Billy Bob, meet Joe Spandex…!


This article is the second in a series of proposals for new “bikepacking” areas around Mount Hood and in the Gorge — places where cyclists can ride to overnight, off-road campsites. As with the earlier Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry proposal, the concept here is to convert fading logging roads into dual-track bicycle routes, complementing existing single-track trails that already exist in the area.

This proposal focuses on the potential for the Billy Bob Sno-Park to be put to work year-round, using the otherwise vacant facility in the snow-free season as the gateway to a new mountain bike network. The trailhead would become the hub of the newly created Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA) unit that covers the Fifteenmile Creek canyon backcountry, and was designed with backcountry bicycling in mind.

The Billy Bob Trailhead

The Billy Bob Winter Shelter

The Billy Bob Winter Shelter

The existing Billy Bob Sno-Park features a winter shelter, complete with wood stove, and is provided for snowmobiles and Nordic skiers. A local snowmobile club is under contract with the Forest Service to groom some forest roads as snowmobile routes, while ski trails are un-groomed and seldom used. Snowshoers also use Billy Bob as a base for reaching the nearby Fivemile Butte and Flag Point lookouts, as both can be rented during the winter.

The winter shelter is at the south end of a very large, paved turnaround suitable for up to 40 vehicles, including trailers carrying snowmobiles. Like the nearby Little John SnoPark, the parking area appears to be an asphalt relic from the logging heyday of the 80s and 90s, originally serving as a loading area for log trucks.

Plenty of parking here..!

Plenty of parking here..!

A pit toilet is also located here, at the northwest corner of the turnaround, opposite the shelter. Presumably, the toilet is kept snow-free in winter, but is also open in summer (though not regularly serviced… ahem!) to the rare visitor in the off-season. There is no water provided at Billy Bob.

The "modern" pit toilet at Billy Bob is relatively new

The “modern” pit toilet at Billy Bob is relatively new

In addition to winter use by snowmobiles and occasional skiers and snowshoers, Billy Bob is sometimes used as a base camp during the fall hunting season, as the surrounding area remains popular for hunting.

Fortunately, the site is far enough from population centers and major highways that it has largely been spared from the dual scourge of illegal dumping and target shooting that plagues similar pullouts and trailheads on the west side of the mountain.

The Proposal


Click here for a large map

How would the new Fifteenmile Canyon bicycle backcountry work? The first step would be conversion of a number of old logging roads in the area to become dual-track bike trails. In this way, the routes could also continue to function as snowmobile or ski trails in the winter. These proposed routes are shown in yellow on the map.

Next, a few new dual-track trails are proposed (in solid red) where they would better connect the existing network of logging tracks and directly connect the Billy Bob site to nearby drive-up campgrounds at Pebble Ford and the Underhill Site. Abandoned logging spurs make up the bulk of these new routes, so little new construction would be required to complete these dual-track gaps.

Recovering ponderosa forests in the area are a reminder of the clearcutting heyday of the 80s and 90s

Recovering ponderosa forests in the area are a reminder of the clearcutting heyday of the 80s and 90s

The purpose of dual-track trails is to provide less experienced cyclists and families with young kids a less challenging, more relaxed alternative to single track for trail riding. Dual-track routes allow for cyclists to easily pass on the trail, so are a good solution for busy trails where riders with a range of skill levels are expected. The dual-track design would also allow for safer shared use by cyclists, hikers and horses.

In Fifteenmile Canyon, the proposal calls for converting several roads to dual track to create a loop system located along the boundaries of the new Mount Hood NRA. The dual track loop would be gated, with motorized entry limited to service vehicles for maintenance or emergency access.

Stands of large ponderosa and larch are still intact within the canyons of the Eightmile NRA

Stands of large ponderosa and larch are still intact within the canyons of the Eightmile NRA

Within the proposed dual-track loop system, the NRA is centered on the steep maze of gulches, draws and ravines that form thousand-foot deep Fifteenmile Creek canyon. Three existing hiking trails (dashed black on map) extend into the canyon, one following Fifteenmile Creek, and two climbing the north and south slopes of the canyon, connecting to area campgrounds.

