WyEast Roundup!

Lots going on as we enter 2016 in WyEast country, so this article is a bit of a roundup, beginning with yet another commemorative nod from our federal government in the form of…

Columbia River Gorge Priority Mail Express Stamp!

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On December 30, 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released another stamp celebrating the Columbia River Gorge, joining the 1992 USPS postcard of the same, classic scene of Crown Point as viewed from Chanticleer Point (Women’s Forum Park).

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While the 1992 commemorative card was an affordable $0.19, the new Gorge stamp is a hefty $22.95, making for a steep addition to stamp collections! This new Priority Mail Express stamp is available in panes of 10 (for a mere $229.50!), and in the words of the Postal Service, the new stamp “celebrates the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge” with the following:

Approximately 80 miles long and up to 4,000 ft. deep, the gorge runs along the Columbia River to form part of the border between Oregon and Washington. The stamp art captures the beauty of the Columbia River as it winds its way through the steep cliffs of the Cascade Mountain Range. The historic Vista House sitting atop Crown Point and overlooking the river 725 ft. below shimmers in the golden light of the setting sun.

Illustrator Dan Cosgrove of Chicago worked under the direction of Phil Jordan of Falls Church, VA, to create the stamp image.

The artists captured a faithful rendering of the scene, but I can’t help but wonder why a local illustrator wasn’t selected? After all, the Portland region is home to so many, including Paul A. Lanquist (PAL), the creative force behind dozens of “new retro” posters of Pacific Northwest scenes, like this view of Vista House:

Courtesy: Discover the Northwest

Courtesy: Discover the Northwest

So, save your money on that spendy USPS stamp and consider supporting a Northwest artist, instead. You can find Paul Lanquist’s posters at Discover the Northwest and many other outlets.

Still Creek Trails

As part of a recent series of articles on the Mirror Lake backcountry and Wind Creek Basin, I proposed the following concept for eventually expanding trails in this pocket wilderness:

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(click here for large map)

After posting these articles, I happened to be researching the area for a related topic and was surprised to find many of my “proposed” trails on early maps. I’m going to chalk that up as “imitation being the sincerest form of flattery” as I’m sure I’ve studied these maps before, and must have noticed these earlier trails! Or so it would seem?

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant (re)surprise to discover that we once had a hefty trail network here, as it helps make the case for bringing more trails in this area to reality someday. Past is prologue! And who knows, maybe some of these old treads still survive?

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(click here for large map)

A closer look at the 1937 forest map (above, marked with red arrows) reveals a rim trail that followed the north side of Still Creek valley from Camp Creek to – what’s that? – a trail between Still Creek and Mirror Lake!

These old trails show up on a more “official” 1939 forest map (below), with added detail showing the connector to Still Creek continuing south to (what still exists today as) the Eureka Peak trail. This explains what has always been an odd trail fragment at Eureka Peak and raises the intriguing question of whether the segment north of Still Creek to Wind Lake and beyond still exists?

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(click here for large map)

These old routes persist on forest maps dating into the late 1940s, when the commercial logging assault on our forests began wiping out hundreds of miles of old trails (below).

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(click here for large map)

But Mirror Lake, the Wind Creek Basin and Still Creek valley were still recovering from the catastrophic Sherar Burn when the logging bonanza took off in the mid-1900s, and were mostly spared from clear cutting and logging roads. That not only gave today’s pocket wilderness, but it also bodes well for traces of these old trails to still survive – and someday be rediscovered and restored, perhaps?

Eliot Crossing Update

Lots of news on the Eliot Crossing proposal, first described in this WyEast Blog article from 2014. As reported earlier, the Forest Service is moving a trail project forward this year that will finally restore the missing section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch crossing.

The following map originally appeared in this blog, but later became a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) map for the purpose of the Eliot Crossing project, and now is being shared with the Forest Service, as well:

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(click here for large map)

In January, Claire Pitner, Forest Service project manager for the new trail at the Hood River Ranger District, sent this good news to local non-profits involved in the project:

“I wanted to let you know that the environmental analysis for the Eliot Reroute was signed yesterday. Furthermore, earlier this week we received word that the Regional Office is providing funding to complete the project. Much of the work will be done using a contractor with volunteer assistance as well.

“We are working on finalizing the contract package in hopes of having a contractor long before we are able to access and do work at the site. I’m looking forward to working with TrailKeepers to get some good work done this summer!”

By early February, the local media picked up on the story with (surprise!) mentions of the WyEast Blog in The Oregonian and Willamette Week – a nice plug for the blog and the Eliot Crossing project!

In early March, the TKO board will be meeting with the Forest Service and several other non-profit organizations to begin planning volunteer activities related to the project. It should be a fun, family-friendly opportunity for volunteers to be part of the project, and I’ll post updates on the project as more details become available.

