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Putting the forest back in order posted on 10/01/2019

When Bill Westbrook, Zigzag District Ranger for the Mt. Hood National Forest, walks along a stretch of the Salmon River to gauge its health, it’s notable how far the area has come in a short time.

Just three years ago, that same terrain featured bare soil, without dead fall or vegetation, causing the nutrient cycle to collapse.

But thanks to a Forest Order issued in 2016 that prohibited camping and fires outside of developed campgrounds for three miles along the Salmon River, the reversal of that damage is already evident. Old campsites were restocked with trees and shrubs, new plants can be seen growing, while enough forest litter and duff (shed leaves, etc.) have accumulated that even some of the hardened surfaces are sprouting forest vegetation.

“It’s a much more enjoyable hike to take your family up there,” Westbrook said. “It’s kind of our community trail up here for a lot of people to go on a day hike and just get out.”

Dispersed recreation includes a variety of activities outside of the developed campgrounds and other areas (where bathrooms, tables, trash service and fire rings are typically available), and include hiking, target shooting, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and camping in the forest’s more rustic locations. These activities, which are legal and allowed (unless prohibited by a Forest Order), make up the majority of summertime visitor use on the forest.

But those activities, if done irresponsibly, can harm the landscape and ruin the outdoor experience of others when people don’t take responsibility for packing out their trash, properly managing human waste and choosing an appropriate campsite (it is illegal to live in a National Forest, destroy vegetation or to leave trash and human waste where it damages natural areas and creates a hazard for the public and wildlife, while many areas along riverbanks on the Mount Hood National Forest are also listed as endangered or sensitive fish species habitat).

Westbrook noted that dispersed recreation is a “great aspect” of the forest, but that “we just want people to do it appropriately,” he said.

The efforts to reverse the damage along the Salmon River and elsewhere in the forest have included cleaning and dismantling the abandoned illegal campsites and supervising several re-vegetation projects along the banks of the river, while also increasing enforcement and spreading information through local businesses. A number of agencies and organizations have participated in the efforts, including interns from Oregon State University, forest staff and volunteers, who worked throughout the summer of 2017 to clean up and naturalize over 40 sites along the river and West Leg Road and Old Maid Flats. They encountered “camping villages,” where illegal campers had erected walls and awnings, along with water systems and walkways.

Other groups who have helped with the efforts include Clackamas County Dump Stoppers (who pick up illegal dump sites), Tread Lightly (who developed markers, graphics, electronic materials and more as part of a social media campaign), the Sandy River Watershed Council, Vive NW, the National Forest Foundation, fifth grade students from the Oregon Trail Academy, Ant Farm, Wilderness Volunteers and more. Meanwhile, as part of the increased emphasis on dispersed recreation, recreation staffing was doubled from 2018 levels for the 2019 season, resulting in more visitor contacts, increased public education and more trash being removed from the forest.

“We’ve seen a lot of successes,” Westbrook said. “We go into camps now and they’re a lot cleaner, folks are moving around more (and) they’re paying more attention to human waste.”

This winter, Westbrook noted that an environmental assessment will be done with an eye to make the closure in the Salmon River area a permanent one, adding that the area is so sensitive that it takes a higher level of management. He also noted that the Forest Service hopes to provide additional restroom facilities at areas with higher use, and he hopes that visitors will take their own initiative and be responsible for their dispersed activities.

By Garth Guibord/MT




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