The proposal would fill in a few gaps in the existing single-track trail network that explores the Fifteenmile Creek backcountry, including (in dashed red on map) a new route that would extend west from the creek canyon to Bulo Point, a lovely, almost forgotten viewpoint, treated badly during the recent logging bonanza. A new single-track tie would connect the Pebble Ford and Fifteenmile campgrounds and short tie near Fraley Point would complete the single-track system.

Ridgetop meadows and interesting rock outcrops are found throughout the area

Ridgetop meadows and interesting rock outcrops are found throughout the area

The trails at the heart of the Fifteenmile Creek backcountry traverse some of the most ecologically diverse terrain in Oregon, from sun-baked Oregon white oak stands and open balsamroot meadows on sunny slopes and ridgetops to giant ponderosa and western larch parklands along canyon slopes. There are even lush, shady Western red cedar and red alder groves tucked along Fifteenmile Creek.

The proposal calls for three new bicycle camps within this beautiful, quiet backcountry. These campsites would consist of 4-6 groomed tent sites, one or two picnic tables, fire rings and secure bike racks — a comfortable step up from the truly primitive level of wilderness, but still providing a rustic backcountry experience. This, after all, is what the NRA was created for!

The Billy Bob concept calls for 3-way sharing by trail users

The Billy Bob concept calls for 3-way sharing by trail users

A total of ten trailheads are shown on the proposal map. Some already exist, some would be new, but all would need to be upgraded under this proposal to be geared toward backcountry cyclists. This includes a complete trail map with difficulty ratings for trail segments, information on the backcountry camps and “share the trail” information for all users — as these trails would continue to serve hikers and horses, as well as cyclists.

Connections to Points Beyond

Views into the Columbia Basin desert abound from the many high points in the Fifteenmile backcountry

Views into the Columbia Basin desert abound from the many high points in the Fifteenmile backcountry

The main focus of the Billy Bob trailhead proposal is the “bikepacking” potential for the Fifteenmile Canyon backcountry, but a wealth of nearby destinations are close enough to make for fine day trips from the proposed new trailhead.

Nearby Fivemile Butte is already a popular goal for cyclists, with a lookout tower and picnic tables that provide for a rewarding destination. The Flag Point Lookout is also within reach, and still in service during the summer, providing an especially interesting destination, as the lookout staff usually welcome visitors with a tour of the tower.

Cyclists visiting the Fivemile Butte Lookout

Cyclists visiting the Fivemile Butte Lookout

Lookout Mountain is also within reach, although the summit trail falls within the Badger Creek Wilderness, and thus is off-limits to bikes. But cyclists can still ride to High Prairie on a mix of trails and primitive roads and make the short final ascent of the mountain on foot — an equally satisfying option to riding.

The remote Flag Point Lookout is still staffed in summer

The remote Flag Point Lookout is still staffed in summer

The Boy Scouts operate Camp Baldwin just to the north of the proposed bicycle backcountry, with a summer camp program that draws thousands of scouts each year. The camp program includes mountain biking into the surrounding forests, so the proposed Fifteenmile bicycle backcountry would be a natural fit for the Scouts. Even better is the possibility of an ongoing partnership between mountain biking organizations and the Scouts to build and maintain trails in the area over the long term.

Does it Make Sense?

The Surveyors Ridge area to the west of Billy Bob and Fifteenmile Canyon is already a very popular cycling destination, with overflowing trailheads on most summer weekends, so there seems more than enough demand to justify this proposal. More importantly, the Fifteenmile backcountry would provide a unique, overnight “bikepacking” experience for cyclists that doesn’t exist elsewhere on Mount Hood’s east side.

Cyclist on popular Surveyors Ridge (The Oregonian)

Cyclist on popular Surveyors Ridge (The Oregonian)

An emerging bicycle sport that could complement summer riding on the proposed trail nework is “fat biking” or snow biking. Fat bikes use oversized tires to put cyclists on snow-covered trails in winter, and it’s possible that the Billy Bob trailhead and proposed bicycle network could serve this growing form of cycling.


Likewise, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing are continuing to grow in popularity, and though winter access to the Billy Bob trailhead is a long ride from the Portland area it could provide an important option for Gorge-based visitors looking for something away from the Portland crowds that often overwhelm Mount Hood on winter weekends.

What would it take?

