Posted tagged ‘Mount Defiance’

Big Changes coming to the Gorge Power Line…

May 31, 2017
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These venerable steel towers will soon be a memory in the Gorge

 

Author’s preface: having spent more than 30 years in public service, it frustrates me to see any level of government making anything less than a consistent, substantial and meaningful effort to engage the broader public in its decision making. All public entities should be held to this high standard, whether local, state or federal.

So, when I stumbled across the Bonneville Power Association (BPA) decision to significantly rebuild the prominent power line corridor that links Bonneville Dam to Hood River, I was disappointed to learn that the decision involved a handful of select stakeholders and two short windows for public comment that saw little notice or participation. We should expect more, and the BPA should step up its commitment to real public engagement, not meager efforts that do little more than check regulatory boxes.

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According to a retired BPA employee who once joined me on a hike near Starvation Creek, the daring alignment of the power line corridor that provided the first electricity from Bonneville Dam to Hood River is the doing of no less than Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the story goes, FDR was on his famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway on September 28, 1937, with stops to inspect Bonneville Dam and dedicate Timberline Lodge.

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BPA workers building the daring new power lines across Shellrock Mountain in 1937 (BPA)

After leaving Bonneville, FDR asked about the power lines that were under construction, and a BPA official told the president they would be built on slopes high above the Gorge, where the terrain was easier to navigate. FDR reportedly barked at the official “I want those power lines down here, where the people can see the electricity that we’re bringing to their communities!”

So began the project to build the BPA power lines across the rugged cliff faces of the Columbia River Gorge. Amazingly, most of the work was done by hand, with pack mules carrying materials to the often dizzying cliff-top tower locations. While it’s hard to view any power line as “scenic”, the sheer audacity in how these towers were designed and built can’t help but impress hikers passing under them today.

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The Shellrock Mountain power line and trail today

The Bonneville to Hood River corridor is one among many power lines that transmit hydro-power along the Columbia, but this corridor is notable in that much of it is serviced through a network of trails where the terrain was too extreme to support service roads. Many of these trails have morphed into recreation trails over the years.

Big Changes Coming this Summer

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Trees marked for cutting at Viento State Park

After eighty years of maintaining the Gorge power line corridor in much the same state, the BPA is about to significantly change both the look of the towers and some of the access routes. I stumbled across this reality earlier this spring when I was exploring the area above Viento State Park, where I encountered a few dozen mature Douglas fir marked for cutting.

At first, I thought it might be a thinning project of some sort, but upon some research, discovered that the BPA was about to replace all of the steel towers and many of the wood pole towers along the corridor and expand several of the access spur roads. Up to 30 of the new towers will be steel “mono-poles”, a departure in both look and height from somewhat rustic old structures that now exist on the corridor.

The project also proposes to remove up to 747 trees to allow access roads to be widened and rebuilt, and the BPA proposes “temporary disturbance” to over 58 acres and “permanent disturbance” to about one-third of an acre.

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More trees marked for cutting in the Gorge power line corridor

For the scoping phase of this project, the BPA opened a public comment period of six weeks and held a public meeting in Hood River in the spring of 2014. They received 12 written comments during the scoping phase and four people attended this meeting. Sadly, this dismal turnout was during the critical window for raising issues to be considered by the BPA as part of the environmental assessment.

The agency also reached out to tribes and a few interest groups they have long engaged in their public outreach, but their effort falls short of a meaningful commitment to fully engage the public, as evidenced by the meager input they received. The BPA held a second public meeting and opened a final six-week comment period on the draft environmental assessment last fall. As one of the largest and most reliably funded public agencies in existence, the BPA can and should do better.

Who Weighed in?

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The BPA’s overly aggressive removal of native vegetation in the power line corridor and subsequent abundance of invasive species was a theme in comments received

While the BPA received very little input from their limited effort to reach out to the public, there were a few commenters. The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge were one again our reliable and invaluable watchdogs in the Gorge weighed in with extensive comments, including the following on the BPA proposal:

[The BPA should] mitigate scenic impacts by installing new structures that would be less visually discordant in the landscape. Where steel towers are needed, we ask that weathering steel be employed to reduce visibility.

