The New Mount Hood National Recreation Area

When the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was signed into law by President Obama last year, most of the media attention focused on the new wilderness lands set aside in Oregon. This included a number of new wilderness areas and expansion of existing areas around Mount Hood and in the Columbia Gorge.

But the legislation also contained a new creature of federal law that hardly noticed: creation of the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA). The new designation joined a number of similar “national recreation areas” on United States Forest Service (USFS) land, and added to the confusion that already exists between USFS areas under this designation, and the completely different National Park Service (NPS) designation of “national recreation area.”

The difference is usually found in the fine print, where commercial logging or other extractive uses are allowed in the USFS version of a “national recreation area”, albeit with limitations, whereas such activities are never permitted under NPS management.

This is true for the new Mount Hood NRA, as well. While the 2009 legislation called for the USFS to “provide for the protection, preservation, and enhancement of recreational, ecological, scenic, cultural, watershed, and fish and wildlife values” in the new recreation area, the Forest Service isn’t quite prohibited from carrying out the activities they’ve come to be known for — timber harvest and road building – unless the NRA overlaps a designated wilderness area.

Timber Harvest – The new law allows the “cutting, sale, or removal of timber within the Mount Hood NRA to the extent necessary to improve the health of the forest in a manner that maximizes the retention of large trees, improves the habitats of threatened, endangered, or sensitive species or maintains or restores the composition and structure of the ecosystem by reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire.”

That’s a mouthful, but it does represent a major departure from the status quo commercial timber harvesting that the USFS has employed over the past sixty years across the Mount Hood region. Simply prioritizing the “retention of large trees” is revolutionary for the agency, since these were the prime targets of thousands of timber sales over the past many decades under the pseudo-science of being “decadent” and “unproductive”.

Road Building – The act states that “no new or temporary roads shall be constructed or reconstructed within the Mount Hood NRA except as necessary to protect the health and safety of individuals in cases of an imminent threat of flood, fire, or any other catastrophic event that, without intervention, would cause the loss of life or property; to conduct environmental cleanup required by the United States; to allow for the exercise of reserved or outstanding rights provided for by a statute or treaty; to prevent irreparable resource damage by an existing road; or to rectify a hazardous road condition.”

Another mouthful, and less of a change for the USFS, since pretty much any new road project could be justified under these criteria. But in reality, the agency has experienced collapsing timber revenues and steep cuts in its operating budgets in recent years to pay for new roads. The road building era of the USFS is over, and the Mount Hood National Forest is among several that going through a process to plan for the closure and decommissioning of unneeded roads to reduce maintenance liability and enhance fish habitat. Nonetheless, the new legislation probably makes it a bit harder to build new roads within the NRA, even if the funds are available.

Bicycles – The act doesn’t come out and say it, but the driving purpose behind the creation of the Mount Hood NRA is to provide new protections against logging and development in areas that not only have a high scenic value, but are also popular with mountain bikers. Because bicycles are not allowed inside wilderness areas (yet), the NRA designation became an important political compromise with bike advocates who initially opposed the legislation for the numerous areas that would become off-limits to bikes.

The implication in this intent is that the areas included in the “national recreation area” will be a priority for developing new bike trails and trailhead facilities, including the conversion of surplus logging roads to bicycle trails in some cases. The act provided no funding for this new programmatic emphasis, however, so the work of building and maintaining bicycle trails in the new “national recreation area” will continue to be an uphill struggle, and require the help of volunteers.

Where is the Mount Hood National Recreation Area?

The new Mount Hood NRA covers approximately 34,550 acres in an arc composed of three separate units, each located to the east and south of the mountain. The map below shows the extent and relationship of the three Mount Hood NRA units:

click here for a larger version of the map

The three units of the NRA are located in close proximity to the Mount Hood Loop Highway, and easily accessed from the Portland region, and the communities of Mount Hood and the Gorge. All three are already popular recreation destinations, so the new NRA designation simply embraces and protects this function, while ensuring that cyclists continue to have access.

The Shellrock Unit (map below) of the Mount Hood NRA is the smallest and most northern in the complex. This unit is centered on the popular Surveyor’s Ridge trail complex that features miles of some of the finest single-track cycling in Oregon, and has easy access from Forest Roads 44 and 17.