Like the earlier [link=]Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry[/link] proposal on this blog, the viability of this proposal is in its simplicity: less than eight miles of new trail would open a 50-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 main trailhead at Billy Bob and to decommission vehicle access on some of the converted roads, and would have to be provided by the Forest Service.

Views from the open ridgetops in Fifteenmile Backcountry extend north to Mount Adams and Mount Rainer in Washington

Views from the open ridgetops in Fifteenmile Backcountry extend north to Mount Adams and Mount Rainer in Washington

The proposal would also require the Forest Service to fully devote the Fifteenmile Canyon to quiet recreation during the snow-free months. 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 adopted a new policy to focus OHV use in a few, very specific areas of the forest.

These recent developments could move this proposal if public support exists for a bicycle backcountry, although the Forest Service will need continued support from quiet recreation advocates to convert old logging roads to trails: recently, the agency has put plans to phase out old roads in the Barlow Ranger District that encompasses the Fifteenmile backcountry on hold, due in part to pressure from OHV groups.

The good news is that mountain bicycling organizations are already working hard to develop trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood region and hopefully would find this proposal worth pursuing, too. If you’re a mountain biker, you can do your part by sharing this article with like-minded enthusiasts, or your favorite mountain biking organization that could serve as a champion!

Bikepacking Resources: 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.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) 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.

The IMBA has a guide to fat biking.

CLIMB (the un-casino)

Mountain biking is a natural fit for the Gorge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

With the controversy (apparently) behind us on the now-defunct Cascade Locks casino proposal, conservationists have focused their Gorge concerns on a Nestle Corporation proposal: truck bottled water from a natural spring at a little-known fish hatchery on the edge of Cascade Locks (described in this WyEast Blog article)

The Nestle proposal is a bad idea on so many levels, and ought to be stopped. But the fracas over Nestles has overshadowed a very good idea known as the Cascade Locks International Mountain Bike Trail, or CLIMB. The concept is to simply build on the network of existing trails, old forest roads and a few new trails to create a world-class mountain biking destination, accessible from downtown of Cascade Locks.

Mountain bikers on a wintry Oakridge Trail (photo: Travel Oregon)

This proposal is exactly the kind of quiet recreation-oriented tourism strategy that put Hood River back on the map after the timber collapse in the early 1980s, and has the potential to revitalize Cascade Locks as well. The former mill town of Oakridge has kicked off a similar effort to foster bike tourism, advertising itself as the “Mountain Biking Capital of Northwest”, and bringing an impressive network of trails online over just a few years. These communities provide working examples for Cascade Locks in making a successful transition to a tourism-based economy.

Conservationists should be enthusiastically supporting the CLIMB idea, and any others like it that build on the natural and scenic character of the Gorge, as a counterpoint to the justified opposition to clunker schemes like the casino and Nestle plant that would harm the Gorge.


The Cascade Locks proposal begins with a new trail traversing above the community from a western trailhead near the Bridge of the Gods to an eastern terminus at the Oxbow Fish Hatchery (where Nestle proposes to bottle the natural springs by the semi-truck load).

[click here for larger map]

Along the way, the proposed trail would cross Dry Creek, intersecting the primitive access road that follows the creek upstream to beautiful Dry Creek Falls.

Curiously, the proposal does not incorporate this old road into the mountain bike network — a missed opportunity to close the route to ATVs and motorcycles that routinely use the road to loop onto the Pacific Crest Trail. Cyclists would likely find their way to the falls, of course, but including this road segment in the system would be a great way to transition the route (and surrounding area) to quiet recreation.

Dry Creek Falls

Another missing link in the western portion of the network is from the Oxbow Fish Hatchery to Herman Creek. While the terrain here is challenging, making this connection on trails — as opposed to following the freeway frontage road, as shown in the draft plan — could be critical to the viability of the network as a system based in Cascade Locks. The goal for the project should be for cyclists to start and end their tour in Cascade Locks, not at trailheads located east of town along forest roads (though that would certainly occur, as well).

Hopefully, the plan can at least include a long-term concept for making a new trail connection across Herman Creek to fully integrate the trail system with the town of Cascade Locks.


Most of the proposed CLIMB network is located along the corridor between Herman Creek and Wyeth, with a combination of new trails and existing routes that would create a number of loops and interesting destinations, with trail access at several points along the way.

