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Decommissioned Forest Service road returns to nature

In following the winding, gravel road pocked with potholes beyond Lost Creek Campground, it’s easy to see why the path is not often traversed. POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Todd Parker, Zigzag district hydrologist, surveys the newly excavated creek bed formerly covered by a road.

Past a forest service gate to the left, another road leads uphill along a steep incline, mostly unused. But because of a recent Mt. Hood National Forest project, the road now ends in a serene creek that may soon become just another part of the forest.

On Thursday, July 23, Mt. Hood National Forest crews initiated a project to decommission a Forest Service Road 111 Spur near the Old Maid Flat area, built initially to access timber.

In 2012, the forest service decommissioned about a mile of the road, but had to end a bit early because contractors ran into a fish-spawning deadline at the end of August.

“We’re doing this for aquatic recreation,” said Todd Parker, district hydrologist for the Zigzag Ranger District. “We hate to break any more eggs than we have to in the process.”

This year, a little less than a mile of the road was decommissioned in about a week. The first step was to remove a culvert, or drainage pipe, that carried a Lost Creek tributary stream under the road. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: RUSS PLAEGER - Danny Collins of Collins and Son Excavating operates machinery to turn a forest road back into forest habitat.

Russ Plaeger, restoration coordinator for Bark, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that focuses on the Mt. Hood National Forest, said this illustrates the downside of leaving a road without frequent maintenance. If a culvert were to become plugged with fallen tree limbs or other loose vegetation, water could build up behind it and eventually cut across the road itself, creating erosion issues, or blow out the culvert completely, endangering habitats downstream.

“That really big sediment load all of a sudden can do major damage to the aquatic system,” Plaeger said.

Laura Pramuk, Mt. Hood National Forest public affairs officer, said risk to surrounding habitats — both aquatic and on land — is a factor forest personnel consider when deciding to decommission a road.POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Russ Plaeger, of Bark, and Todd Parker examine the work done on the decommissioning site.

“In the forest in general, and at the Zigzag Ranger District, one of our objectives is to decommission, close or storm-proof roads that have been a high risk to fish and watershed habitat,” she said.

The risks to wildlife are weighed against the usage of the road and the cost of keeping it up. In the case of the

111 Spur, the road was generally not used often, Pramuk noted.

“We’re pleased this road is being decommissioned,” Plaeger said. “This project builds on the good work done by the Zigzag Ranger District during the past 10 years.”

After the culvert was removed, Danny Collins of Colton-based Leonard Collins and Sons worked to make the road site blend in with the surrounding forest.

“Projects like this take some highly skilled operators,” Plaeger noted, adding that more decommissioning projects would provide needed opportunities to employ local contractors.

Parker said the contractors can cover about 2,000 feet a day, but removing the large culvert took the most time.

After the contractors were finished with the road, hay was spread over the ground and additional foliage planted — something Plaeger hopes Bark can help with.

“We’re definitely interested,” he said. “People had really good memories of when we planted trees out in Zigzag two years ago.”

The last time Bark helped out, volunteers planted 200 trees and 50 willow cuttings.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: RUSS PLAEGER - An excavator is used to blend a former road into the surrounding forest habitat near Lolo Pass.

The forest service maintains about 3,000 miles of roads on the Mt. Hood National Forest, and Bark’s goal is to aid in narrowing that system quite a bit.

“We would like to see a smaller, better-maintained road system that will provide safe, reliable access for the public to important trailheads and campgrounds,” Plaeger said. “The basic thing is, you’d have a smaller system, hopefully lower costs and put the money in places where it’s really worth investing.”

Decommissioning the road means one less stretch that needs to be maintained while reversing wildlife habitat fragmentation.

“But there is still more work to be done to remove old roads throughout Mt. Hood National Forest,” Plaeger added. “There are Forest Service roads that are literally falling apart — in some cases it makes no sense to spend public funds to fix them.”

POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Fallen trees and hay are used to help create habitat along a creek that leads to Lost Creek, a salmon spawning habitat.

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