This is also one of the most heavily logged corners of the Mount Hood National Forest, and will require decades of restoration management to recover. However, the extensive network of logging roads also serves as a prime candidate for conversion to single or dual track bicycle trails. This area features some of the finest views of Mount Hood to be found, so the future is bright for recreation in this unit.

The Fifteenmile Unit (map below) is located due east of Mount Hood, along Forest Road 44, and adjacent to the Badger Creek Wilderness (located to the south). This is also a popular area with cyclists, and like the Shellrock Unit, this area has been brutally logged over the past three decades.

Worse, the remaining forest stands in the Fifteenmile Unit have been hit hard by beetle infestations and drought cycles, resulting in some of the most stressed forests in the Mount Hood region. These conditions, combined with a century or fire suppression where fire is an essential component in the forest ecology has left a tinderbox just waiting for a catastrophic fire.

It will take decades of restoration management to bring back the parkland forests of ponderosa pine, western larch and Oregon white oak that once dominated the area. But as with the Shellrock Unit, the potential for converting logging roads in the Fifteenmile Unit to single and dual track bicycle routes is excellent. The area has a unique blend of high desert and Mount Hood viewpoints that already make it a popular destination, so the NRA designation bodes well for both restoring the forests and expanding recreation here.

The Mount Hood Unit (map below) is the third and final piece of the Mount Hood NRA complex. This is by far the largest of the three units, extending from the Salmon River on the west to the Badger Creek Wilderness on the east, and encompassing a large segment of the upper White River valley. Unlike the other units, the Mount Hood portion of the NRA complex incorporates new wilderness areas, including the Twin Lakes, Barlow Ridge and Bonney Butte wilderness areas. A segment of the Pacific Crest Trail passes through the west edge of this unit of the NRA.

The range of recreation activities is diverse in this largest of the three NRA units, ranging from heavy winter use by skiers, snowshoers and snowmobiles, and summer use by hikers, equestrians and cyclists. The most popular cycling areas are in the eastern portion, along the Gunsight Trail and in the vicinity of Bonney Meadows and the Boulder Lakes.

The eastern portion of this unit is also the most heavily logged, especially in the southeast corner of the NRA, near Boulder Creek. However, like the Shellrock and Fifteenmile units, the logging road network in the Mount Hood unit provide an excellent opportunity for conversion to single or dual track bicycle routes.

What’s Next?

In the near term, the new Mount Hood NRA functions mostly as a curiosity, though in time it will shape USFS decisions on forest management. The main benefit in the short term is more protection for recreation in these areas, and perhaps expanded opportunities for bicycling.

But in the long term, the designation has an intriguing possibility of serving as a steppingstone to National Park status. For example, it could be eventually expanded to cover a much larger (or all) of the Mount Hood National Forest. This could happen in the near term, as demand for recreation from the rapidly growing Portland area continues to outpace what the Forest Service is able to deliver under its current management approach, and is clearly the preferred public use for the forest.

Thus, if a large portion (or all) of the Mount Hood National Forest were to be designated as an NRA, the step to transferring the area to the National Park Service becomes much more plausible, since the Park Service already administers a number of NRAs under its jurisdiction.

In this way, an obscure, almost accidental element of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 might have paved a new way for Mount Hood to finally join the ranks of other national parks.

Mount Hood National Park on Hike Yeah

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of meeting Alex Head, host of the weekly Hike Yeah program. We recorded a two-part podcast that covers all aspect of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, and you can stream or download the first 30-minute segment (Podcast 40) from the Hike Yeah website now:

Hike Yeah | Podcast 40 | Mount Hood National Park Campaign

The second segment will air next Friday at 2 PM, and will appear as Podcast 41 on the Hike Yeah website. Alex is a fine interviewer, and had really done his research into the MHNP project before the show, so we were able to jump right in to the questions that people are most curious about: how would National Park management differ from the Forest Service? Would there be additional entry fees? What about my dog..?? Those questions, and many more are covered in the interview.