Include a robust invasive species eradication and restoration strategy. The BPA transmission line corridor is frequently infested with invasive plants, such as Armenian blackberry. While replacing structures, BPA should remove invasive plants and restore native vegetation communities that would be compatible with long-term vegetation management requirements. 


BPA should also thoroughly document existing native vegetation communities and determine the need for future vegetation management. BPA’s past vegetation removal efforts have removed vegetation that poses no threat to the transmission line system, which unnecessarily harms wildlife habitat and creates openings for invasive plants.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association also weighed in, with concerns about how the proposed changes could degrade the PCT where the power line crosses the trail near the Bridge of the Gods trailhead. Among their concerns:

The existing view from the trail is a long line of sight down a decidedly unnatural appearing power line corridor, crisscrossed with roads. Forest Service scenery management principles dictate that developments viewed from a sensitive viewing area should strive to mimic “the form, line, color, texture, and pattern common to the landscape.”

Contrary to this, the improved roads will stand out visually as artificial, in what’s already an artificial corridor of cleared vegetation. The improvements would disrupt the PCT traveler’s experience because they clearly mark human manipulation and diminish the desired sense of remoteness from civilization.

While it’s suboptimal for the PCT to follow any road at all, at least the existing condition of the road is rustic. Upgrades to the road, including resurfacing with imported materials, will make it appear and feel more industrialized for the PCT traveler. A related effect, because the road is already dominant over the trail, is that people get lost and continue to follow the road, despite trail signage. Improving the road would exacerbate this situation. 


 The trail crosses directly under one of the structures, in fact, between the poles and their guy lines. This site can’t help but appear impacted by the proposed improvements. There will be three poles instead of two, and, clearly a good deal of ground disturbance involved in upgrading this structure. 


These exacerbated visual impacts to the trail could be best ameliorated by reconfiguring the intersection, and reconstructing portions of the PCT where necessary to meet the BPA line in a spot that lends itself better to disguise. Such a trail relocation would be as much as .5 mile long, and would require its own NEPA study. We propose that this NEPA study, and subsequent trail construction by PCTA’s volunteer crews, be funded by BPA as a mitigation measure. 


The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) unit of the U.S. Forest Service wrote extensive comments, mostly reminding the BPA of regulatory requirements related to the Gorge and the need to conduct environmental assessments when trails or other recreation facilities within the corridor would be significantly impact. The CRGNSA did not comment on opportunities to improve the access trails along the corridor to serve as recreational trails.

What to Expect this Summer?

This project is now going forward in largely the form that was first proposed in 2014 as the preferred action by the BPA. What does this mean for your favorite trails in the Gorge? Here’s are some key excerpts from the BPA’s 410-page draft environmental assessment, beginning with a project overview:

“The Proposed Action is to: (1) rebuild portions of the Bonneville-Hood River transmission line within the rebuild area for the Project (the 22-mile-long segment from structure 1/5 to the Hood River Substation); (2) rebuild the Cascade Locks Tap [author’s note: this is the point where the community of Cascade Locks taps into the power line corridor]; and (3) improve and extend the access road and trail system that allows BPA access to and from the transmission line. Specifically, the Proposed Action would involve the following components:

  • Removal of wood-pole and lattice-steel H-frame transmission line structures constructed prior to 1999 (including cross arms, insulators, hardware, and guy wires) and replacement with a combination of wood-pole H-frame structures and steel-monopole structures. 

  • Retirement of unnecessary transmission line structures. 

  • Replacements of conductors and guy wires. 

  • Replacement of insulators and hardware in locations with no structure or conductor replacement. 

  • Improvement, reconstruction, and extension of existing access roads and trails. 

  • Installation or replacement of bridges, fords, culverts, and access road gates. 

  • Establishment of temporary staging areas, helicopter flight yards, and tensioning sites (for pulling and tensioning conductors). 

  • Installation of temporary guard structures for stringing lines over roads and other utilities. 
  • Removal of vegetation at various locations along the transmission line right-of-way and access 
roads. 

  • Re-vegetation of areas disturbed by construction activities.

