you bushwhack over just 100 feet you’ll see the dry stream…as you will if you continue down the access road also.

Down the (Dry Creek) access road is a bunker-looking building that was built in the 30′s to store the water from the stream’s waterworks for the city’s first municipal supply. The water shed is still in use today, but the water is pumped upwards into it from wells in the town below.

Next edition of Curious I’ll have Dry Creek Falls as a loop using the powerline access road…so people can learn the history and see the Dried-up Creek as well (cuz everyone loves a loop). Look for my pix on Google Earth of all this stuff and the dried-up creek. -Scott

Thanks, Scott!

Piggyback Plant

November 13, 2011

Piggyback plant

Hike along any low-elevation stream in the Cascades and you’re likely to pass colonies of Tolmiea menziesii — more commonly known as the piggyback plant. These humble plants draw their common name from a unique habit of sprouting new plants on top of their leaves (reflected in other common names for the species, including “youth-on-age” and “thousand mothers”).

The botanical name for this species memorializes two giants in the early days of Pacific Northwest botanical discovery: Scottish-Canadian botanist William Fraser Tolmie and Archibald Menzies, the Scottish naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition.

Young leaves on a piggyback plant

These fuzzy little plants thrive in the moist shade of streamside broadleaf trees like red alder and bigleaf maple. As forest floor dwellers, piggyback plants have become expert at reproducing. They can spread along their well-developed rhizomes, through seeds, and of course, through the tiny plantlets that form on their leaves.

A close look at the piggyback plant reveals a whorl of basal leaves, typical of the many species in the saxifrage family. The leaves have 5-7 lobes, and are finely toothed. Both leaves and stems are covered in fine white hairs that give them a soft texture to the touch.

Daughter plantlet on a piggyback plant mother leaf

Piggyback plants produce leaves continually from their base, with larger, older leaves eventually sprouting a “daughter” plantlet. The genius of this reproductive strategy is how it fits into the life cycle of the deciduous forests where the plants thrive. As the older leaves mature, they extend away from the mother plant on 4-6” stems, allowing daughter plantlets that form to touch down well away from the parent plant.

This is where the over-story of deciduous trees come in. Daughter plantlets form mostly over the course of the spring and summer growing season, By autumn, they are ready for falling maple and alder leaves to bury them, pressing tiny rootlets on the daughter plants into contact with the ground, where they can grow and anchor the new plant.

Underside of a mother leaf showing rootlets on a piggyback “daughter”

By the next spring, the new plant is ready to grow on its own, still fed by the nutrients from the fading mother leaf, and still with the connecting stem from the mother leaf forming an umbilical cord to the mother plant. Over time, the mother leaf and stem connecting to the daughter plant wither and die, and the daughter becomes truly independent from the parent.

In spring, piggyback plants produce clusters of tiny, graceful blossoms on 6-10” spikes. Each blossom is capable of producing a small seed capsule filled with tiny seeds. Flower stalks die back over the course of a summer, releasing seeds to grow side-by-side with the cloned plants that have sprouted from rhizomes and “piggyback” plantlets.

Piggyback plant flower (Wikimedia)

As a survival strategy, the seed offspring have the advantage of being cross-pollinated. Over time, seed-based offspring can evolve with the genes of two parents to have new survival characteristics that single parent cloned plants from root or leaf starts inherently lack.

Piggyback Plants in the Commercial Trade

Only a few native plants from Pacific Northwest forests have been hybridized to become commercial cultivars, and still fewer are suitable as indoor plants. The piggyback plant fills this rare niche, somehow adapting to the relatively hot, arid conditions indoors. They are typically sold as hanging basket plants.

Piggyback plant cultivar “Taff’s Gold”

The curious “piggyback” habit is the main attraction for growing the plants indoors. Breeders have created commercial hybrids with larger leaves, more “piggyback” plantlets and even a few variegated cultivars, such as the “Taffs Gold” Tolmiea shown above.

Starting Your Own Piggyback Plant

There’s no need to buy a piggyback plant, kids (and parents) can enjoy collecting and growing piggyback plants collected in the wild. You can make this a two-part adventure for kids by combining the collecting with a day hike, then propagating what you’ve collected at home.

Piggyback plants are plentiful along several family-friendly trails in the Columbia River Gorge: notable among these are the short trails to Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Elowah Falls and Wahclella Falls.

