Posted tagged ‘Mount Hood National Forest’

A Tale of Two Ranger Stations: Part Two

September 29, 2014
Forest Service guard on duty at the Upper Sandy station in the 1930s

Forest Service guard on duty at the Upper Sandy station in the 1930s

Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) recently completed a $1.7 million overhaul of its Zigzag Ranger Station, the de-facto visitor gateway to Mount Hood. Yet the historic Upper Sandy Guard Station, a National Historic Landmark located just a few miles away, near popular Ramona Falls, has fallen into a serious state of disrepair.

Basic repairs needed to save the historic guard station would cost a fraction of what the Zigzag project cost, so why has the Upper Sandy structure been so badly neglected? Part two of this article looks at some of the reasons behind this frustrating paradox, and some possible solutions.

1930s: Guarding Portland’s Watershed

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was built along the newly constructed Timberline Trail in the 1930s. Its purpose was to house a Forest Service guard, stationed there to patrol the Bull Run Reserve — Portland’s water supply — where it abutted the new around-the-mountain recreation trail. At the time, the Bull Run boundary was much more expansive, touching the northwest corner of Mount Hood.

Guard stations were important landmarks for early forest travelers

Guard stations were important landmarks for early forest travelers

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was one of dozens dotting the Mount Hood National Forest in the 1930s, all built to protect forest resources from timber poaching and other illegal activities. Several of the old guard stations could only be reached by trail, and the roads that did reach them were primitive.

The guard stations also served as a supply and communications base for the scores of fire lookouts built throughout the forest, often connected by phone lines that can still be found along less-traveled trails today. As recreation use along forest trails grew in the 1920s and 30s, guard stations also provided a comforting presence for hikers exploring the largely undeveloped national forests of the time.

Today the Upper Sandy Guard Station is slowly fading away (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

Today the Upper Sandy Guard Station is slowly fading away (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

View of the handsome stonework that makes the guard station unique  (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

View of the handsome stonework that makes the guard station unique (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The industrial logging era that began in the national forests by the late 1940s soon made guard stations obsolete: as thousands of miles of logging roads were bulldozed into remote areas once only accessible by trail, forest administrative operations were consolidated into a few ranger district office, and most of the old guard stations were shuttered.

The unused buildings soon fell into disrepair, and most of these structures were dismantled or burned by the Forest Service in the late 1950s and 1960s (along with most fire lookouts, also deemed obsolete as aerial fire surveillance began).

When the Bull Run Division boundary was changed in 1977, the Upper Sandy Guard Station was left miles away from the resource it was built to defend. One year later, the Mount Hood Wilderness was expanded to encompass the building, sealing its fate as a relic in the eyes of the Forest Service.

In recent years the roof on the Upper Sandy Guard Station has partially collapsed, despite crude repairs by volunteers  (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

In recent years the roof on the Upper Sandy Guard Station has partially collapsed, despite crude repairs by volunteers (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The few guard stations that did survive decades of neglect intact now represent a precious glimpse into an earlier, idyllic time in the national forests. They now stand as historical gems, worthy of special protection.

Some of these structures have already been preserved, like the Clackamas Lake Guard Station near Timothy Lake, while others have been allowed to fade away nearly to oblivion, like the Upper Sandy Guard Station. A few that survived intentional destruction by the Forest Service have nonetheless been lost to neglect, like the former High Prairie Guard Station on Lookout Mountain, a building that was partially standing as recently as the early 1980s.

Ruins of the High Prairie Guard Station in 1983 before it faded into the meadow

Ruins of the High Prairie Guard Station in 1983 before it faded into the meadow

In September 2009, the National Park Service finally added the Upper Sandy Guard Station to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, a move that many considered to be the building’s salvation. After all, the Forest Service had actively sought the historic designation and local Forest Service historians had strongly advocated for preservation of the building. Thus, the disappointment in the years since, as even the most rudimentary Forest Service efforts to stabilize the building failed to materialize.

Instead, the Forest Service posted the following notice on the building, “warning” hikers that entering the structure presented a dire hantavirus risk from resident deer mice. The notice actually admits that only one (!) documented hantavirus case has ever been documented in Oregon, and that “there is no evidence that the disease is carried by rodents who call this building home.”

Of course, deer mice surely inhabit every other historic wilderness structure in the wilderness areas around Mount Hood, yet no health warnings are posted on the shelters at McNeil Point, Cairn Basin, Cooper Spur and Elk Meadows or the lookout at Devils Peak, where hikers routinely camp inside (and maintain) the structures. So, the point of this notice on the Upper Sandy structure seems to be to frighten visitors from entering — or perhaps maintaining — the structure.

The Forest Service has posted this "health warning" on the structure to discourage visitors  (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The Forest Service has posted this “health warning” on the structure to discourage visitors (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was added to the elite National Register partly because of its historic role as a base for patrolling the Bull Run Reserve, but mostly as the only surviving design of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. The building has a unique, rustic architecture that embodies the New Deal programs that put skilled craftsmen and laborers to work on our public lands as part of the 1930s economic recovery.

