Update: Mt. Hood Travel Plan

In the fall of 2006, Bark began to engage in the nationwide response to the 2005 Travel Management Rule. This federal mandate requires the Forest Service to designate those roads, trails, and areas that are open to motor vehicle use including Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs). Many organizations, like Bark, who saw this as an opportunity to minimize the presence and impact of OHVs, also recognized that this was an opportunity for the Forest Service to implement true recreation and restoration planning.

Mt. Hood National Forest was one of the first in the Pacific Northwest to begin Travel Planning. Most forests had already begun Travel Planning in the Southwest US and were focusing entirely on controlling devastating OHV use. In the Pacific Northwest OHVs are a big problem, but pale in comparison to the damage being done by the crumbling road network.

By January 2007, Bark had initiated the Restore Mt. Hood Campaign. The Campaign brings together a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals to build a vision of Mt. Hood National Forest that prioritizes recreation and healthy ecosystems over resource extraction. In addition to coalition-building, Bark did what it does best, get out on the ground. Identifying the Forest Service's lack of record-keeping on the roads in Mt. Hood, we embarked on a forestwide survey effort, attempting to walk and document a 10% random selection of the road system over the Summer of 2007.

Surveying 400 miles of roads in only a few months was thought to be impossible. But thanks to the 45 volunteers, 17 days of camping during three Roadtruthing Campouts, and hundreds of miles making up for wrong turns and bad maps, we were able to achieve a substantial view into the problem of roads in our Mt. Hood National Forest.

The most revealing results we found were around the ineffectiveness of closures and the prevalence of OHV use. Of the road segments we surveyed:

* Nearly half of the installed gates or metal blockades (“closure devices” meant to keep vehicles off of a road) showed signs of vandalism to allow for entrance. Even boulders and berms proved to be ineffective, with more than one-quarter found to be ineffective at keeping OHVs off closed roads.

* Over one-quarter of roads had clear signs of OHV use, nearly half of which occurred on roads that had a closure device present.

* One-third of the forest and soil damage from off-road vehicles occurred adjacent to roads that had a closure device present.

Our conclusions remain today that simply closing a road is not enough. In order for true restoration to begin, the agency mustdivert money away from ineffective closures and OHV “mitigation”and towards meaningful road maintenance and decommissioning.

"Our hands are tied."

We've heard this a lot in the last year from the Forest Service. When it comes to funding, Bark has always given the Forest Service a fair amount of slack. Particularly under a two-term, right-wing, wartime administration, we know public lands agencies are at the bottom of the list unless it involves logging or firefighting. But when we started to hear the handcuffs were coming down on Travel Planning as the reason the Forest Service would not fulfill its obligation to complete a plan for all motorized travel, instead limiting the scope of action to simply creating six new OHV playground areas, we thought it was time to follow the dollar trail.

There are three ways the Forest Service receives funding for projects (like travel planning) in National Forests; interagency or private grants, congressional allocations and stewardship contracting. To Bark’s knowledge Mt. Hood National Forest has already been promised grants by the State of Oregon if they create OHV areas and deter riders from ripping up state lands, but they have not pursued any grants for any other portion of travel planning. Congressional allocations are hard to come by under a conservative administration, however thanks to Representative Norm Dicks (WA) with support from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR) and Senator Ron Wyden (OR), the Northwest got at least a nod from Congress that roads are a major problem. Bark and other environmental groups lobbied for the "Legacy Roads Fund," which provides money for road removal and maintenance. Much of this funding has gone towards road removal in Portland's drinking watershed, the Bull Run.

Which leaves us with stewardship contracting. Increasingly, the Forest Service is seeking this type of funding. By coordinating a collaborative group made up of diverse local stakeholders to weigh in on decision-making, the agency is able to retain income from timber sales to pay for on-forest restoration work without ever sending the money back into the DC bureaucracy. This brings up difficult questions for Bark, but currently our involvement with the Clackamas Stewardship Partners (CSP), a collaborative group monitoring the Clackamas Watershed, is bringing short-term funding and long-term attention to the Clackamas River and the need to make road removal a common goal.