Hikers are mostly likely to notice the changes on trails that also serve as access to the power lines or cross the corridor, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Starvation Ridge, Mount Defiance, Wygant and Mitchell Point trails. Off-trail explorers will also see changes in the bluffs above Viento State Park and on Shellrock Mountain.

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The Mount Defiance and Starvation Ridge Trails could be noticeably affected where they pass through the power line corridor

Here’s an except from the environmental assessment that describes the changes we will likely see in these places:

“BPA currently uses a combination of existing roads and foot trails to access the transmission line. BPA holds permits and access road and foot trail easements for access across public and private land. Through these permits and easements, BPA has previously constructed roads and foot trails to access the transmission line. These access roads and foot trails are primarily located within the transmission line right-of-way, but there are also some access roads and foot trails located outside the right-of-way where required due to terrain constraints or other factors.

In a few locations, BPA currently does not have express easement rights to use some existing roads or foot trails that provide access to the transmission line. At these locations, BPA would acquire about 4.4 miles of easement rights to use various sections of the existing roads and trails. Generally, BPA obtains a 50-foot-wide easement for access road rights and 20-foot-wide easements for foot trails.  

BPA’s existing access roads for the line are typically 14 feet wide with an additional 3-foot offset from each side for slopes or drainage ditches, resulting in a total disturbance width of about 20 feet. Access road reconstruction and improvement activities associated with the Proposed Action would occur within this prism, except in areas with curves or on steep slopes where work would occur outside of this prism because of necessary cut and fill.

In areas with identified sensitive resources, such as wetlands or sensitive habitat, access road widths would be reduced to 12 feet and the offsets on either side would be reduced to 2 feet, for a total area of disturbance of 16 feet to minimize temporary and permanent impacts.  

Trail reconstruction or extension activities would result in a typical trail bed width of 18 inches that would require a total clearing area of 2 to 4 feet. For trails crossing steep talus areas, such as Shellrock Mountain, trail bed widths may be as small as 12 inches due terrain constraints. To provide trail stability in these steep areas, sideboards would be installed with rebar or rocks would be keyed into the hill.

On talus slopes, the trail bed would be comprised of compacted course surface material. In non-talus areas, the trail bed would be at grade and would consist of native material. All trail work areas would be accessed by foot and trail improvement, reconstruction, or extension work would be conducted with hand held equipment.”

More information on the project can be found on the BPA’s project website.

It’s never to late to be heard…

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BPA power line tower to be replaced on the Viento Bluffs

With a little more effort in their public outreach (like contacting trail organizations), the BPA would certainly have heard plenty of comments from the general public, and especially from hikers who regularly visit the corridor. Much of the commentary would likely have focused on how popular trails like Starvation Ridge and Mount Defiance will be impacted by the project.

But it could also have been an opportunity for hikers to propose expanded use of the power line trails by hikers, including areas like Shellrock Mountain and the area between Starvation Creek and Viento Creek that have tremendous scenic value. While the Forest Service declined to call out this opportunity, these trail sections also could help complete Gorge Trail 400.

No doubt the BPA wouldn’t be enthusiastic about bringing more hikers to the corridor, but the land belongs to the public and there’s no reason not to make full use of the routes the BPA will be building and maintaining with our public funds.

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The BPA corridor crossing Shellrock Mountain (BPA)

Is it too late to weigh in? Yes, for the most part. The project entered the final stage of the environmental impact process this spring and is scheduled to move into construction this summer. But if you’re concerned about how the construction is proceeding on the ground, you can contact the BPA directly with your concerns or comments:

Chad Hamel

Project Manager

Bonneville Power Administration

P.O. Box 61409

Vancouver, WA  98666-1409

Tel 800-622-4519

The most interesting section of BPA trail that is not currently a signed route is the trail over Shellrock Mountain. While this is only for the most experienced hikers today, it’s a great adventure that includes magnificent views of the Gorge that few enjoy. Hopefully, this route will someday be connected to Gorge Trail 400 — as it should have been as part of this project.

In the meantime, consider exploring the corridor by visiting the connecting trails at Mitchell Point, Wygant Peak, Starvation Creek and where the PCT crosses the corridor on the route to Dry Creek Falls.