LG TV Mystery Mountain Ad

I’ll end the roundup on a whimsical note, courtesy LG, the electronics giant. I spotted the following print ad over the holidays and something about it looked too familiar – as it should have. This is our very own Trillium Lake…

Do not attempt to adjust your television…

Do not attempt to adjust your television…

…except it isn’t, unless you’re looking in the rear-view mirror of your kayak (or canoe). A closer look at the mountain (below) shows all the major features of WyEast reversed, with a misplaced White River glacier flowing down the southwest slope of the mountain (imagine the mayhem in Rhododendron!), and poor Illumination Rock and Mississippi Head rudely moved to the east side of the mountain:

This looks vaguely familiar…

This looks vaguely familiar…

But the really goofy part of this ad is the appearance of what seems to be an Italian (Burano?) or perhaps Icelandic fishing village teleported to the Oregon Cascades:

Preview of a future Forest Service concession..?

Preview of a future Forest Service concession..?

As always, it’s good to see our mountain (and Gorge) making regular appearances in print media from around the world, even if the graphic artists can’t resist making a few improvements. Even with the artistic tinkering, these ads underscore the world-class nature of these amazing places… and their national park-worthiness, of course!

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 3 of 3)

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Mirror Lake and Mount Hood from Tom Dick and Harry Mountain

 Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the third in a three-part series on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area. This article focuses on a (much!) bolder vision that would provide new backcountry experiences and help take pressure off heavily visited Mirror Lake.

_____________

On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed into law a wilderness bill that brought thousands of acres of land around Mount Hood under permanent protection from logging and other commercial development.

Most of these new areas were expansions of existing wilderness, and such was the case for the backcountry that forms the backdrop for Mirror Lake. This new wilderness area stands as an island, bounded by US 26 on the north and the Still Creek Road on the south. This map shows the new island of wilderness:

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Click here for a larger map

The new wilderness area encompasses most of the remote, seldom visited Wind Creek drainage and much of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. As you can see from the map, this island wilderness was added to the nearby Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, located to the south. That might be because the new area falls below the 5,000 acre threshold for new wilderness, but it was a missed opportunity to give the area its own wilderness identity.

While Mirror Lake, itself, was left just outside the boundary, the rugged mountain backdrop above the lake is now protected in perpetuity from development, and ski resort expansion, in particular — and whatever else might have been dreamed up by those trying to exploit this beautiful area to make a buck off our public lands.

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The rugged slopes of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain rising above Mirror Lake are now protected forever

The new wilderness protection also offers an opportunity to rethink how Mirror Lake itself will be protected in the long term. While not the closest wilderness area to the Portland region, it is perhaps the most accessible. That means demand for exploring the Mirror Lake area will only grow over time, no matter where the new trailhead is eventually located.

The Mirror Lake trailhead study took a baby step toward a broader vision for the wilderness area with the intriguing (and now discarded) “Site 5”, which would have moved the trailhead to the base of Laurel Hill, along Camp Creek (see below). Forest Service planners considered a new trail along Camp Creek to connect this lower trailhead to the existing trail – and in doing so, briefly floated the idea of a completely new streamside hike, something the Mount Hood area is woefully short on.

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Click here for a larger map

It’s true this site would have been a poor replacement for the existing trailhead, simply because of its distance from Mirror Lake. But the idea should be still explored on its own merits – along with other opportunities to build a true trail network in the new Mirror Lake wilderness.

While the Forest Service is rightly concerned about the impacts of heavy foot traffic on Mirror Lake, making it more difficult to get there doesn’t solve the larger issue: over the next 25 years, a million new residents are expected in the greater Portland region, and new trails are essential to spreading out the already overwhelming demand from hikers.

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Mount Hood from Tom Dick and Harry Mountain

But you might be surprised to know there are no plans to do so. For a variety of frustrating reasons, the Forest Service is doing just the opposite: hundreds of miles of trails are suffering from serious maintenance backlogs, and the agency is actively looking for trails to drop from the maintained network across the Pacific Northwest.

At Mount Hood, the Forest Service is still working from a decades-old forest plan that was written when the Portland region was smaller by about 800,000 residents. In that time, you can count new trails added to the system on one hand – while dozens of legacy trails have been dropped from maintenance. We hear that there’s no just money for trails – and yet, millions are spent each year on the other programs that are clearly a greater Forest Service priority.

To reverse this counter-intuitive downward spiral, the first step is a bold vision to shift the agency toward embracing new trails, and moving recreation to the top of their priorities for Mount Hood. The Mirror Lake area is a perfect place to start.

Taking the Long View

New trail proposals are a regular feature in this blog, but they are usually very specific fixes to a particular trail that should happen in the near term (with a couple of notable exceptions focused on backcountry cycling, found here and here.

The following proposal is different: this is a trail concept that would likely be built over years and decades, but with an eye toward a complete system over the long term. The goal is to absorb some of the inevitable growth in demand for trails while also offering a reasonable wilderness experience.

The proposal comes in two parts. The first focuses on Mirror Lake and the adjacent island of wilderness that encompasses the Wind Creek Basin, while the second part focuses on connections to the main Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, to the south. The trail concepts for the first part are shown on this map:

MirrorLakeVision06

Click here for a larger map

The trails shown in red on the map are new trail proposals, and would be built over time to provide alternatives to the overused Mirror Lake trail. Trails in green exist today. The new trails would provide access to new, largely unknown scenic destinations in this pocket wilderness, as well as overnight wilderness camping potential for weekend backpackers.

