Saturday, July 24, 2010

Deduct Pond Update from HCPC Summer Intern

The Deduct Pond Link project is located in the Walla Walla River watershed on the Walla Walla Ranger District of the Umatilla National Forest and has been the subject of previous blog entries. This area is an ecologically significant landscape which encompasses large tracts of inventoried roadless areas, a BLM designated “Area of Critical Environment Concern,” and is directly adjacent to the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. The watershed is also home to a number of listed species including Mid-Columbia River steelhead and bull trout, with both the North and South Forks of the Walla Walla River identified as critical habitat for these species. The Forest Service allows motorized use within the watershed on two trails following the two forks. This authorization exists even though the trails come within feet of the rivers, cross several tributaries, and have experienced historical degradation from severe flooding and past use.

Nonetheless, the Forest Service moved forward with the Deduct Pond Link project to create a “legal loop” for motorized users of the Walla Walla River trail system. I was fortunate to visit the area during the first week of my internship with HCPC and again in early July after the new link had been constructed. This site visit revealed that the recently completed project was already facilitating unauthorized OHV use. Additionally, the inspection led to new discoveries of illegal motorized use in the surrounding area.

The Deduct Pond Link project connects the existing North and South Fork trails through a series of newly constructed and reconstructed trail segments. Previously, motorized users could only travel up and back down one of the river trails. Now, the Deduct Pond Link provides riders a complete circuit spanning some 40 miles. This more attractive OHV area is reasonably certain to draw additional riders to the area, leading to increased use, greater opportunity for off-trail riding, and ultimately greater impacts on this sensitive landscape and the listed species dependent upon this ecosystem.

Further compounding matters, the Forest Service signed off on the Deduct Link project without properly conducting the requisite analyses mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service elected to evaluate this project by exclusively examining the immediate area of new construction and reconstruction, thereby ignoring the inevitable effects increased use of the entire trail system will inflict on water, soils, wildlife, and other users throughout the watershed. HCPC repeatedly brought this to the attention of the Forest Service, including filing an administrative appeal, to no avail. The Forest Service stood by their determination that the effects of the project would be insignificant and limited to the narrowly defined project area.

During this outing, in which David Mildrexler and I walked the trail from Deduct Pond to the top of the North Fork trail, we found a completed trail with several unsightly crossings of alpine meadows. Although the trail was only a week old, had not been advertised, and had not yet been included in OHV trail maps, there was already evidence of illegal use and erosion. Riders drove around an intentionally placed log that blocks access to a series of alpine meadows on the 65000895 spur. It was apparent these users were attempting to travel through the meadows to connect back to the South Fork trail. Fortunately, a natural barrier in the form of a steep rocky section prevented the pioneering of this trial. Additionally, riders dropped off the reconstructed trail at several other spots including a wet patch of meadow full of wildflowers. This left particularly deep and visible tire marks on the gorgeous vista (photo 1). Regular OHV use on the trail had also already created ruts across wet areas that resulted in channeled water running off the trail carrying loose dirt and debris down the hillside.

The illegal use was particularly shocking given that the new trail showed little evidence of motorized use. In fact, there were nearly as many deer and elk tracks on the fresh trail as OHV tread. This suggests that these initial users were the likely culprits. The early signs of illegal use will also signify to future users that such destructive behavior is acceptable. As OHV users are frequently instructed to “ride appropriately or lose the right” in response to newly opened OHV areas, one would think these initial riders would have been particularly careful to follow the rules. However, this was not the case on the Deduct Pond Link trail and this behavior mirrors the destructive riding styles exhibited at other OHV areas that is commonly ignored by our federal land management agencies. Unfortunately for the Walla Walla River watershed, greater numbers of OHV users are expected which will invariably result in increased illegal use, greater erosion, and more negative effects on sensitive plants and wildlife.

