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

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