On each trail, you’ll find piggyback plants in streamside areas and where deciduous trees grow. Your kids will quickly learn to spot them, and it’s okay to collect a few plantlets for growing at home, as you will be leaving the mother plant behind to produce more (an important lesson for kids).

Materials for starting your own plant

To grow your daughter plant, you’ll need the following:

• small pot (3-4 inches)
• soil-less potting mix
• bobby pin (or paper clip)
• rubber band
• plastic sandwich or freezer bag

Planting your starts is simple: (1) fill the pot to within 1” of the top with soil; (2) place the mother leaf and plantlet in the pot, with rootlets touching the soil; pin in place by pushing the bobby pin (or paper clip) over the mother leaf stem just below the plantlet, and holding it against the soil. Next, (3) sprinkle another 1/4” of potting mix, slightly covering the stem and base of the plantlet, and water well. Finally, (4) secure the plastic bag over the pot with the rubber band to provide a humid environment for the young plantlet to become established.

Piggyback start potted and ready to grow

Keep your new piggyback plant in a bright north or east-facing window, and covered with the plastic bag until you see the plantlet growing. At this point, you can remove the bag and watch your new houseplant grow — or plant it in your yard, where it will thrive in moist shade.

This is a terrific way to get young kids excited about the outdoors, and perhaps develop a green thumb in the process! You can start a piggyback plant at any time, as the plantlets can be collected year-round on the low-elevation Gorge trails listed above.

The Hidden Shame of Latourell

April 21, 2011

Since tourists first began exploring Samuel Lancaster’s graceful new Columbia River Highway in 1915, Latourell Falls has been a favorite stop. In the early days, a pair of roadhouses (the Falls Chalet and the Falls Villa) flanked the highway at the east end of the dramatic highway bridge spanning the creek, and offered lunch with a view of the falls.

Today, the falls are the main focus of Guy Talbot State Park, with thousands of visitors each year exploring the series of loop trails that circle the lower falls and follow Latourell Creek to the upper falls.

The Falls Chalet in 1915

The scenes along Latourell Creek are beautiful and iconic, and most visitors simply accept that this place will be protected forever for the public. Yet, experienced hikers notice something different about this western-most of the waterfall trails in the Columbia Gorge: it’s not pristine, at least not in the way that other streams in the Gorge are. Despite the beautiful setting, big trees, wildflowers and waterfalls, something about this stream seems degraded.

When crossing the rustic footbridge at the thundering base of Latourell Falls, there is often a distinct odor of algae in the air. A closer look at the stream reveals not only algae on the rocks, but also crusty mineral deposits that also suggest degraded water quality in this beautiful stream, and would help explain the algae blooms.

This close-up view (below) is a detailed look at the lower right corner of the previous image of Latourell Falls. The close-up view reveals white mineral deposits and yellow-grown algae stains on several boulders and cobbles. This view also shows fine silt deposits (brown areas in the lower right) that suggest some sort of major disturbance in the watershed.

Why is this? What’s behind the water quality problems on this otherwise untouched stream?

Going to the Source

Upstream from the waterfalls and throngs of visitors along the lower canyon section of Latourell Creek, an explanation for the degraded water quality is revealed. Though few visitors to the lower reaches of the stream would imagine it, the headwaters of Latourell Creek are privately owned, with a number of homes and a lot of logging along the stream.

Amazingly, more than three quarters of the Latourell Creek watershed lies outside the protection of public parks and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA).

While the private homes are partly responsible for the nutrients that feed algae and leave mineral deposits in Latourell Creek (from lawn chemicals, septic tanks and other sources), the aggressive logging of private lands in the upper watershed is the greatest risk to stream quality.

The environmental impact of logging in the headwaters is painfully obvious, with canyon slopes recklessly harvested in clearcuts. This is a discredited, outmoded form of timber management that shouldn’t be practiced anywhere, much less a stream of this caliber that flows into a National Scenic Area.

The clearcut photos shown here were taken in the summer of 2010, with most of these harvests just a couple of years old. In this view (below), an older clear cut can also be seen on the hillside across the canyon, and is just beginning to recover with a light green layer of growth. Most of these forests have been cut several times, with ever-shortened growth cycles between harvests, thanks to a growing market value for marginal timber.

In this view (below) raw skid roads in the lower right drain directly into Latourell Creek, which flows along the tree line, at the edge of the clearcut. Erosion from bare slopes and logging roads is responsible for the most fine sediments (mud) seen below, in the protected sections of Latourell Creek. These sediments not only spoil the stream bottom, they also introduce minerals at a rate which promotes the growth of algae, which in turn, can also harm stream health.