Most notable is the massive stone masonry end wall that has probably helped stabilize the structure as the log walls continue to deteriorate. Its unique design combining rubble stone and wood walls make it one of a kind among the more than 700 forest administrative buildings constructed during the New Deal era.

The building was constructed by a seven-man crew in the summer of 1935 with a budget of $958.88, including materials: two carpenters worked at the rate of $7/day and two laborers assisted at the more modest rate of $4/day. The guard station was completed on September 28, 1935.

Today the building suffers serious holes roof and will almost certainly be lost in a few years without an immediate effort to stabilize the structure, or better yet, all of the work needed to fully restore this building. So, why is the Forest Service allowing this to happen? Blame it on the Wilderness..?

Does the Upper Sandy Guard Station have a future? (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

Does the Upper Sandy Guard Station have a future? (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

For a time following the 2009 National Historic Register listing, the old guard station had an advocate in the Northwest Forest Conservancy (NFC), a local non-profit focused on preserving several historic forest structures in the Mount Hood National Forest. Today, the NFC appears to be inactive, and there are no advocates pressing for the building to be rescued.

Prior to the 2009 Historic Register listing, the NFC formally proposed managing a restored building. Today, several historic structures in the Tilly Jane area (on the northeast side of Mount Hood) are managed in this way by the Oregon Nordic Club under an agreement with the Forest Service.

Under such an arrangement, the Upper Sandy Guard Station could have been put it to year-round use as part of its restoration. The NFC envisioned volunteers to staff the guard station during the summer, as the proximity to both the trailhead and nearby Ramona Falls makes the guard station a natural base for both volunteers and visitors. Sadly, this plan never moved forward.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was prominent on this 1939 map of the Timberline Trail, along with the log shelter that once stood at Ramona Falls

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was prominent on this 1939 map of the Timberline Trail

Despite the agency effort to list the building on the National Register, friends of the old guard station within the Forest Service are surprisingly scarce, and mostly limited to historic resource specialists whose workloads spans multiple forests.

Unfortunately, the Upper Sandy Guard Station carries a still heavier burden than simply a lack of interest from the Forest Service: since a 1978 expansion, the guard station has located within the Mount Hood Wilderness, which by some interpretations means it should be allowed to fade into the oblivion in deference to protecting the untrammeled nature of wilderness.

Is it really that simple? Not at all, but internal Forest Service e-mails on the fate of the historic structure show Mount Hood National Forest recreation planners quickly turning to this argument in defending the decision to let the Upper Sandy Guard Station fall further into disrepair. The same e-mail exchanges also reveal internal rivalries between recreation and historic resource staff that have more to do with protecting recreation budgets than adhering to strict interpretations of the Wilderness Act.

Letting this historic building deteriorate is also at odds with the 1999 Mount Hood National Forest facilities master plan, a forest-wide effort to address surplus Forest Service building. The facilities master plan identified the Upper Sandy Guard Station as surplus building, but set no policy for decommissioning or disposing of the structure — one of the core purposes of the facilities plan.

The Devils Peak lookout has apparently found favor with the Forest Service, despite its location inside the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness

The Devils Peak lookout has apparently found favor with the Forest Service, despite its location inside the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness

The 1999 facilities plan includes other historic structures located inside wilderness area, notably the lookouts at Bull of the Woods and nearby Devils Peak. Both lookouts are included in the National Historic Lookout Register, which is often a first step toward listing in the more rigorous National Historic Landmark Register.

While the Forest Service is silent on Bull of the Woods lookout (and the structure is now showing signs of serious disrepair) the Devils Peak Lookout is described on the Mount Hood National Forest website “open to the public” and maintained as a Forest Service facility.

Why the disparity, especially given that the Devils Peak lookout lacks National Historic Register status? For now, that remains a mystery, as the Forest Service does not seem to have a comprehensive plan for their historic wilderness structures, nor a consistent policy on which structures will be allowed to deteriorate beyond the point of repair — including the remaining Timberline Trail shelters and other facilities across the forest that have gradually been incorporated into new wilderness areas over the years.

This massive new bridge over modest Ramona Creek was built in 2012 inside the Mount Hood Wilderness, less than a mile from the Upper Sandy Guard Station.

This massive new bridge over modest Ramona Creek was built in 2012 inside the Mount Hood Wilderness, less than a mile from the Upper Sandy Guard Station.

Still more confounding is the fact that the Forest Service constructed an elaborate new bridge over Ramona Creek in 2012, just a mile from the Upper Sandy Guard Station and well within the Mount Hood Wilderness. Ramona Creek is a modest stream that can be easily crossed without a bridge, so how was this structure justified?