The Forest Service and Congress like this equation: they log, they make money, they restore the forest. Everyone's happy, right? Wrong. The timber market is very low right now due to the housing slump. Therefore, since stewardship contracting links restoration with revenue from logging, there is little money for restoration. (You may wonder why the Forest Service is even selling timber when the market is so bad; why not wait until next year? Every National Forest is required to sell a certain volume of timber every year, regardless of the market. This is one of the reasons that Bark believes that the timber sale program in National Forests must be ended.)

But funding isn’t the only reason that the Forest Service refused to do a comprehensive travel plan that included a road analysis. It turns out we overestimated the volume of records kept on Mt. Hood’s road system. In the past, when we would ask for information about the roads systems in Mt. Hood we thought the agency was withholding it from us. Then, over time, we came to understand that agency data on the roads is often either too little or too old to use. Other than those roads used in the recent past for timber sales, the Forest Service only has anecdotal information scattered between agency specialists, but not accessible in one centralized area. The lack of centralized data management is a major roadblock to meaningful road removal and restoration in our national forest. If you go to the grocery store without knowing what you need, you're inevitably going to have to go back again to get the things you forgot. And shopping when you're hungry, is a little like lobbying for emergency funds.

That's what one Forest Service employee recently said after a meeting to discuss a joint effort between the agency and Bark to complete an inventory of the entire road system in the Clackamas River watershed. We are not sure who was less likely to imagine the day we would work so closely together, them or us. But, when the Forest Service heard about our roadtruthing last summer, they wanted our data. And when the Clackamas Stewardship Partners decided that it would be worth using funds from stewardship contracting for road-related restoration, an opportunity was born. Although, we are in the beginning phases of accomplishing a mutual effort to inventory 100% of the roads in the watershed, progress has been made towards a day when the Clackamas Ranger District becomes a model for a forestwide initiative.

By knowing where the problems are, and where the real access needs are, the Forest Service will better be able to better manage the system. The reality is that Mt. Hood National Forest is currently only receiving approximately 12% of the funding it needs to maintain the current road system. Thanks to Bark’s Roadtruthing effort, the vision of the Clackamas Stewardship Partners, and the cooperation of the Forest Service, the Clackamas River watershed is on a track toward a financially-sustainable road network that will provide recreation access, while mitigating environmental impacts of roads in our ecosystems.

Despite progress in the Clackamas, there are big problems with this piecemeal approach. Mt. Hood National Forest boasts world-class recreation. We have access to a diverse list of recreation opportunity when we head towards Mt. Hood. Yet the only type of recreation being analyzed at the forest-wide level is motorized. Given the small portion of demand that motorized recreation represents, you’re not alone if you’re wondering, “what about my needs?”

Even with an accurate database of roads, the agency is still left with the task of understanding the needs of all recreation users. Bark doesn’t want to promote closing a road if it provides access to a popular hunting spot the Forest Service doesn't know about. Many hiking trails begin at the end of an old logging road and hiking an extra three miles to reach an ideal lake to fish may not be the solution we are looking for.

The task of accumulating all that recreation data is not simple. In fact, it has never really been done. To begin, the Forest Service would have to identify one baseline connection between all the user-groups’ different interests and needs in order to create a plan that avoids conflict wherever possible. What could possibly connect a downhill skier with a deep woods hunter with a birder? They all need roads.

Which brings us back to the Travel Plan. Bark still believes the Forest Service is wrong to think that OHV management can occur without considering the other recreation users who depend on the road system. Maybe, their hands aren't tied. Maybe it’s more an issue of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing.

To learn more about how you can help Bark stop the proposed “Mt. Hood OHV Plan” and insert other recreation needs into the Forest Service’s planning, please call Deb Wechselblatt at (503) 331-0374.