Mt. Hood’s bloated road system poses serious problems

Mt. Hood and Lost Lake. Photo by ebbn36, Flickr.

Just twenty miles east of the Portland metro area, cold mountain streams run  through lush forest that carpets the lower reaches of Mt. Hood’s snow capped peak and provides habitat for many species including the spotted owl. With about 5 million annual recreational visits, people flock to Mt. Hood National Forest because it offers accessible backcountry getaways for hiking, camping, picnicking, or just clearing one’s mind.

Unfortunately, Mt. Hood National Forest, like many of our nation’s forests, has a massively overbuilt and unsustainable road infrastructure that is impairing the forest’s health. Totaling almost 3,500 miles (which could take a person from Portland to Haiti’s Port-au-Prince!), it comes as no surprise that the Forest Service cannot manage Mt. Hood’s outdated, bloated, and poorly planned road system. Storm-related road and bridge collapses recently rendered several hiking trails, campgrounds, and other popular destinations inaccessible for months. Recent road blowouts have also decimated spawning habitat for threatened fish and even led Portland to temporarily close its drinking water filtration plant due to heavy sedimentation.

The Forest Service has a golden opportunity to restore Mt. Hood National Forest and to alleviate these problems, but the agency is letting it pass them by. The Travel Management Rule of 2005 requires every national forest to address their motorized travel system and bring problematic aspects into compliance with environmental standards. The course chosen by the Forest Service for compliance with the Rule fails to proactively and comprehensively address the forest’s crumbling road system even though the Forest Service’s own research found that nearly half (49%) of forest roads could be closed or decommissioned to mitigate the threat to fish and wildlife habitat and drinking watersheds. In fact, the agency has proposed to construct or designate 64 miles of new routes and designate eight zones of concentrated use for dirtbikes, ATVs and other off-road vehicles in this planning effort when this forest can afford only 12% of its existing road system.

Juvenile Northern Spotted Owl. Photo by Rayma Anne, Flickr.Quiet recreation and conservation groups have partnered urging the Forest Service to restore Mt. Hood National Forest. The U.S. EPA as well as Oregon’s Congressman Blumenauer and Senator Wyden have both delivered letters to the Forest Service expressing concern that the designation of new motorized routes would add to the already significant environmental problems associated with the forest’s current road system. And, in August, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack outlined a vision for the Forest Service that focuses on forest and watershed restoration, specifically noting that decommissioning unneeded roads constitutes a priority strategy for restoring watershed health. Mt. Hood Forest Service will not budge from its current course, however.

Mt. Hood has been plagued by its overbuilt and deteriorating road system for decades. Now is the time to alleviate the risk to Portland’s water supply. Now is the time to improve fish and wildlife habitat and rejuvenate the forest’s ecosystem. Now is the time to restore the backcountry experience sought by hikers, anglers, and other recreationists when visiting this popular forest. Now is the time for the Forest Service to get it right by using the current recreation and travel planning process to restore Mt. Hood National Forest.

Mt. Hood and Lost Lake. Photo by ebbn36, Flickr.
Juvenile Northern Spotted Owl. Photo by Rayma Anne, Flickr.