A key piece in this trail concept is a pair of new routes that would create a Mirror Lake loop from the proposed trailhead at Ski Bowl (see close-up map, below).

MirrorLakeVision06a

Click here for a larger map

While the other trail concepts proposed in this article are intended as a long-term, alternative vision to the status quo in the Mirror Lake area, the Mirror Lake loop trails could – and should — happen in the near term. The Mirror Lake loop concept builds on existing trails and could be built today, if the Forest Service were to embrace the idea.

The new connecting trail from the proposed Ski Bowl trailhead is already part of the Forest Service proposal for relocating the existing trailhead, and will be constructed as part of moving the trailhead.

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The Tom Dick and Harry traverse concept (the 1.3 mile connector along the north slope of the mountain) could be an important complement to the existing up-and-back trail by offering a loop option. The connector would also provide a real trail alternative to the informal summit ridge trail that eventually ends up following service roads under ski lifts back to the trailhead.

Loop trails not only reduce the impact on individual routes, they also offer more scenery for hikers and less crowding – which helps ensure a better wilderness experience.

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Moving to the north edge of the Mirror Lake trail concept map, the “Site 5” idea of a lower trailhead along Camp Creek is included, connecting from the Site 5 trailhead location to the Mirror Lake Trail.

While this trail concept seems to be too close to the US 26 highway corridor to provide much of a respite from urban noise, the saving grace is Camp Creek, itself. The creek tumbles along several hundred feet below the, and the sounds of this mountain stream would be more than enough to mask highway noise for hikers if the trail were designed to follow the creek.

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Looking down… waay down at Camp Creek from Highway 26

The Camp Creek trail concept has a lot to offer hikers: a rare, streamside trail in the Mount Hood corridor, an easy grade for families and a year-round hiking season, with most of the proposed trail located below the winter snow level.

Best of all, the Camp Creek canyon hides a once-famous series of cascades that make up Yocum Falls. These falls are seldom visited today, but the Camp Creek trail concept would pass in front of the beautiful lower tier of this series of waterfalls before climbing to the Mirror Lake trail. The falls would likely become the main focus of this trail for families or casual hikers looking for a short 3-mile, streamside hike.

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Beautiful Yocum Falls on Camp Creek

Building on the “Site 5” trailhead and Camp Creek trail proposal, this Mirror Lake trails concept includes a new route that would explore Wind Creek. This route would begin at Site 5, following Camp Creek downstream to Wind Creek, then climb into the remote Wind Creek basin. This proposed trail would provide a true wilderness experience, just off the Highway 26 corridor.

Along the way, the proposed Wind Creek trail would include a short spur (see map) to an overlook atop the familiar, towering cliffs that are prominently seen from Highway 26 along the north slope of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain.

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Google Earth view of the familiar cliffs on Tom Dick and Harry Mountain that would provide a short viewpoint destination off the proposed Wind Creek Trail.

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Mount Hood as it would appear from the new viewpoint along the proposed Wind Creek Trail.

But the Wind Creek trail concept would have even more to offer hikers: waterfall explorers Tim Burke and Melinda Muckenthaler recently discovered a series of beautiful, unmapped wateralls along Wind Creek where it tumbles from its hanging valley into Camp Creek.

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Middle Wind Creek Falls (photo courtesy Tim Burke)

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Upper Wind Creek Falls (photo courtesy Tim Burke)

Above the waterfalls, the proposed trail would enter the Wind Creek Basin, eventually connecting with existing trails on Tom Dick and Harry Mountain to create a number of possible loop hikes and backpacking opportunities.

Foremost among the backpack destinations would be Wind Lake, a pretty, surprisingly secluded lake that is currently only accessible by first navigating a tangle of service roads and resort trails at Ski Bowl. The Wind Creek trail concept would allow hikers to visit this wilderness spot without having to walk through the often carnival-like activities that dominate during the summer months at the resort.

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Wind Lake (Photo courtesy Cheryl Hill)

A final piece of the concept for the Mirror Lake-Wind Creek backcountry would be a new trail connecting Wind Lake to the Still Creek Road and Eureka Peak Trail. This new route would pass a couple of small, unnamed lakes south of Wind Lake, then traverse a rugged, unnamed overlook that towers 1,600 above the floor of the Still Creek valley (see concept map, above).

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Looking across the seldom-visited Wind Lakes Basin toward Mount Jefferson

The proposed trail linking Wind Lake to the Eureke Peak trail would also be the first step in better connecting the wilderness island that encompasses the Wind Creek Basin and Mirror Lake to the main Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, to the south. And on that point…

 Thinking even bigger!

In the long-term, the island of wilderness that covers the Wind Creek-Mirror Lake area should be more fully integrated with the main Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness to enhance both recreation and the ecosystem. This second part of the trail concept for the Mirror Lake area is a broader proposal that encompasses the north edge of the main Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness area, and includes few ideas on how to get there (see map, below).

