The Crag Law Center is pleased to announce the release of a series of reports (see below) prepared by expert hydrologist Jonathan J. Rhodes evaluating recent restoration activities at Timberline Ski Area. The reports were funded in part by a generous grant from the Mazamas.
As mitigation for its proposed Downhill Mountain Bike and Skills Park (the “Project”), RLK and Company (operators of Timberline) planned various restoration activities to “offset” impacts from the Project. Impacts include increased sediment delivery to already degraded mountain streams providing critical habitat for aquatic species. The restoration activities involved road decommissioning and re-vegetation, and were approved by the Forest Service.
The reports cast a shadow on the ability of restoration to offset Project impacts—both in the short- and long-term.
The first report examines pre-restoration conditions to provide a baseline against which to evaluate restoration effectiveness. As the report indicates, “existing conditions within the Project area clearly indicate that the ski area development and operation has degraded affected watersheds, riparian areas, streams, and embedded fish habitats.” Through field reviews conducted during the summer of 2013, Mr. Rhodes found “extremely elevated levels of fine sediment” in Still Creek and the West Fork Salmon River. These baseline conditions reveal that mitigation measures employed for previous ski area development at Timberline consistently “have failed to effectively prevent stream degradation from elevated sediment delivery.”
Mr. Rhodes conducted extensive surveys of the area and determined that the Forest Service had grossly overstated the negative impact of the roads and trails that Timberline proposed to restore. Rhodes found that the impact of these roads and trails in terms of sediment delivery was exaggerated by more than four times. In so doing, the Forest Service and Timberline were able to claim that, if the decommissioning were effective, this restoration would have a much larger positive impact—enough to “fully offset” Project impacts.
The second report evaluated restoration activities undertaken in the Fall of 2013. Post-implementation field reviews “found that activity implementation was generally quite poorly executed.” The report discovered, ironically, that the restoration activities actually “elevated and sediment delivery significantly.” This was due in part to the failure to “implement effective erosion and sediment delivery control measures on bare highly-disturbed soils prior to rainfall and snowmelt runoff events in August through October 2013.”
As field reviews also revealed, “decommissioning resulted in the loss of pre-existing live vegetation on the road prism,” a significant impact because “live vegetation is the most effective type of soil cover for limiting erosion” and it “likely took a long time for the vegetation eliminated by the treatments to colonize [the area], due to its damaged soils and the area’s short growing season.”
Other significant issues associated with restoration included: soil and vegetation damage due to vehicular traffic; failure to restore the natural pre-road surface grade on the decommissioned roads; and the failure to hydrologically disconnect treated routes from the stream system. The report concludes, “sediment-related impacts were compounded by ineffective implementation,” and that “even if the attempted measures ultimately convey some benefit . . . it will take many years after reductions in sediment delivery are manifest before the increases in sediment delivery caused by the activities are offset.”
Balancing recreation and habitat protection can pose challenges, but it also provides unique opportunities for creative land management. An open dialogue about the true costs of high-impact construction on Mt. Hood—and the realities of restoration effectiveness in this fragile alpine environment—should always be the starting point.