Most of the land in the corridor is in public ownership and managed by Oregon Parks and Recreation or the U.S. Forest Service, so you are free to walk the trails and service roads here. This is the best way to see first-hand how your public lands are being managed, even if the BPA has let us down in their efforts to involve the public in this project.

Starvation Creek Loop Hike

June 8, 2012

Cabin Creek Falls

This blog has featured a series of articles on restoration of the former (and future!) Warren Falls, located in the Starvation Creek area. But there is a lot more to see in this interesting and less-traveled corner of the Columbia River Gorge, and this loop hike explores an amazing variety of scenery on a short, but demanding circuit.

Along this way, you’ll see four waterfalls, one “dormant” waterfall, ford two creeks, visit hanging meadows, peer over the brink of some truly breathtaking cliffs and enjoy expansive views of the Columbia River Gorge. You’ll want to print the large version of the trail map, below, as the trail network in the area is dense, and trail signage unreliable.

[click here for a larger, printable trail map]

The hike is best done from late April through early November, as the conditions can be somewhat treacherous in icy winter conditions, and the stream fords difficult in winter and early spring. But for adventurous hikers, this loop is generally open year-round, and provides a nice hiking option when snow covers the high country.

Hiker’s grim warning on a temporary sign at the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail..!

Note that the loop described here follows a specific direction, tackling the very steep Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail first, in the uphill direction. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the steepness of this path is much harder on your knees going down than on your lungs and legs going up — and it can feel a bit slick and sketchy to descend, due to the steepness and exposure.

The Hike

The trail begins at the Starvation Creek Trailhead (directions at the end of this article). Head west from the parking area, walking parallel to the freeway exit, then drop into the trees following a section of the old Columbia River Highway. ODOT will soon be restoring this section of highway as part of a state recreation trail, so watch for construction to begin soon.

The welcome signpost marking the top of the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail

A short distance from the trailhead, you’ll see a signboard on the left marking the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail No. 414B (if you reach Cabin Creek Falls, you’ve gone too far). Take a deep breath, and begin the stiff climb up this trail, as it threads its way in a series of switchbacks through the towering cliffs that frame the Starvation Creek area.

Soon, the trail curves into the upper canyon of Cabin Creek, leaving the sounds of the freeway behind, and continuing steeply above the creek into dense forest until you reach the signpost marking the upper junction with the Starvation Ridge Trial No. 414.

The dizzying view of the trailhead from the top of the Cutoff Trail

The main loop heads to the right (west), and crosses Cabin Creek. But before you continue in that direction, make a brief detour to the left (east), following the Starvation Ridge Trail uphill for about 200 yards to a spectacular cliff-top viewpoint, a few feet off the trail. From here, you can peer a dizzying 500 vertical feet down to the trailhead and the tiny cars, trucks and freight trains moving below.

Looking west toward Shellrock Mountain and Wind Mountain from the Cabin Creek viewpoint

After resting your legs (and lungs) from the Starvation Cutoff trail, and enjoying the sweeping view from the overlook, retrace your steps back to the junction, and continue west on Trail 414, fording Cabin Creek. From here, the route climbs from the Cabin Creek canyon in a series of short, well-graded switchbacks, and passes another towering cliff-top viewpoint on the right.

The trail soon crests a divide marked by a 1930s-vintage transmission tower, and descends into Warren Creek canyon in a series of switchbacks traversing an enormous hanging meadow. In late April and May, the meadow features beautiful displays of shooting star and other wildflowers, but offers stunning views any time of year.

Shooting Star in the hanging meadow above Warren Creek

Great Hounds Tongue near Cabin Creek

Soon, the trail re-enters forest, then reaches Warren Creek, a potentially difficult ford in winter and early spring. There’s no bridge here, so cross carefully. Warren Creek is the stream that once flowed over Warren Falls, just downstream from the ford. Since 1939 it has been diverted through an odd bypass tunnel that now forms manmade “Hole-in-the-Wall Falls”. You’ll pass both later on the hike.

From Warren Creek, the trail makes a gentle traverse along the forested canyon wall, then turns and crests another ridge below a second transmission tower, before descending across another open area with terrific views of the Columbia River Gorge.