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Click here for a larger map

The centerpiece of this part of the trail proposal is to close Still Creek Road from the Cool Creek trailhead to the Eureka Peak trailhed to motorized vehicles. The concept is to leave this nearly 6-mile section of road (shown in yellow on the map) open to cyclists and horses and for occasional administrative use by Forest Service vehicles.

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Beautiful Still Creek

A corresponding trail concept (shown on the above map) is to build a stream-level hiking trail that parallels the service road, but alternates at each bridge, staying on the opposite side of Still Creek from the road. True, hikers could simply follow the closed road, but the idea is to offer another much-needed, low elevation streamside trail to the area, taking pressure off the few options that currently exist (in particular, the Salmon River).

Closing the trail to motor vehicles would also help control some of the historic problems with dumping, target shooting and vandalism in the area. It would also create a quiet zone for wildlife moving between the main Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness and the wilderness island covering the Mirror Lake-Wind Creek area.

Another concept in this second, broader proposal is a ridge trail along the Salmon River-Still Creek divide, from Devils Peak to Eureka Peak. This little-known arm of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness is dotted with rock outcrops and open ridges that offer sweeping views of Mount Hood and the Still Creek valley. This trail concept would new backpack loops possible from the Highway 26 corridor.

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The Salmon River-Still Creek Divide (with clouds filling the Still Creek valley)

The ridge trail concept proposes two new trails between Veda Butte and Eureka Peak, creating a smaller loop in this area that would traverse open talus slopes and ridge tops with fine views of Mount Hood and Veda Lake.

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Veda Lake and Mount Hood

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Veda Lake and Veda Butte

The west end of the proposed ridge trail would connect to the extensive network of trails that converge on Devils Peak and its historic lookout tower. The Cool Creek, Kinzel, Green Canyon and Hunchback Mountain trails would all connect to the proposed ridge trail, creating many hiking loop and backpack options, as well as trail access from the Salmon River area to the Mirror Lake and Wind Creek backcountry.

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Mount Hood from the Cool Creek Trail

Is this vision for Mirror Lake and the Wind Creek Basin farfetched? Only if we limit our imagination and expectations to the existing forest management mindset.

Consider that nearly all of the trails ever built on Forest Service lands were constructed in just a 20-year span that ended in the mid-1930s, using mostly hand tools, and with budgets a fraction of what is spent today. The real obstacles to a renewed focus on trails and recreation aren’t agency resources, but rather, a lack of vision and will to make it happen.

What can you do?

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Mirror Lake in winter

For now, these trail concepts are just a few ideas of what the future could be. The critical step in the near term is to simply avoid losing ground when the Mirror Lake trailhead is moved. If you haven’t commented already, consider weighing in on the issue – the federal agencies are still accepting our feedback!

Here are three suggested areas to focus on your comments on:

  1. What would you like to see in the preferred alternative? (see Option 4 in the first part of this article series)?

Are you frustrated with the winter closure of the existing Mirror Lake trailhead? Be sure to mention this in your comments on the proposed new trailhead, as it will need to be design to be plowed and subsequently added to the Snow Park system to serve as a year-round trailhead.

Consider commenting on other trailhead amenities, as well, such as restrooms, secure bicycle parking, trash cans, drinking fountain, signage, picnic tables, a safe pedestrian crossing on Highway 26 for hikers coming from Government Camp or any other feature you’d like to see.

  1. How would you like to see Camp Creek protected?

The project vaguely proposes to restore the existing shoulder parking area to some sort of natural condition. Consider commenting on how this restoration might work to benefit Camp Creek, which is now heavily affected by highway runoff and the impacts of parking here.

In particular, mention the need to divert highway runoff away from Camp Creek for the entire 1-mile stretch from the old trailhead to the Ski Bowl entrance. The proposed parking area restoration is the perfect opportunity to address the larger need to improve the watershed health.

  1. Would you like to see a new vision for the larger Mirror Lake/Wind Creek backcountry?

Share some of the ideas and proposals from this article or other ideas of your own! The Forest Service recreation planners are reviewing the comments from the trailhead relocation project, so it can’t hurt to make a pitch for more trails in the future – even if the recent history has been in the opposite direction.

In particular, mention the loop trail idea described for Mirror Lake, particularly the traverse trail shown on the first concept map. This new trail has a real chance of being built in the near term of there’s public support for it.

You can comment to Seth Young at the Federal Highway Administration via e-mail or learn more about the project here:

Mirror Lake Trailhead Project Information:

Federal Highway Administration

Seth English-Young, Environmental Specialist

Western Federal Lands Highway Division

610 East Fifth Street

Vancouver, WA 98661-3801

Phone: 360-619-7803

Email: seth.english-young@dot.gov

 Subscribe to Project Newsletters

To be added to their mailing list, please send an email to seth.english-young@dot.gov.