Venturing further down the trail, we entered a thinned stand where we spotted several elk. The elk quickly caught our scent and dove into thicker timber following a seasonal creek bed. On the other end of this thinned unit, the trail entered a large open space where the trail intersected with the 6500040 road and eventually leads to the North Fork trailhead. There was widespread evidence of off road driving by both OHVs and full sized vehicles in this area. While photographing the damage caused by these illegal uses, we again spotted the elk that had crossed the creek bed into another thinned unit. What we had originally thought to be a group of a dozen or so, turned out to be herd of 50 or 60! After watching the herd thunder off into the woods, we discovered a pioneered trail that made its way several hundred feet back into the thinned stand of timber where we first saw the elk. To our surprise, an OHV authorization poster was posted on one of the first trees in the stand. While the poster indicated that quads and snowmobiles were only permitted during the winter months, the trail was not included on the Forest’s OHV map and there was evidence that full sized vehicles traveled this route. The full sized vehicles left foot-deep ruts in a nice grassy meadow where the pioneered trail exited the thinned stand (photo 2).

While we had a great day in terms of wildlife viewing (we also saw a black bear cub with a shinny blond coat and several mule deer fawns), it was very disheartening to see such pervasive illegal motorized use. These discoveries stung all the more in knowing that this illegal use is occurring in such a sensitive area where wildlife is abundant. Yet the outing was ultimately productive in that we collected solid evidence that the Forest Service is failing to effectively control OHV use on the Forest.

HCPC submitted copies of the photos captured on this inspection to the Forest Service and we hope to receive a response to this unauthorized OHV use soon. HCPC is contemplating legal action in the event the Forest Service continues to fail in its obligations to address unnecessary resource degradation from improper motorized use on our forests. Diligent monitoring of OHVs in this area is critically important as the Forest Service is currently revising the Blue Mountain Forest Plan. During this process, the Forest Service will consider expansion of Wilderness and roadless areas and the Walla Walla River watershed is an excellent candidate. Increased OHV damage and expanded trail networks from illegally pioneered trails will reduce the likelihood the watershed will benefit from additional protected areas.

Story by Garrett Chrostek, Summer Legal Intern
Accompanied in the field by David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator and Staff Scientist

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Come Celebrate the High Desert!

Join us for Desert Conference XXV on September 23-26, 2010

Do you love the high desert sagebrush lands? Have you always wanted to learn about the unique wildlife and landscapes of the Great Basin and beyond? This year Hells Canyon Preservation Council is proud to partner with Oregon Natural Desert Association, National Landscape Conservation System, The Wilderness Society, and the High Desert Committee of the Sierra Club to bring Desert Conference back, after a four year hiatus.

This conference will celebrate the desert landscapes by bringing people who care about them together to inspire and educate about the unique sagebrush lands. On this 40th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, we will recognize what we have achieved and what we must do to further protect and restore this fragile and extraordinary desert landscape.

With a numerous issues facing the desert landscape including renewable energy development, habitat fragmentation, climate change, public lands grazing and de-watering of desert lakes and rivers. Desert Conference provides a forum for land-managers, conservation organizations, academics and advocates alike to cooperate for better environmental protections. 

Desert Conference will be held at Washington Family Ranch near Antelope, Oregon, in the heart of the John Day Basin. From here you will have the opportunity to explore and help restore nearby wilderness and proposed wilderness areas. This year’s conference will feature author Craig Childs and Peter Illyn, an Environmental Stewardship Minister, music by Craig Caruthers plus panels on topics covering a variety of desert issues.

For more information or to register, Renee Tkach at or call at 503-680-3119. Or click here to register online.

Story by Renee Tkach, Development Outreach Director

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Boardman to Hemmingway Transmission Line

Idaho Power Company wants to build a high voltage electric line through northeast Oregon. The 500 kilovolt electric transmission line would run from Boardman, Oregon to the Hemmingway Substation near Melba, Idaho. The towers would stand about 100 to 200 feet tall. They are the massive, metal-lattice towers similar to those that you see near the dams on the Columbia River.