The trail passes this mossy, cliff-top rock garden near Warren Creek

The view west from the Warren Creek viewpoint

The trail now descends to a 3-way junction of the Starvation Ridge (No. 414) and Mount Defiance (No. 413) trails, poorly marked with a very old signpost. From here, the loop hike continues to the right, turning steeply downhill. But first, go straight 200 yards to beautiful Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek. This magnificent waterfall is named for Samuel Lancaster, the visionary engineer who designed the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Lower, trailside tier of Lancaster Falls

The best trailside view of Lancaster Falls is from the west bank, so be sure to rock-hop your way across. From there, you can also see part of the tall, lacy main tier of this beautiful waterfall (if you’re feeling really adventurous, it’s possible to scramble to a close-up view of the upper tier by heading uphill from the trail, just east of Wonder Creek).

After cooling off at Lancaster Falls, backtrack to the 3-way junction, and rejoin on the Starvation Ridge Trail No. 414, heading left as it descends steeply across an open slope, soon reaching a sturdy, new footbridge over Warren Creek.

Part of the magnificent main tier of Lancaster Trails, located off-trail

You’ll have views of man-made Hole-in-the-Wall Falls from the bridge, but waterfall lovers should take a few minutes to follow the obvious boot path that parallels the dry streambed to the left of the falls.

This streambed leads to the original, natural location of Warren Creek Falls — the topic of several articles on this blog. The hauntingly quiet amphitheater of the original falls is eerie, and it’s easy to imagine the sound and spectacle that once existed when Warren Creek poured over this cascade. During the periods of heavy winter runoff, Warren Creek occasionally overtops the diversion tunnel, and briefly flows down its natural falls. If you look closely, you’ll see evidence of winter storm events that have briefly brought the original falls and streambed back to life.

Warren Falls flowing in one of its rare winter appearances in March 2012

After taking in the scene at the former Warren Falls, retrace your steps on the boot path to the footbridge and turn right, continuing along the main trail for your return to the trailhead (note: the restored Historic Columbia River Highway and trail will soon be constructed in this area, with a new trailhead for the Starvation Ridge Trail relocated to this spot).

The route briefly passes an open area, and then re-enters forest. Watch for old, stone foundations covered in ivy in this area — you’re passing turn-of-the-century homesteads lost to time. Sharp-eyed hikers will also spot a pair of enormous anthills, each measuring six feet in height. A bit further, and you’ll also pass dome-shaped stone bake ovens, possibly built in the early 1900s by highway workers (see the map below for help in finding these traces of human history in the Warren Falls area).

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Finally, the trail rejoins the abandoned section of the old highway, following it to lovely Cabin Creek Falls. Photographers should take a moment to walk the short boot path to the base of the falls to capture the exceptionally beautiful scene. Crane your neck upward, and you will see the huge cliffs to the left of the falls that you skirted above on the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail!

To complete your journey, continue along the old highway grade back to the trailhead. A great way to end this hike is with a final stop at magnificent Starvation Creek Falls, the star attraction in this part of the Gorge. To reach the falls, head past the restrooms, and take the spur trail on the right. A string of streamside picnic tables make this an idyllic spot to relax after your hike, and enjoy a picnic lunch.

Misty base of Starvation Creek Falls

Hike Logistics

The usual Columbia River Gorge precautions apply on this hike: you’ll find poison oak, ticks and sheer cliffs, so it’s not a great choice for kids. If you’re bringing small kids on this hike, consider just hiking the lower portion to Lancaster Falls, where they will have plenty to enjoy without steep trails or dangerous exposure.

The steepness of the hike makes it a good candidate for cool weather, too. Hiking poles are especially helpful, and dogs should be leashed on this trail.

Getting there

The trailhead is at the Starvation Creek rest area, located at Exit 55 on I-84, about an hour east of Portland. The trailhead has water and restrooms, and no trailhead permit is required. The Starvation Creek exit is eastbound-only, so to return to Portland, you’ll need to drive another mile east to the Viento State Park exit, then follow the signs west to Portland.

For information on the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project, check out the ODOT website, and click on “ongoing projects” for construction updates:

Historic Columbia River Highway Project

Visit Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook for more information on the project.