[click here for larger map]

This part of the proposal envisions using Trail 400 and a short segment of the Herman Creek Trail as part of the network, a move that hikers might be leery of, but one that is highly workable and necessary to create trail loops. Trail 400 is gently graded and meticulously maintained, so is a good candidate for shared use. The segment of the Herman Creek Trail included in the proposal is really just an old road, so can easily accommodate the additional traffic and mix of bikes and hikers.

The eastern trail proposal would be anchored by the Herman Creek and Wyeth Campgrounds. While a plus for cyclists looking for a camping/cycling experience, this underscores the need for a direct trail connection from Herman Creek to Cascade Locks, and the potential economic benefit it would bring, including bike campers riding to town for a meal, beer or supplies.

Rustic bridge along Trail 400 at Gorton Creek

The Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) restoration project is considering adding the Herman Creek to Wyeth roadway to the historic highway corridor, a move that would provide a terrific complement to the mountain bike trail concept. Already, this road provides excellent opportunities for small trailheads accessing the proposed system, allowing for more route possibilities for cyclists and shuttles.

One missed opportunity in the eastern part of the proposal that could be both bold and iconic would be repurposing the Forest Service work center at Herman Creek to function as a trailhead base for cyclists. This historic structure dates back to the Civilian Conservation Corps era, but has been relegated to administrative uses by the Forest Service. The CLIMB proposal could turn this structure into a flagship facility for cyclists, possibility with a public-private lodge function patterned after the lodges at Timberline and Multnomah Falls.

Historic work center at Herman Creek

The old work center also features a nearly lost trail connection that switchbacks directly to the Herman Creek Campground (and shown on the CLIMB trail concept), providing a nice complement for cyclists camping in the area if the work center were to become some sort of base facility.

Thinking bit further outside the box, another opportunity could be to add the old quarry site at nearby Government Cove to the proposed trail network.

View from the beach at the Government Cove site

The quarry is on a peninsula that separates the Columbia River from the cove, and has the potential to be a terrific riding destination, especially for riders following street routes from Cascade Locks to the Herman Creek trailhead. It would also bring the CLIMB network to the river, which is currently a missing piece in the proposal. The property appears to be port-owned, so could be a natural fit, given the port’s role in advocating for the project.

Project Timeline

Since the project began in 2007, a feasibility study, conceptual trail plan and master trail plan have already been completed with funding support from the Port of Cascade Locks, City of Cascade Locks, and Hood River County.

The next step is to conduct an environmental review of the trail corridor. In late 2010, the Port of Cascade Locks reached an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to perform the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis of the proposal using private consultants, since the Forest Service lacked the capacity to do this work in the near future. Several proposals to complete the work were received earlier this year, but at a cost of $170,000 to almost $400,000, were financially out of reach for the Port of Cascade Locks.

The Port and the USFS have since worked out a tentative agreement to allow this project to continue to move forward using limited Port funding to begin gathering environmental data, with the Forest Service taking over the environmental analysis in 2013, using this data.

Learn More & How to Help

For more information on the proposal, including more detailed maps, visit to the Port of Cascade Locks site here. You can also view photos of the proposed trail routes and promote the idea using the project’s Facebook link. Someday, we may have a world-class mountain bike network defining the economy in Cascade Locks, who knows?

But in the meantime, the best way to keep casinos and Nestle trucks from tainting the Gorge is to vote with your wallet, and simply to support local businesses in the Gorge that rely on tourism. If you traditionally stop somewhere in the Portland area for a beer or burger after a hike or trail ride, consider a stop in Cascade Locks, Stevenson or Hood River, instead.

Timberline Lodge Bike Proposal

Post Canyon free ride circuit near Hood River (The Oregonian)

The Timberline Resort is proposing to build 15 miles of downhill-only bicycle play trails along their lower ski slopes, below the main lodge parking area. The trails will require clearing mountain vegetation, including alpine trees up to half-a-foot in diameter, and building a series of jumps and ramps for bikes. The “downhill only” design relies on chairlifts to carry bikers back up the mountain, and is presumably aimed at younger cyclists.

You don’t have to be against mountain bikes to be skeptical about the Timberline Ski Resort proposal to build 15 miles of bike trails on the slopes below Timberline Lodge. You simply have to wonder why here? Why now?