 For U.S. Forest Service specific questions contact:

Laura Pramuk

Phone: 503-668-1791

Email: lbpramuk@fs.fed.us

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 2 of 3)

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Today’s Mirror Lake trailhead will soon be history

 Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the second of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area. This article focuses on the alternatives under consideration for a new trailhead.

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It’s true. We’re about to lose the historic Mirror Lake trailhead along Highway 26. If you’re like me (and countless other Oregonians), you might have been introduced to hiking and the great outdoors along this classic family trail.

The visibility and convenience of the Mirror Lake trailhead, with its prominent location along the last bend of the Mount Hood Loop Highway as you approach Government Camp, is one of the main reasons this trail has functioned as a “gateway” for novice hikers, stopping at the first trail they see. The short hike to the lake has also made this trip friendly and fun for families with very young kids.

Until recently, the Mirror Lake Trail was also the perfect place to learn the sport of snowshoeing — until the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) closed the trailhead to winter parking in 2010, that is.

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Low snowfall in the winter of 2010 meant the first winter closure of the Mirror Lake trailhead went largely ignored, though the closure has become real in subsequent years

The 2010 winter closure foreshadowed the future, as ODOT always intended to close the trailhead entirely. Now, after years of back and forth with the Forest Service and an array of advocacy groups, and ODOT has won this battle. ODOT’s determination to morph our loop highway into an urban-style freeway came in the form of the $37 million widening project now underway (read more about there here: https://wyeastblog.org/2014/06/30/u-s-26-construction-begins/), and in the tradition of most state highway departments, it was an unstoppable force.

Planning the New Trailhead

Now that the Forest Service has agreed to relocate the trailhead, a little-known branch of the federal government known as the Western Federal Lands Highway Division is taking the lead on finding a new site on behalf of both ODOT and the Forest Service. The planning process kicked off in earnest on October 29 with a lightly attended open house at the Zigzag Ranger District, and the proposal details have since been added to the project website.

You may have seen other changes in the area. ODOT is midway through a major widening of the Mount Hood Highway that will bring a freeway-style concrete barrier to the entire Laurel Hill grade, from Government Camp all the way down to the Kiwanis Camp Road (the old highway section that leads to Little Zigzag Falls).

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“New and improved” highway scars like these along the Mount Hood loop are part of ODOT’s plan to allow weekend skiers to drive just a bit faster

This means the historic trailheads at Laurel Hill and Mirror Lake will only be accessible from the eastbound highway. Portland area hikers leaving Mirror Lake would need to drive east to Government Camp and turn around to head west. Likewise, hikers coming from the east would need to drive to the bottom of the hill, and turn around at Kiwanis Camp Road to reach the Laurel Hill and Mirror Lake trailheads.

Given the implications of the new highway median, the Forest Service has conceded to move the trailhead, and not further explore options for keeping the historic trailhead open to general use. To help this effort, the Forest Service received a grant in 2014 that helped fund the analysis of different trailhead options.

MirrorLake2.04

(click here for a larger map)

The most promising of the various trailhead options under consideration from a logistics standpoint is simply using the Ski Bowl parking area (which, like the rest of the Ski Bowl land, is owned by the public with a long-term lease granted to Ski Bowl to operate here). Not surprisingly, the resort is concerned about sharing their highway access, and was present at the October 29 project open house.

Despite the resort’s concerns, the FHWA and Forest Service have nonetheless ruled out other possible sites (described later in this article), and are now focused solely on the Ski Bowl site with several design options under consideration. The following map shows the four options in relation to the Ski Bowl parking lot:

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(click here for a larger map)

The preferred site has other complications. Much of the land here is within a protected stream buffer that follows Camp Creek. Government Camp’s sewage treatment facility is also located here (in the center of the map, above, and pictured below), and must be designed around for both security and aesthetic reasons.

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The Government Camp sewage treatment plan hides just behind a thin band of trees along the Ski Bowl parking area.

The new trailhead project proposes about fifty parking spaces in the new parking area. That sounds small (and is), considering the crowds on a typical weekend at Mirror Lake, but that’s intentional. The Forest Service is looking to reduce the human impact on Mirror Lake, with a parking area sized to what they see as the optimal maximum for the area (more on this later in the article).

With the proposed new parking area and trail located adjacent to Ski Bowl, there is obviously a large existing parking area that will allow a lot more than 50 cars at trailhead in the off-season for the resort, so it’s unclear of limiting the number of spaces can really limit the number of hikers on the trail. The Ski Bowl resort’s concerns are mostly about winter use, when snowshoers and backcountry skiers could overflow to use the resort parking area and displace resort visitors.

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Panorama of the massive new road cut underway opposite the historic Mirror Lake trailhead on US 26; a concrete median will soon be added here.

The Forest Service and ODOT are proposing to plow the new trailhead parking area in winter and (presumably) add it to the SnoPark system, so this represents a big improvement over the current situation.

Since the ODOT winter closure of the existing trailhead was put in place, snowshoers have simply walked the shoulder of Highway 26 from Ski Bowl to gain access to the historic trailhead — a potentially dangerous (and rather scary) idea. Providing plowed winter access at the new trailhead should resolve this problem.