In a reportedly confrontational exchange in 2007 over the Upper Sandy Guard Station several years ago, a recreation planner from the Zigzag Ranger District responded to questions about the structure with “Have you READ the Wilderness Act? Man-made structures are NOT allowed!” Yet, the same planner was apparently responsible for construction of the elaborate new wilderness bridge over Ramona Creek in 2012.

Clearly, the Mount Hood National Forest has no consistent policy on structures in wilderness areas, historic or otherwise, and thus the highly selective, subjective decisions by district-level staff to build new structures while allowing historic structures to deteriorate.

So, what to do? Fortunately, the answer seems to be coming from the federal land agencies, themselves.

Rethinking the Wilderness Act

Core to the Mount Hood National Forest rationale for letting the Upper Sandy Guard Station fade into oblivion is the opinion — albeit, selectively applied — that “man made structures are not allowed” in wilderness areas. This opinion stems from a series of three recent court decisions and is now widely shared as gospel among the federal land rank-and-file staff.

The stone Cooper Spur shelter along the Timberline Trail is among the historic gems that depend on a better interpretation of the Wilderness Act to survive for future generations

The stone Cooper Spur shelter along the Timberline Trail is among the historic gems that depend on a better interpretation of the Wilderness Act to survive for future generations

However, there is an emerging opinion among wilderness experts within the federal agencies that maintaining and restoring historic wilderness structures is consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act, and that recent court decisions are more a reflection of flawed arguments made by the federal government in defending its actions to protect historic (and other) structures in wilderness areas. This new argument starts with a key passage in the Wilderness Act, which is the basis for the recent court decisions:

Except in certain specific instances, “there shall be no…structure or installation within any [wilderness] area.” (Wilderness Act, Section 4(c))

In their defense, the federal government has pointed to another passage in the Wilderness Act, arguing that the maintenance or restoration of historic structures qualifies as “use” and is clearly called out among the public purposes of the act:

“Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.” (Wilderness Act, Section 4(b))

Yet, in recent decisions the courts have focused upon the “except as otherwise provided” preface to this clause, and in three key decisions have interpreted historic structures to be at odds with the Wilderness Act. The new thinking emerging among federal wilderness experts focuses on a different defense that would build on this passage in the Wilderness Act:

“A wilderness…may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” (Wilderness Act, Section 2(c))

Under this argument, a new approach to defending protection of historic resources in wilderness areas would focus on the “value” of the resource, not “use”, and therefore the mere existence of a demonstrably historic resource like the Upper Sandy Guard Station would be enough to justify maintenance (and even restoration) over time. Finally, another section of the Wilderness Act fills out this new approach, where the act states that structures are generally prohibited except:

“…as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” (Wilderness Act, Section 4(c))

Therefore, if historic structures represent a “feature of value”, then preserving the structure would be the “minimum requirement” for administering the resource. That’s a lot of legal wrangling, but it could just be what saves our historic wilderness structures.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station sits on a flat bench above the Sandy River, just off the modern alignment of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station sits on a flat bench above the Sandy River, just off the modern alignment of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Taking this interpretation a step further, the fact that “scientific, educational (and) scenic” values are also listed suggests that preserving the Upper Sandy Guard Station by virtue of using it as an overnight rental facility or even staffing it to provide an administrative presence along the overwhelmingly popular Ramona Falls Trail would also be “values” that pass muster under the Wilderness Act. So far, this new approach has not been tested in the courts, but it does offer a hopeful alternative to the troubling direction of recent decisions.

The historic Green Mountain Lookout near Glacier Peak, saved from the federal courts in 2014 by an Act of Congress

The historic Green Mountain Lookout near Glacier Peak, saved from the federal courts in 2014 by an Act of Congress

In the meantime, historic resource advocates in the State of Washington recently short-circuited these recent court decisions in a successful effort to save the Green Mountain Lookout, located inside the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

The Forest Service was taken to court in 2010 over a major restoration of the historic lookout needed to save the structure after years of neglect, including the use of helicopters to carry materials to the remote lookout site. In 2012, the case resulted in one of the three court rulings that have since become the mantra against protecting wilderness structures, and the Forest Service began preparing to remove the building under court order.

Historic resource advocates in Washington State were stunned, and took the case to their congressional delegation. Under the leadership of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Congress acted to permanently protect the structure in April of this year, paving the way for the Forest Service to continue to maintain the Green Mountain lookout for the enjoyment of the public indefinitely.

Saving it by using it?

Ramona Falls is among the most visited wilderness destinations in the country and could use a better ranger presence - why not use the Upper Sandy Guard Station as a base?

Ramona Falls is among the most visited wilderness destinations in the country and could use a better ranger presence – why not use the Upper Sandy Guard Station as a base?

So, how can the Upper Sandy Guard Station be saved? Above all, the building needs an energetic advocate in the form of a non-profit dedicated to historic preservation our public lands – or perhaps even a “Friends of the Upper Sandy Guard Station” non-profit.