The second segment airing next week is a bit more expansive, as Alex focused more on things that I’m doing outside the MHNP Campaign, but I did manage to bring it back to the cause I care about most! Alex provides a terrific service with this program, so if you’re a hiker be sure to subscribe and catch his show every week.
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Edited to add in the link to the second part – rambles onto other subjects like waterfall hunts, restoring old trails and the birth of Trailkeepers of Oregon, but does get back to the main theme of Mount Hood National Park toward the end:

Hike Yeah | Podcast 41 | Mount Hood National Park Campaign

Thanks for the opportunity, Alex – it was fun!

The Mount Hood Quarter

Beginning this year, the new America the Beautiful Quarters program will release the first of 56 new United States quarter coins. The new coins feature national parks and other national sites in each state, the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories. Notably, Mount Hood is one of just two “national sites” in the new set that is not protected by the National Park Service (the other is the White Mountains in New Hampshire).

Still more significant is the timing: Mount Hood will join Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Hot Springs National Parks in being the first five coins featured in the inaugural year. This honor is yet another reminder of the mountain’s second-class status among the nation’s natural shrines, but is also more inspiration to correct that oversight. Mount Hood stands in hallowed company in this initial rollout of the new coin series.

The process for selecting the design of the new Mount Hood quarter is nearly complete. The design has already been narrowed to four options, with one option jointly nominated by a pair of blue-ribbon advisory committee as the preferred design. Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner will make the final decision on designs for the first five quarters, and the U.S. Mint will issue the quarters later this year.

The first design option for the Mount Hood quarter features the picturesque view of mountain from the fruit orchards of the upper Hood River Valley. Though it would make a fine choice, this was not the design forwarded by the advisory committees.

The second option is somewhat awkward, since it places the Portland skyline somewhere in the vicinity of Hood River. Thankfully, this option passed over by both advisory committees, and is unlikely to be selected. It’s somewhat baffling how such an iconic view could be botched like this, and we can only hope that the error would have been caught had the design been selected!

The third option is the familiar and classic view of the mountain from Lost Lake, as seen in a century of countless postcards and other tourist collectables over the decades. This design is the recommended choice of both advisory committees, and seems likely to be the final design.

The fourth option is a variation of the (so far) favored Lost Lake option, adding clusters of Pacific rhododendron blossoms to the foreground. This would have been my pick for the coin, but was passed over by the advisory committees as “too cluttered”.

Surprisingly, there were no Mount Hood quarter finalists featuring Timberline Lodge and the familiar south side of the mountain, arguably the best-known view of the mountain. This might be explained by the U.S. Postal Service issuance of a commemorative postcard in 1987 (below) that featured the lodge on its fiftieth anniversary.

All of this comes on the heels of what was a spirited discussion in 2004, when Mount Hood was one of four designs under consideration for the State Quarters series. This anatomically challenged, clumsy rendering of the mountain was released for public comment on the designs options (along with three other alternatives that featured an Oregon Trail theme, native salmon and Crater Lake):

Despite the less-than-inspiring design of the Mount Hood coin in this earlier competition, there was a last-minute flurry of interest in combining the Oregon Trail and Mount Hood themes. After much debate, Governor Ted Kulongoski eventually picked the Crater Lake design (below), and this has now become a favorite among coin collectors.

This earlier choice probably helped move the Mount Hood coin to the front of the line for the America the Beautiful series, though it wasn’t necessarly a given. California, for example, will feature Yosemite on its America the Beautiful quarter, despite having featured the park (and John Muir) on its state quarter. Likewise, Arizona will portray the Grand Canyon on the new quarter, but also featured it on the state quarter series.

So, we’re fortunate that Mount Hood is now getting its due, and will be profiled in such fine company, with more than fifty national parks, monuments and historic sites. It’s an honor well-deserved, and perhaps a foreshadowing of the company that Mount Hood will share in the future.

Addendum

For Mount Hood memorabilia collectors, the 2010 America the Beautiful proof set is here! The following are a couple of scans of the set I received this week. With the set, you will receive the Mount Hood quarter, along with the other four inaugural year quarter — Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Hot Springs — in this sealed enclosure:

The set comes in this collectable box, with an enclosed certificate of authenticity:

You can order the set direct from the United States Mint.