Another benefit of locating the new trailhead at the Ski Bowl site is proximity to Government Camp. The village has been working hard to become a year-round resort community with a network of new trails now surrounding the community. All four design options would create much better access to Mirror Lake and the surrounding wilderness area for Government Camp visitors and residents, albeit with a sketchy highway crossing.

Considering the Options

With the approximate site for the new trailhead already selected at Ski Bowl, the FHWA and the Forest Service are now concentrating on design options. The Ski Bowl site has many physical limitations, so the focus is on how to integrate the new trailhead with the various site constraints presented by the proximity to Ski Bowl, including the wastewater treatment plant and a 340-foot protected buffer along Camp Creek, itself.

The first design (Option 1) features a suburban style cul-de-sac that would double back from the west approach along Highway 26, running parallel to the highway:

MirrorLake2.08

(click here for a larger map)

This option would require a lot of tree removal as well as extensive fill under the turnaround portion. It would also extend into the protected buffer along Camp Creek. The turnaround is oversized for snowplows, but this design also creates a practical parking enforcement issue during the snow-free seasons, as hikers would almost certainly park in the turnaround during busy summer weekend.

The second design (Option 2) features a triangular loop tucked behind the wastewater treatment plant:

MirrorLake2.09

(click here for a larger map)

This design is an improvement over the first option because it allows for more efficient plowing and use of paved areas. The landscaped center area could even function as a useful place for a few picnic tables for waiting visitors meeting at the trailhead during the snow-free seasons.

The loop in Option 2 could also make it more efficient for law enforcement to patrol and for users to spot suspicious activity. However, like the first design, this option intrudes significantly into the 340-foot protected buffer along Camp Creek and would require removal of a fairly large number of trees.

The third design (Option 3) features a tighter loop that omits the landscaped center included in the second option:

MirrorLake2.10

(click here for a larger map)

Like the first two options, this version extends significantly into the protected buffer along Camp Creek and would require a fair amount of fill and tree removal. Like the second option, Option 3 makes efficient use of paved areas and the loop design would make for easier plowing and patrolling by law enforcement.

The fourth option is the “preferred” option by FHWA and the Forest Service:

MirrorLake2.11

(click here for a larger map)

 This option is preferred mostly because it falls outside the protected 340-foot Camp Creek buffer. I walked the site with the Zigzag District Ranger in late 2014, and while it does make sense as the most compact design, it’s also an attempt to squeeze a lot into a very narrow, surprisingly steep strip of land between the treatment plant and highway.

While the mockup illustration (above) for Option 4 shows a few trees left between the parking area and treatment plant, in reality it would be difficult to achieve the amount of fill required to build the new parking area without removing all of the trees along the north edge of the treatment plant. Over time, this could be remedied with new tree plantings along the fill slope, but in the near term, visitors would enjoy a birds-eye view of the open settling ponds and the treatment plant operators may be concerned about this new level of public visibility.

Tree removal is a concern in all of the designs, as this area contains stands of Alaska cedar, a high-elevation cousin of Western red cedar found throughout the Government Camp area, but relatively uncommon in the Cascades.

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The graceful, drooping form of Alaska Cedar make it a prized commercial landscape tree

All four options feature a very tight turning sequence for drivers arriving from the west, with a right turn into the shared driveway with the Ski Bowl resort, and almost immediately a second right turn into the trailhead parking. These turns create a blind corner for approaching traffic that probably warrants a deceleration lane along the highway — especially given ODOT’s determination to promote high-speed travel along the loop highway.

No Longer Considered…

The FHWA and Forest Service have already dropped some intriguing trailhead locations that I will briefly describe here. For context, the map below shows four of the five sites original sites (those located closest to Government Camp) considered — the four final design options now under consideration are all located at Site 2 on this map:

MirrorLake2.12

(click here for a larger map)

Site 1 is at the end of the Kiwanis Camp Road, which is really an original segment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway:

MirrorLake2.13

(click here for a larger map)

This site already serves as the trailhead for the Little Zigzag Falls trail and a closed section of the old highway leads to the Pioneer Bridle Trail. This site was dropped because of the added distance to reach Mirror Lake and the difficulty in creating a trail crossing over Highway 26 for hikers.

Site 2 is the Ski Bowl location where the previously described design options are still under study:

MirrorLake2.14

(click here for a larger map)

Sites 3 and 4 are located along another portion of the original Mount Hood Highway, opposite Site 2 and the Ski Bowl parking area:

MirrorLake2.15

(click here for a larger map)

The Glacier View snow park and trailhead is already located along this segment of old highway, and the concept behind both Sites 3 and 4 was to build a larger, shared snow park with a pedestrian bridge over Highway 26 to connect to the Mirror Lake trail. These sites were dropped because of the scale and complexity of spanning Highway 26 with a foot bridge, especially after the highway widening project greatly increased the width of the highway, itself.