The fact that the Mount Hood National Forest has been so arbitrary in its decisions to maintain or build some wilderness structures while allowing others to fall into disrepair is an opportunity: consistent, persistent pressure should be enough to get the Forest Service to do the right thing, and save this priceless old building.

Another possibility is an act of Congress, mirroring the Green Mountain precedent. Given the dire state of the building, perhaps Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley could follow in the footsteps of Washington Senator Murray and Cantwell, and simply direct the Forest Service (and the courts) to preserve and restore the building?

These original windows on the guard station were intact as recently as 2008

These original windows on the guard station were intact as recently as 2008

But even with needed repairs, the Upper Sandy Guard Station still lacks a sustaining purpose beyond its intrinsic value as a historic structure. Clearly, the Forest Service sees little value in the building, but to hikers, the structure could be invaluable if managed as a recreation resource.

Here’s how: in summer the guard station could operate in its intended function, with volunteer rangers living in the building during the period when the Sandy River trail bridge is installed (late May through September).

This would put a needed presence on a trail that is heavily traveled, and unfortunately has problems with car break-ins and rowdy visitors at Ramona Falls. The building has the potential to be quite comfortable, as it was originally served with a piped water supply (since removed), and had a sink, small kitchen and even a shower stall that still survives.

Original brass window hardware was still present in 2008, but has since been stripped from by building by vandals

Original brass window hardware was still present in 2008, but has since been stripped from by building by vandals

Volunteer seasonal rangers could also serve as interpreters, giving tours of the old structure and answering questions at Ramona Falls, where the overwhelming share of visitors are casual hikers and young families new to the forest.

Once the seasonal trail bridges have been removed in fall, the guard station could transition to a winter rental, much as several lookouts in the area and the historic guard station at Tilly Jane are operated today. The Old Maid Flat area is a popular snowshoeing and Nordic skiing area, and a restored guard station would be an idyllic overnight destination in high demand. Revenue from rentals could also help pay for needed maintenance and repairs to the structure.

This magnificent fireplace stands at the center of the guard station; the room in the background is a built-in shower, lined with galvanized steel.

This magnificent fireplace stands at the center of the guard station; the room in the background is a built-in shower, lined with galvanized steel.

Could this really work? There are some logistical consideration that would have to be bridged by the Forest Service to actually bring the building back into public use, but they are not insurmountable. First, regular use of the structure would require an outhouse to be restored to the site. Hopefully the original location could be determined from old photos or building plans.

Second, the building would need to be supplied with firewood for winter use, which in turn, would require a woodshed. The National Historic Register evaluation of the building describes a shed that was apparently dismantled many years ago, but could be faithfully restored as part of reconstructing the guard station as it was originally built.

Today, the main structural risk to the building is where several holes have formed in the roof around the chimney. The tarps visible in this photo were placed by the National Historic Register survey crew in 2008 to help stabilize the building.

Today, the main structural risk to the building is where several holes have formed in the roof around the chimney. The tarps visible in this photo were placed by the National Historic Register survey crew in 2008 to help stabilize the building.

Supplying the Guard Station with firewood would be another matter, as any firewood would need to be collected without the use of power tools — a routine task for the hardy individuals who built these structures, but more daunting to us in the modern era. This could be one of the activities of the summer resident rangers. Bundles firewood could also be dropped at the site when a helicopter is already being used to pull out the Sandy River hiking bridge at the end of the summer season.

What next?

Hopefully, this beautiful old structure will find a champion soon, as time is running out for the Upper Sandy Guard Station. While the building condition was described as “excellent” as recently as the 1980s, it has begun to experience major problems from neglect. Worse, vandals have since stripped the building of furnishings and even burned the original wood shutters. The Upper Sandy Guard Station deserves better!

If you would like to help out, consider sending a message to the Forest Service or even your congressional representatives expressing your support for saving this one-of-a-kind window into the past before it’s too late:

Contact Mount Hood National Forest Contact Senator Ron Wyden Contact Senator Jeff Merkley Contact Rep. Earl Blumenauer

If you would like to see the building for yourself, it’s easy to find. The building is on a bench above the Sandy River floodplain, just a few hundred feet off the trail where the Ramona Falls loop intersects the Pacific Crest Trail, near Ramona Falls. The best time to visit is during the summer, when the Sandy River hikers bridge has been installed for the season.

A Tale of Two Ranger Stations: Part One

August 30, 2014
The new Zigzag Ranger Station

The new Zigzag Ranger Station

Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) recently completed a much-needed, $1.7 million overhaul of its dated Zigzag Ranger Station, the de-facto visitor gateway to Mount Hood. The new ranger station and visitor center not only provide a modern facility for forest visitors, it was also designed to compliment the rare collection of historic forest buildings that sprawl across the Zigzag campus, the entirety of which was listed on the National Historic Register in 1986. It’s a big step forward for Mount Hood.