The line would more or less run parallel to Interstate 84 through eastern Oregon and it would stretch about 300 miles long. East of Pendleton, it would cross the Blue Mountains and the Grande Ronde River and then cross Ladd Canyon south of La Grande. It would enter the Baker Valley near the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, stretch south between the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains and then follow part of the Burnt River south into Malheur County.

Many local people object to the visual impact that the line would have upon the scenery as well as negative effects on tourism, property values, farming and ranching practices and ecological concerns. HCPC’s concerns include the loss of wildlife habitat, disruption of habitat connectivity, cutting down of forests, the spread of non-native weeds, increased use of herbicides to maintain line clearance and the negative impacts of road-building. Part of the proposed route is home to sage grouse and known sage grouse leks.

According to my math, this power line will affect quite a bit of Oregon. The proposed right-of-way would be 250 feet wide. This means that more than 30 acres of land per linear mile would be affected. Multiply that by 300 miles of length and you have more than nine thousand acres of land affected.

HCPC has been cooperating with local groups and individuals who share our concerns about the project. We are participating in the lengthy process of review and permitting that is involved with the transmission line proposal. In April of this year, I testified to the Oregon Public Utilities Commission about the adverse impacts to wildlife habitat. Other residents voiced their concerns as well.

Idaho Power recently finished a “Community Advisory Process” to select the route for the transmission line. They will now seek approval from the Oregon Public Utility Commission and the Oregon Department of Energy. The Bureau of Land Management will also prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to address the impacts to BLM and US Forest Service lands affected by the proposed project.

Idaho Power is hosting public information meetings in La Grande on July 14 from 4 to 7 PM at the Blue Mountain Conference Center (404 12th St.) and in Baker City on July 20 from 4 to 7 PM at the Community Event Center (2600 East St.).

HCPC will continue to question the need for this project and to advocate for protection of this unique and important landscape.

Story and photo by Brian Kelly, Restoration Coordinator

Thursday, July 1, 2010

From the Breaks

I live on the breaks between the Minam-Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers.

Part of my every day commute brings me in contact with the seasonal changes, including the glorious spread of wildflowers the extra rain has encouraged into blooming.

As I gaze at one of my favorites, Clarkia pulchella, my mind wanders. This is the truth of where I live - land that still maintains the seeds of wildflowers along with the seeds of invasive weeds (there's cheatgrass in the photo), land that maintains its integrity in spite of barbed wire and property lines. I don't know how long that will continue, without our intervention and restoration. Streams that used to be year-round, with trout and steelhead, are now barely seasonal and dry down to algal mats by July. One lifetime. I've noticed that at our elevation/rainfall it takes about a decade for wildflowers to grow back from where they've been grazed, about 2 decades for where they've been plowed. Part of why I choose to live here is that the land still remembers, the seeds are still there waiting for rain, waiting to sprout.

Clarkia pulchella means "beautiful clarkia". This is the beauty of where I live, the absolutely stunning diversity of life, from Clarkia to lupines to cat's ear lilies to cougar to coytoe to Pygmy nuthatches to the wrens that are raising their young in the birdhouse on the eaves of our house. Every morning is a hallelujah of meadowlark, redwing, flicker; every evening a choral benediction of robin, bluebird, mourning dove.

I love where I live, I love the rich gift of this beauty. I am honored to be part of this zoopolis.

It seems that every day my heart is breaking with some terrible news of irreversible loss.
I have known many good friends who chose to see only the 'Truth' - the spreading invasives on every hillside, the degraded streams, the damaged lands, the loss of spring peepers or hummingbird moths. I do see all that, and refuse to close my eyes or pretend that "Nature" will take care of the problems.

But I also deliberately choose to see the Beauty, the humbling resilience of life. I can only do so much to change the world I live in, but I can change the focus of my attention. Truth and Beauty. Clarkia pulchella and cheatgrass. Seeing both, I can make a choice about what I will assist in thriving as well as celebrate.