Comments on the scoping phase of this proposal are due soon (July 30), so now is the time to weigh in. This article covers some of the questions the Forest Service should be addressing in their review of this proposal.

A solution looking for a problem?

This clip shows a portion of the maze of proposed bike play trails

The Forest Service scoping letter states “Oregon is considered the mountain biking capital of the Northwest and more people per capita have bicycles in Portland than any other city in the country. However, there are few Oregon ski areas that offer full-service, lift-assisted mountain biking for all ability levels.”

This is one of those leading-the-witness statements that you might expect to hear from the Timberline Resort, as the profit-seeking concessionaire, not from the Forest Service — who we might expect to be the cautious guardian of our mountain.

Oregon may be the mountain biking capital, and there are surely a lot of Portlanders with mountain bikes, but it’s a leap to assume that Portland’s cyclist are lacking for ski-lift-assisted bike playground. So, the first scoping question for the Forest Service:

1. What is the national demand for ski-lift-assisted bike trails? What is the demand in Oregon? What is the demand at Mount Hood?

If the Forest Service cannot demonstrate unmet demand for ski-lift-assisted bike trails, then this proposal should be denied.

It’s really about lift tickets, not bikes

The proposal includes another “skills park” on Mount Hood, duplicating Ski Bowl

So, why the sudden interest in building more bike play trails on Mount Hood?

The answer is fairly simple: the Timberline Resort is looking to sell more summer lift tickets, bike rentals, concessions and hotel reservations. That’s pretty much it. Right now, the Timberline operators can look down from the hotel balcony in summer, and see the lifts at Mount Hood Ski Bowl carrying bikers up the slopes of Multorpor and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. Who can blame them for wanting to steal some of that business?

But this raises another series of questions for the scoping:

2. Would the Timberline proposal cannibalize the Mount Hood Ski Bowl bike operations? Would this, in turn, jeopardize the viability of the Ski Bowl resort, which has no Palmer Lift and summer skiing to round out its winter profits?

Given that Timberline has a summer skiing program, Mount Hood Ski Bowl should be given priority in meeting whatever demand exists for ski-life-assisted bike trails. If excess demand doesn’t exist, the Timberline proposal should be denied.

Mount Hood Ski Bowl already provides lift-assisted bike trails and a skills park

Authorized vs. Unauthorized Damage?

The Forest Service scoping letter states “because of limited managed mountain biking areas on public land the Forest Service is seeing an increase in unauthorized free-ride mountain biking areas. These illegally constructed trails are creating resource damage as they appear throughout Oregon’s public lands.”

This raises another question for the project scoping:

3. Where is “resource damage” resulting from mountain biking? What sort of damage is being done? How have mountain bikes been identified as the source of the damage?

The scope letter also states “a managed, well designed, downhill-only, mountain bike trail system and skills park in Northwestern Oregon would provide an opportunity for safe, managed mountain biking and reduce unauthorized mountain biking and thereby could reduce associated resource damage on public lands.”

Another case of leading the witness — in this instance, a leap from rogue mountain bikers building illegal trails to those seeking “well designed, downhill only” trails with a “skills park”, which just happens to be what the Timberline resort wants to build on our public land. This statement fits the old adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Ironically, on mountain bike trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood National Forest, downhill riding is prohibited in order to “prevent erosion”, according to the Forest Service trail signage. Does this suggest that the “downhill-only” trails proposed by Timberline will be inherently erosion-prone?

This issue raises still more scoping questions:

4. How is “downhill-only” bike demand measured, as opposed to the demand for bicycle trails, in general? How would the “authorized” construction of 15 miles of downhill-only bicycle trails at the Timberline resort compare with the “unauthorized” areas in terms of tree removal and trail construction?

If the Forest Service analysis shows that forest ecosystems in the fragile alpine areas around Timberline are more vulnerable to erosion than other areas, or that “downhill-only” bicycle travel increases erosion risk, the Timberline proposal should be denied.

Ski Bowl just added a free ride park in 2009 -- are we witnessing an arms race between the resorts?

You’re on my land!