Meanwhile, the Upper Sandy Guard Station, located just a few miles away near popular Ramona Falls, has fallen into serious disrepair, all but abandoned after years of neglect. The Upper Sandy Guard Station is also listed on the National Historic Register (in 2009), yet now is on the brink of collapse. Basic repairs would cost a fraction of what the Zigzag project cost, so why the disparity?

Upper Sandy Guard Station in better days (1930s)

Upper Sandy Guard Station in better days (1930s)

This is a two-part story about the two historic ranger stations, one reborn and the other about to die, and how this frustrating chain of events came to pass. And, most importantly, how the Upper Sandy Guard Station might still be saved.

No Welcome Mat?

Mount Hood has always lacked a truly functional visitor center. For years the 1960s-era Zigzag ranger station, with its cluttered, cramped public counter, served as the main stop for visitors new to the area. The old Mount Hood National Forest headquarters was actually worse, located in a rundown section of east Division Street in Gresham, next to mini-storage. It was hardly an inspiring “gateway” to Mount Hood.

A relatively new forest headquarters building was constructed in Sandy in the 1990s with a more aesthetic design the 1990s, but is awkwardly located in a suburban industrial park, where the public is discouraged from visiting the building. Few travelers even realize they are passing the building, though it is within plain view of the Mount Hood highway.

The "new" (1990s) Mount Hood headquarters hides in an industrial park on the outskirts of Sandy.

The “new” (1990s) Mount Hood headquarters hides in an industrial park on the outskirts of Sandy.

The new headquarters in Sandy was a missed opportunity to build a visitor gateway on a scale that reflects the millions who visit the mountain each year. Most regrettable was the decision to locate the building two miles from downtown Sandy, where it could have been easily found by visitors, but also would have complemented other visitor facilities there, and reinforced the tourism economy that is so important to the town of Sandy.

This small building served as the Zigzag Ranger Station until 2013

This small building served as the Zigzag Ranger Station until 2013

By the late 1990s, the Forest Service had formed a partnership with Clackamas County and the Mount Hood Chamber to open a new visitor facility in a vacant commercial space on the Mount Hood Village RV resort grounds, a few miles west of Zigzag. This odd arrangement operated into the mid-2000s, but was eventually closed due to county budget cuts. Relatively few visitors found their way to this location, anyway, so the closure mostly impacted hikers who had enjoyed the convenience of a public restroom.

After the RV resort experiment, the visitor gateway to Mount Hood reverted to an outdoor kiosk at the 1960s-era Zigzag Ranger Station. A portable toilet was added to the parking area to complete the outdoor facilities. This arrangement served as the main visitor experience until last summer, when the handsome new ranger station and visitor center opened.

The original Zigzag Ranger Station was built by the CCC in 1935

The original Zigzag Ranger Station was built by the CCC in 1935

The good news is that the original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) era Zigzag Ranger Station also survives, along with nineteen other historic structures on the Zigzag site. To the credit of the MHNF, all of these structures have been well preserved over the decades for their historic significance at a time when historic forest service structure around the nation are rapidly fading away.

While the visitor gateway to Mount Hood bounced around over the past several decades, other national forests in the region were moving ahead with bold visitor centers that signaled a new focus on recreation. Notably, the Willamette National Forest built four expansive new ranger stations in the 2000s on far less travelled forest gateways than loop highway approach to Mount Hood, including a dramatic new Detroit Ranger Station (below), which opened in 2009.

The grand Detroit Lake Ranger Station and visitors center

The grand Detroit Lake Ranger Station and visitors center

Meanwhile, the Mount Hood National Forest limped along with the fading 1960s era Zigzag Ranger Station and a similarly dated and cramped Estacada Ranger Station. The Hood River Ranger Station is even worse, a leased space until recently, and little more than a portable building.

Perhaps a bit of intra-agency envy ensued, as the Mount Hood National Forest finally assembled funding in 2012 for a major upgrade to the Zigzag Ranger Station. Requests for construction bids were titled the “Mount Hood Scenic Byway Portal Project”, a fitting acknowledgement of the main focus of the building upgrade.

The New Zigzag Ranger Station

The new Zigzag Ranger Station (below) is tucked into the historic complex at Zigzag, east of the original ranger station and incorporating the 1960s era building. Though not as grandiose as the new gateway structures in nearby Willamette National Forest, the new Zigzag facility has an attractive, rustic design that complements the surrounding historic structures rather than overshadow them.

Visitor Center at the new Zigzag Ranger Station

Visitor Center at the new Zigzag Ranger Station

DKA Architecture of Seattle designed the project, which includes a remodel of the old 1960s structure with new additions that double the square footage of the facility. Payne Construction of Portland was selected from a competitive bid to build the new facility.

The new ranger station and visitor center has three main elements: (1) the indoor reception and visitors area, backed by administrative offices and conferences rooms, (2) an outdoor plaza and display gazebo and (3) separate public restrooms. The new ranger station structure is clad in clapboard siding and shingled gable roof, echoing the Cascadian architecture of the original 1935 structure.