Sadly, Oregon law continues to allow timber harvesting using the clearcut method, and the few environmental protections that do exist for stream protection on private timberlands are little compensation for the effects of clear cutting.

The tragic reality is that in Oregon, the timber lobby is still king. Twenty years of non-stop public relations advertising (kicked off during the early 90s Spotted Owl crisis) by Big Timber have been surprisingly effective in keeping the public largely misinformed on what is really happening in private forests.

In this view (below) of upper Latourell Creek, the private property owner has left the minimal amount of riparian “buffer” required by Oregon law. The trees in this photo are less than ten feet from the edge of Latourell Creek, and most of what you see is actually growing on the opposite bank from the clearcut. Clearly, this practice threatens severe erosion and sediments from the logged area entering the stream in a region where rainfall amounts can reach 100 inches annually.

Clearcuts threaten more than steams and water quality, however. In the 1990s, the Oregon timber lobby was forced to accept limits on clearcutting above roads and dwellings because of a number of catastrophic slides that had been triggered around the state by the practice.

Yet, few limits on logging below developed roads exist, and in the case of the upper Latourell canyon clearcuts, the impact of logging on the slopes below the local roadways is real. In the following view, large trees have not only been recklessly cut from the slope below the road, but the remaining smaller trees and shrubs have been sprayed with herbicide — a routine treatment after clearcutting — and thus killing what was left of root systems that help hold the slope together. As the image indicates, there are already active slides along this slope, triggering road repair costs that will fall upon the public to fix, not the private land owner.

This photo (below) shows the slide repair in more detail — a 200-foot section of road that has already been filled and patched repeatedly, and now will likely continue to fail thanks to a slope that has been further destabilized by aggressive logging.

What’s the Solution?

For much of Oregon, the fate of clearcutting is an open question, with the timber lobby thus far successful in its efforts to prevent the practice from being outlawed. That’s a shame, and a sad commentary on our state politics. But in the case of Latourell Creek, there’s another option.

When the authors of the Columbia River National Scenic Area (CRNSA) were drawing up maps, they focused on scenery and what could be seen from points along the Columbia River. As a result, the scenic act ignored a crucial lesson learned from the newer national parks of the 1960s — most notoriously, Redwoods National Park — that when acquiring park lands, complete ecosystems and watersheds should define the boundaries.

A look at the CRNSA boundary in the Latourell Creek headwaters shows the problem: the upper watershed falls outside the scenic area, and thus is excluded as a place for meaningful regulation or public land acquisition.

Click here for a larger map

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. These lands should be added to the CRNSA, and managed holistically, with the health of the spectacular lower canyon in mind.

After all, Latourell Creek is the only major stream on the Oregon side of the Gorge to straddle the boundary, and thus a good case can be made for amending the CRNSA boundary to incorporate the complete watershed. This would allow for better regulation of private lands in the headwaters, at a minimum, and also allow for CRNSA land acquisition funds to be used here.

Upper Latourell Falls

Another argument in favor of expanding the CRNSA boundary is the convenience of Larch Mountain Road in defining the Latourell Creek watershed. This popular recreation route is already viewed as “part” of the scenic area, albeit outside the boundary in this section. Therefore, an expanded boundary would allow the full Larch Mountain Road corridor to be managed as an extension of the scenic area. This extent is reflected on the map, above.

What Would it Take?

Amending the CRNSA requires an act of Congress, and though it sounds daunting, minor changes to federal boundaries of this sort are common as “riders” on larger federal lands bills.

While better regulation of private lands in the upper Latourell watershed would surely come from an expanded CRNSA, the chief benefit would be the ability to acquire lands for restoration. Already, the Forest Service has acquired hundreds of acres of private elsewhere in the Gorge, and the upper reaches of Latourell Creek would be best protected by fully restoring the watershed.

Upper Latourell Falls

Yet another option could be for advocacy organizations — like the Friends of the Columbia Gorge or Trust for Public Lands — to acquire the upper watershed lands. However, these groups generally operate inside the existing CRNSA boundary, and focus limited funds on still-pristine lands or those with exceptional scenic value.

In the end, it seems that our best bet is for the Oregon Congressional delegation to consider a “housekeeping” update to the CRNSA, including boundary refinements. Perhaps a 20-year review of the CRNSA is in order in 2016?


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