One of the more troubling aspects of any proposal coming from the Mount Hood area ski resorts is their attitude of entitlement toward use of public land. Not surprisingly, few among the public are aware that the resorts exist wholly on public land, leased from the U.S. Forest Service.

As such, every expansion proposal should be viewed with skepticism, since they generally represent another slice of natural ecosystem being carved away — as the Timberline proposal does.

Putting the relationship in urban terms, consider how the public would react if a private, for-profit enterprise proposed a fee-based play area within a city park, maybe starting with small corner, then coming back every few years, asking to fence off a bit more of the lawn in order to stay profitable. At what point is it the obligation of the public to ensure profitability?

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has a developed a bias toward the “viability” argument, and has a history of ceding more public land to the resorts under the rationale of keeping them in business. This is a very slippery slope, and only leads to more development on the mountain. In this case, it raises another question for the scoping phase of the proposal:

5. What is the financial argument for this proposal from the Timberline resort? Is the resort suffering financial losses during the summer (or winter) months that this proposal is intended to stem?

If the Forest Service finds that the proposal is primarily driven primarily by private financial interests, not measurable public demand, the proposal should be denied.

Another Way

The Mount Hood National Park Campaign proposes hundreds of miles of new mountain biking trails, many from converted logging road that provide an exceptional opportunity to expand the bike network (click here to view the maps).

Instead of relying on chairlifts and lift tickets, the Campaign proposals focus networks of overlapping loops, with lots of possibilities for varied terrain to create an exciting, healthy cycling experience. The proposals are designed to meet different skill levels and be easily accessed from nearby communities. Most importantly, they are designed to place mountain biking within financial reach of a broad range of income levels — something the ski resorts don’t pretend to do.

The proposed Blue Ridge Highlands bicycle network

(click here to view a larger map)

Note that there are no “skill parks” in the Mount Hood National Park proposals, as they don’t really belong in a national forest, much less a national park. But there are plenty of state and private land opportunities for developing skill parks in the area, and of course, we already have a fee-based concession at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort.

Besides, if the economic model for Timberline involves charging cyclists to pay for access to a skill park, why not let the free market provide this on private land under a similar fee system, in closer proximity to Portland, and away from sensitive alpine terrain?

A better alternative in the near term for addressing the “unauthorized” trails issue is to work with an advocacy group, like the Columbia Area Mountain Bike Associates (CAMBA), to develop a low-or-no-fee extreme biking/play park area on less sensitive land closer to Portland.

One such site already exists by permission on private, state and county-owned land in the Post Canyon area, near Hood River, and another known as Black Rock, near Falls City. These sites were developed largely with private donations of time, labor and materials, and there’s no reason why other similar areas couldn’t be developed outside the national forest to meet whatever demand might exist.

The Forest Service scoping letter states “further development of this area is supported by existing infrastructures such as parking lots, restrooms and signage.” If these are the principal arguments for further commercialization of the fragile mountain ecosystem, then it’s obvious that signs, a parking area and restroom at some other site could be built, perhaps entirely with private funds.

Teacup Lake Nordic Club developed their groomed trail network in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service

A perfect model for this alternative approach already exists: the non-profit Teacup Lake Nordic Club cabin and ski trail complex, near Bennett Pass. This fine destination provides an affordable alternative to the nearby Mount Hood Meadows commercial venue, with club members asked to make a modest donation in order to use the extensive ski trail complex.

A similar approach could be used to provide more services at sites like Post Canyon or Black Rock, and this leads to the final question that the Forest Service should address during this scoping phase:

6. What opportunities exist for the Forest Service to work with non-profit and community organizations to provide free-ride bike parks on less sensitive lands than the alpine areas below Timberline Lodge?

If there are community partners out there with an interest in pursuing a more affordable, sustainable alternative to a lift-based bike park (including private, state and county land owners) then the the Timberline proposal should be denied.

You can find more on how to comment at the Mount Hood National Forest site: Timberline Mountain Bike Proposal. If you don’t make the requested July 30 deadline, don’t be afraid to submit your comments late. The Forest Service will continue to accept them because, after all, YOU own the land.

Addendum: Read Dennis Chaney’s Op-Ed on the proposal (PDF)

The New Mount Hood National Recreation Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the Mount Hood National Recreation Area?

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

click here for a larger version of the map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

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

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

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