The new Zigzag Visitors Center is fronted with a small plaza and information gazebo

The new Zigzag Visitors Center is fronted with a small plaza and information gazebo

HBB Landscape Architecture of Seattle designed the mostly rustic landscaping around the new structure. Modern touches to the landscape include a concrete, railed wheelchair ramp and sleek lighting bollards. The landscape design appropriately focuses on native plants, including sword fern, salal, Oregon grape, rhododendron and even some stonecrop tucked into a rock retaining wall, all just getting started, but well suited to thrive here.

Wheelchair parking is provided close to the gazebo with ramps to both the restroom and visitor center

Wheelchair parking is provided close to the gazebo with ramps to both the restroom and visitor center

The very modern public restroom is located across the small parking area from the new ranger station and visitor center. The proximity to US 26 and dramatic improvement over the portable toilets (yikes!) that used to be here will make these restrooms a popular stop along the loop highway – and hopefully inspire travelers to take a few minutes and explore the visitor center, as well.

The restroom exterior design has a nice touch: the traditional 1930s “open pine tree” logo is incorporated into the center gable post, a thoughtful nod to the collection of historic CCC buildings that surround the new facility. The restroom includes a single bicycle rack — minimal, but easy to expand over time, thanks to the spacious plaza in front of the restroom.

New restrooms at the Zigzag Ranger Station and Visitor Center

New restrooms at the Zigzag Ranger Station and Visitor Center

The informational kiosk in the plaza is still not complete (assuming there will eventually be information posted here!), which apparently inspired Zigzag staff to begin tacking fliers to the brand new siding near the front door with thumbtacks. That’s not how most of us would treat freshly painted siding on our homes, so it’s disappointing to see on such a beautiful new facility (not to mention that a nearly identical poster hangs two feet away, in the window on the main door).

Tacky, tacky -- hopefully, the Zigzag Ranger District will give the new facility the quality informational and interpretive displays it deserves

Tacky, tacky — hopefully, the Zigzag Ranger District will give the new facility the quality informational and interpretive displays it deserves

Likewise, the Zigzag District staff has chained a cheap galvanized trashcan to the sleek new entry rails at the main entrance stairway — jarring against the handsome new architecture, and perhaps just a temporary solution. Hopefully, a permanent trash and recycling station is on order for the plaza area!

Another gap in an otherwise fine new design for the ranger station is the lack of benches and tables outside the visitor facility. It’s another detail that can easily be addressed, and perhaps was anticipated in the landscape design, as well. The new ranger station is a pleasant place to be, and visitors will want to spend time here.

Nothing like the sight of a trashcan to say "welcome to Mount Hood!"

Nothing like the sight of a trashcan to say “welcome to Mount Hood!”

Overall, the new Zigzag ranger station and visitors center is a very big step forward, and a welcome development for those discovering Mount Hood for the first time. While the $1.7 million price tag may seem steep to some, it’s a very reasonable expense for a facility of this scale — and especially given the context of some 2.6 million visitors pouring into the area each year. Hopefully, similar facilities will eventually be constructed at the Hood River and Clackamas gateways to Mount Hood, as well.

But for many, the substantial price tag for the new Zigzag ranger station raises another question: if we can afford to build a brand new station at Zigzag, why can’t we afford to simply stabilize the beautiful Upper Sandy Guard Station, which teeters on the brink of being lost forever?
_____________________

Next: Part Two of this article looks at the fate of the Upper Sandy Guard Station

Proposal: Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry

June 15, 2012

It’s no secret that mountain bikes have been relegated to second-class status when it comes to recreation trails. They’re not allowed in designated wilderness areas, and even with the special set-asides for mountain bikes called out in the recent Mount Hood Wilderness additions, the trail options around the mountain are limited.

It’s also true that bikes and hikers don’t always mix well. Since I’m both a hiker and cyclist, I’m probably more comfortable than most hikers when it comes to shared trails. I love to hike and bike the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, for example, but most hikers shy away because of its popularity among mountain bikers.

The view toward Mount Hood from Blowdown Mountain

This article is a proposal for something a little different for mountain bikers: the concept is to convert fading logging roads in a scenic area directly adjacent to the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness to become a dedicated bicycle backcountry. In addition to providing an exciting set of mountain biking trails, the concept would specifically allow for bikepacking — overnight camping at a several destinations that would be bike-in, only.

Most importantly, this new destination would be close to both Portland and the mountain biking hub of Hood River, where bicycle tourism has become an important part of the recreation economy.

[click here for a large, printable map]

The best part of this proposal is that it wouldn’t take much to put the network together. Converting fading roads and constructing just 2.9 miles of new trail (shown in yellow on the map, above) would create a 25-mile bike network of bike-only trails (shown in blue) in an area with terrific scenery, creating as close to a wilderness experience as you can have while on two wheels.