Site 5 is located at a quarry at the foot of Laurel Hill, below a prominent rocky knob along the highway created by the road cut (and known as the “Map Curve” to ODOT):

MirrorLake2.16

(click here for a larger map)

While this site was dropped because of its distance from Mirror Lake, it nevertheless offers exciting opportunities as an alternative trailhead and the potential for a broader strategy to manage the heavy visitation to Mirror Lake. Part 3 of this series will explore the possibility of a larger trail network and more hiking options as a strategy for reducing the pressure on Mirror Lake in the long term.

Tragedy of the Commons?

As disappointing as it may be to lose the historic Mirror Lake trailhead, there are some clear environmental benefits that could be achieved.

First, the new trailhead will about a mile east of the historic trailhead, meaning a longer hike by about two miles, round trip. While this will make the trail less accessible to young families, it’s also true that the lake is showing serious damage from overuse. If the more distant trailhead discourages a few hikers, that could be a win for the lake.

MirrorLake2.17

The Forest Service has done extensive soil stabilization work at Mirror Lake just to keep pace with heavy foot traffic.

As I have argued before on this blog, placing physical barriers to outdoor recreation is tragically short sighted if our goal as a society it to encourage people to be more active and to enjoy and take responsibility for our public lands. Thus, I favor other strategies for addressing heavy use on trails, including peak parking fees at the busiest trailheads.

Eventually, the Mount Hood National Forest will have to adopt a real parking strategy on some of its most heavily used sites, but the agency so far has not acknowledged that reality. Instead, its planners are viewing washed-out bridges (Ramona Falls) and trailhead closures (Mirror Lake) as helpful interventions to tame the masses. That’s a poor solution pretending to be a strategy.

Nonetheless, the Forest Service is clearly a long way from adopting a comprehensive trailhead parking policy at Mount Hood, so for Mirror Lake. Making the hike more difficult is probably the only near-term option if the number of hikers can actually be reduced, however short-sighted the approach.

MirrorLake2.18

Rill erosion like this is common where Highway 26 abuts Camp Creek, pouring road gravel and pollutants directly into a protected salmon and steelhead stream

Moving the Mirror Lake trailhead could also allow for a meaningful effort by ODOT and the Forest Service to protect Camp Creek from sediment and runoff pollution from Highway 26.

While ODOT is spending tens of millions to carve away solid rock slopes in order to widen the highway, no funds were set aside to improve stream protection for Camp Creek. The creek is home to protected salmon and steelhead, and eventually it flows into the Sandy River — one of the few spawning streams in the Columbia River system with no dams to block fish passage.

MirrorLake2.19

Highway runoff now pours sediment and pollutants directly into Camp Creek at the Mirror Lake trailhead.

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Looking east along Camp Creek (on the right) and Highway 26 showing rill erosion directly from the road surface into the stream

The Forest Service has indicated a commitment to decommission and restore the historic trailhead once the new trailhead has been constructed. That’s a good start, but it’s unclear whether channeling highway runoff away from Camp Creek is part of that plan.

Ideally, ODOT would construct a concrete curb to divert highway runoff for the entire 1-mile highway section that abuts Camp Creek, from the historic trailhead east to the Ski Bowl entrance.

The actual drainage design would more complex, as the amount of runoff here is clearly enough to erode dozens of rills into the shoulder and directly to Camp Creek, as shown in the photos above. But the removal of the Mirror Lake trailhead represents an opportunity for ODOT to show it cares about more than just moving ski traffic at slightly higher speeds.

The agency also has the funds to address highway runoff into Camp Creek as part of the current widening project, as all ODOT projects include hefty contingency set-asides for just this sort of unanticipated expense — as much as one third of the overall project budget is typically “contingency”.

How to Comment

If you love Mirror Lake or care about Camp Creek, it’s worth commenting on the trailhead relocation project, if only because precious few will take the time to do so. The FHWA, ODOT and Forest Service really do take public comments into consideration, especially when it brings new information to their decisions.

MirrorLake2.21

The resort village of Government Camp from above Mirror Lake.

Here are two suggested areas to focus on your comments on:

What would you like to see in the preferred alternative (Option 4)?

Are you frustrated with the winter closure of the existing Mirror Lake trailhead? Be sure to mention this in your comments on the proposed new trailhead, as it will need to be design to be plowed and subsequently added to the Snow Park system to serve as a year-round trailhead.

Consider commenting on other trailhead amenities, as well, such as restrooms, secure bicycle parking, trash cans, drinking fountain, signage, picnic tables, a safe pedestrian crossing on Highway 26 for hikers coming from Government Camp or any other feature you’d like to see.

How would you like to see Camp Creek protected?

The project vaguely proposes to restore the existing shoulder parking area to some sort of natural condition. Consider commenting on how this restoration might work to benefit Camp Creek, which is now heavily affected by highway runoff and the impacts of parking here.

In particular, mention the need to divert highway runoff away from Camp Creek for the entire 1-mile stretch from the old trailhead to the Ski Bowl entrance. The proposed parking area restoration is the perfect opportunity to address the larger need to improve the watershed health.