The Proposal

The proposed bicycle backcountry would straddle the high country along Waucoma Ridge, about ten miles due north of Mount Hood. Two main trailheads would serve the backcountry: a new trailhead would be constructed in the headwaters valley of Divers Creek, serving as the primary entry into the bicycle backcountry. The existing Wahtum Lake trailhead would serve as overflow. Both are accessed on paved roads. A third, more remote trailhead would be located at the headwaters of Green Point Creek, accessed by a primitive road.

The view toward Indian Mountain from Waucoma Ridge

Trails

The proposed network has three kinds of bicycle facilities: converted logging roads (dashed blue on the map) functioning as single or dual track routes, new single track bike trails (dashed yellow) and striped bikeways (solid blue) on a short segment of paved Wahtum Lake Road that serves as a critical connection in the proposed network.

The focus of the network is on bicycle loop tours. From the proposed new trailhead, dozens of tour variations are possible, thanks to the dense network of old roads in this area, and the potential to connect and convert them. One out-and-back trail exists, following the Waucoma Road to Indian Mountain (under this proposal, the road would be gated to motor vehicles at the Wahtum Lake trailhead)

Washington’s big volcanoes fill the skyline on the slopes of Indian Mountain

The main focus of the new trail system would be Blowdown Mountain, a surprisingly rugged shield volcano whose gentle summit ridge belies a rugged east face, featuring a craggy volcanic plug rising above a series of forested glacial cirques. An attractive spur road traverses the entire summit ridge of Blowdown Mountain, and would form the spine of the trail network in this part of the bicycle backcountry.

Three small lakes are located in glacial cirques on the northeast flank of the mountain, and views from the high ridges include nearby Mount Hood, to the south, and the high peaks of the Hatfield Wilderness, to the north. The big Washington State volcanoes complete the scene on the northern skyline.

Spring wildflowers line the rustic route Indianhead Ridge with Mount Hood in the distance

The western part of the proposed network focuses on Indianhead Ridge, another high shoulder of the Waucoma Ridge complex, extending south toward the West Fork Hood River. The proposed trail network in this section would include extensive ridge top rides, with panoramic views of Mount Hood and the steep east face of Indian Mountain.

This part of the bicycle backcountry would also encompass the Waucoma Ridge Road, gating and converting the route to bike-only use except for Forest Service vehicles. The road leads through exceptionally scenic terrain, including the former lookout site on Indian Mountain, and fine views into the Eagle Creek valley, within the Hatfield Wilderness. The road, itself, forms the Hatfield Wilderness boundary.

Beautiful Scout Lake in the proposed Waucoma bicycle backcountry

This section of the proposal network also includes seldom-visited Scout Lake, a beautiful forest lake that has historically been stocked with brook trout by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

Campsites

Five bikepacking campsites are proposed along the new trail circuit. One is simply the existing Indian Springs Campground, an excellent but largely forgotten primitive campground in need of repair. New campsites would be located at Ottertail Lake, the Talus Pond near Gray Butte, Mosquito Lake and Scout Lake, with each offering 5-15 tent sites.

Unlike the nearby Hatfield Wilderness, bikepacking campsites in the new backcountry would feature rustic picnic tables, fire rings and secure hitching racks for bicycles — features that aren’t allowed in a wilderness area, but would be welcome additions in the bicycle backcountry.

Mosquito Lake basin from Blowdown Mountain, with Mt. Defiance and Mt. Adams in the distance

What would it take?

The viability of this proposal is in its simplicity: less than three miles of new trail would open a 25-mile network, with dozens of loop options that could be tailored to the ability of individual mountain bikers. Most of the work required could be done with the help of volunteers, from trail building and campsite development to signage and ongoing maintenance. Some heavy equipment would be required to develop the new, main trailhead and decommission vehicle access to converted roads.

The view across Ottertail Lake basin toward Tomlike Mountain and Mt. St. Helens

Of course, the proposal would also require the Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) to fully devote the Waucoma Ridge area to quiet recreation. A few years ago, that would have been unlikely, but in recent years, the agency has not only adopted plans to phase out hundreds of miles of logging roads, but also a policy to focus OHV use in a few, very specific areas of the forest. The recent developments could move this proposal into the realm of the possible if sufficient support exists for a bicycle backcountry.

It would take dedicated support from the mountain biking community to make the case to the Forest Service, ideally in a partnership with the agency that would include volunteer support in developing the trail system.

Cyclist on the new Sandy Ridge trail system, an example of collaboration between the USFS and bicycle advocates (City of Sandy)

The good news is that mountain bicycling organizations are already working hard to develop trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood region (such as the Sandy Ridge trail complex, pictured above) and hopefully would find this proposal worth pursuing. If you’re a mountain biker, you can do your part by forwarding this article to like-minded enthusiasts, or your favorite mountain biking organization. It’s a great project just looking for a champion!
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Bikepacking Resources

Bikepacking.net is an online community that focuses on off-road touring, away from cars, with great information on gear, routes and trip planning.

The Adventure Cycling Association posted this helpful article on how to pack for your bikepack trip.