You can comment to Seth Young at the Federal Highway Administration via e-mail or learn more about the project here:

Mirror Lake Trailhead Project Information:

___________________

 Federal Highway Administration

Seth English-Young, Environmental Specialist

Western Federal Lands Highway Division

610 East Fifth Street

Vancouver, WA 98661-3801

Phone: 360-619-7803

Email: seth.english-young@dot.gov

 ___________________

Subscribe to Project Newsletters

To be added to our mailing list, please send an email to seth.english-young@dot.gov.

 ___________________

For U.S. Forest Service specific questions contact:

Laura Pramuk

Phone: 503-668-1791

Email: lbpramuk@fs.fed.us

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 Thanks for helping guide the future of Mirror Lake!

 

 

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 1 of 3)

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the first of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area.
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As part of the unfortunate widening of the Mount Hood Highway currently underway west of Government Camp (see this article for more on the subject), the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to close the existing, historic trailhead for the Mirror Lake Trail.

ODOT claims safety is the chief concern, a point I will visit later in this series. For now, though, it looks like our highway department will close yet another roadside trailhead in a campaign to gradually morph the Mount Hood Highway into full-fledged freeway.

Going back to the beginning…

Just as Mount Hood generally bears the development pressures of being an hour from Portland, and along transportation corridor that dates to the 1840s, Mirror Lake has long carried the burden of being the closest mountain lake to Portland, and the first easily accessible trailhead along the loop highway.

Because of its proximity, the lake shows up on the earliest maps of the Government Camp area, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had a very rough, early alignment and was not yet a loop. The original Skyline Trail map (below) from the early 1900s shows Mirror Lake just west of the new trail, and a version of the early loop road before the Laurel Hill switchbacks were built.

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

By the early 1920s, the effort to complete the loop highway was in full swing, including the graceful switchbacks that scaled Laurel Hill (below), the spot where Oregon Trail immigrants had to lower their wagons with ropes because of the steepness of the terrain. Surprisingly, a formal trail to Mirror Lake had not yet been constructed by this time.

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

Other maps from the early 1900s (below) tell another story about Mirror Lake: it was within the northern extent of the Sherar Burn, a massive fire that had destroyed forests from the Salmon River to Camp Creek. As recently as the 1980s, bleached snags from the fire were standing throughout the Mirror Lake area.

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

The Sherar Burn of the mid-1800s created vast tracts of huckleberries across the area, and during the early days of the highway, huckleberry pickers were a common sight, selling coffee cans of fresh berries to mountain visitors (below).

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Mirror Lake, itself, looked quite different in the 1920s, too. Today’s tree-rimmed lake was mostly surrounded by burned snags and fields of beargrass and huckleberry in the 1920s (below).

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, a new trail was constructed from the new highway to Mirror Lake. The trail began at a sharp turn on the old highway, traversing above the north shoulder of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek, crossing to the south side of the creek at the spot where the modern trailhead is located today (see maps below).

This lower section (from the bend in the old highway to the modern trailhead) of the original Mirror Lake trail was destroyed just 25 years later, when the modern highway grade cut through the area. This portion of the old highway still exists in this area, accessible from the Laurel Hill historic landmark pullout (currently closed because of the highway widening).

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

When the original Mirror Lake Trail was built, the trailhead was located just a few yards beyond an impressive roadside viewpoint of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek (below). Today, the forest has recovered so completely in this part of the Sherar Burn that this viewpoint is completely overgrown. It is still possible to visit Yocum Falls from the old highway grade, though, by following rough use trails.

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The lower section of the original trail seems to have followed the rambling extent of Yocum Falls quite closely before the trail was destroyed by the modern highway. While the current trailhead gives a brief glimpse of the top of the falls, the old route seems to have provided a nice view of the falls since lost (more on this topic in the third part in this series).

Today, the modern Mirror Lake trailhead continues to provide a popular drop-in hike for families and casual hikers, but the convenience comes at a price. The shoulder parking area is large enough to allow up to 100 cars, and on busy weekends, still more hikers park along the highway all the way to Government Camp, walking the highway shoulder to reach the trailhead.

The Mirror Lake Trail was never designed to handle this much traffic, nor is the small lake able to handle so many visitors. These concerns are part of the Forest Service thinking in why a new trailhead should be constructed.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Meanwhile, the 1950s-era trailhead pullout in use today was built at a time when little thought was given to environmental impacts. As a result, highway fill was pushed to the edge of Camp Creek, exposing an important salmon and steelhead stream to heavy loads of silt and pollution from parked vehicles. A visit to Yocum Falls, just downstream, reveals a troubling amount of road debris and the sharp odor of pollution in an otherwise healthy stream corridor.

While these growing impacts on Mirror Lake and Camp Creek aren’t the reason ODOT gives for closing the current Mirror Lake Trailhead, they are compelling arguments to consider.
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The next part of this 3-part series will take a closer look at ODOT’s arguments for closing the existing trailhead and the Forest Service proposal for a new trailhead located east of the existing access.

Zack Frank’s Undiscovered America

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!)

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

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.