Another good article on what to pack for your bikepack on the WhileOutRiding.com blog.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association is the premier organization and advocate for backcountry bicycling.

In the Mount Hood region, the Northwest Trail Alliance is the IMBA Chapter doing the heavy-lifting on bicycle trail advocacy.

Let’s Fix the Cooper Spur Trail

September 27, 2011

The first hiking trails on Mount Hood were built in the late 1890s, radiating from the newly constructed Cloud Cap Inn on the mountain’s north side. The steep hike up the south Eliot Glacier moraine to Cooper Spur was perhaps the first trail, as it was part of the still-popular Cooper Spur route to the summit. The original climber’s trail is still used, though a much gentler route built in the 1960s now ascends the spur in a series of well-graded switchbacks.

The new, graded trail carries thousands of hikers to the top of Cooper Spur each summer. It is among the most spectacular alpine hikes in the country, with jaw-dropping views of the sheer north face of Mount Hood and a close-up look at the massive jumble of flowing ice that makes up the Eliot Glacier.

The snowfields in question on Cooper Spur are permanent enough to be mapped.

It’s hard to know exactly why the newer, graded trail was routed over a set of mostly permanent snowfields when it was built, but this design flaw continues to be a problem for this otherwise exceptional trail. The newer trail initially follows the climber’s route fairly closely, sticking to the rim of the Eliot Glacier where the snow melts early and reliably each summer.

But near the crest of Cooper Spur, the newer route suddenly crosses the face of the spur, traversing to the south shoulder and overlooking the Newton Clark Glacier. It is in this section where the route crosses a set of persistent snowfields that are nearly permanent in all but the driest years.

The snowfields clearly show up in this 1890s view of Mount Hood in late summer.

This flaw in the newer route is confusing and potentially dangerous to the many hikers who venture to the top of the spur each summer. At 8,514 feet, the summit of Cooper Spur is truly alpine, so one of the benefits of the modern trail is to provide a relatively manageable hike to the top of the spur for the average visitor, despite the high elevation.

But when the trail disappears into the snow in this final pitch, hikers often resort to climbing directly up the snowfield — a dangerous choice — or scrambling up the steep climber’s trail, with its loose rock and cinders creating a potentially dangerous option for many hikers.

The snowfields as viewed from Cloud Cap Inn in the late 1890s.

The design flaw in the newer route may also have environmental impacts: the climber’s trail isn’t really a “trail”, but rather, a braided confusion of boot paths made less stable and more extensive each year as the popularity of the Cooper Spur hike continues to grow.

Early 1900s maps don’t show the snowfields, but they do show the climber’s trail on Cooper Spur.

While the ecological impact might seem inconsequential at this elevation, where few plants can even survive, the physical scars left on the rocky slopes are real and warrant better management of recreation travel in the area.

The high tundra landscape on the slopes of Mount Hood represents one of the most unusual and sensitive in the region, and a stray boot print can last for years. The ever-increasing variations on the climber’s trail that form each summer can take years to recover, even if given the chance.

The USGS 7.5 minute maps of the 1960s were the first to map the snowfields as permanent features. This 1962 map pre-dates the modern Cooper Spur Trail.

This article makes the case for addressing this problem in a couple of steps:

1. Realign the upper portion of the Cooper Spur Trail with a series of designed, graded switchbacks that roughly follow the climber’s trail, along the Eliot Glacier rim.

2. Decommission the problem sections that are usually snow-covered.

This proposal would not only corral the hiking hordes onto a more manageable, new path near the climber’s route, it would also leaves the bulk of the east slope of Cooper Spur untouched by hikers by decommissioning the old trail. This could greatly reduce the impact of the trail on the alpine ecosystem that exists on the slopes of Cooper Spur.

[Click here for a larger version of this map]

One of the most attractive aspects of this proposal is that it would be so easy to build. Building trails at this elevation, with the absence of soils and vegetation, is straightforward and very simple. The new route would simply need to be designed and surveyed, with construction done by volunteers or youth crews like the Northwest Youth Corps.

Looking up the climber’s trail to Cooper Spur and Mount Hood.

Trail construction would consists of rolling loose boulders and rocks to form a trail bench, and smoothing the surface of the new bench into a hiking tread with the abundant volcanic ash and glacial till that makes up most of the terrain at this elevation. This work is relatively easy, and surprisingly fast (I know this firsthand because I’ve adopted a couple of nearby trails in the area, and regularly rebuild worn trail segments in this high-elevation environment of rock and ice).

How to Help

If you’ve experienced the same frustration coping with the trail to Cooper Spur, your comments to the U.S. Forest Service can have an impact. This proposal represents a fairly simple effort, and there’s a good chance the Forest Service will respond if enough hikers weigh in on the hazards of the current trail alignment.

The best way to be heard is to go to the Mount Hood National Forest contact page and speak your mind — it’s easy, and you might just help get this trail fixed for generations to come!