Earlier this month, the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club joined with Bark, Friends of Mt. Hood, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center in challenging a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to allow the development of a high-impact lift-assisted mountain bike park that we believe would harm fragile alpine habitat near Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood (read the complaint here). As Oregon Chapter director Brian Pasko noted in an e-mail to Kenji Sugahara of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, the Sierra Club did not approach this litigation lightly. Our involvement in this lawsuit also should not suggest to anyone that we oppose increasing the level of mountain bike recreation opportunities on Mt. Hood.
Rather, we think this lawsuit will help to promote ecologically-responsible recreation for everyone on Mt. Hood, including bikers but also hikers, bird-watchers, and others. This particular proposal is simply not appropriately located and the environmental costs cannot justify the recreational benefits in this specific spot. Some places might be suitable for such a mountain bike park (indeed, we have chosen not to oppose a similar proposal at Mt. Bachelor in central Oregon because its location better befits this type of bike park), but we do not believe this area is appropriate.
High-impact mountain biking trails in this location have the great potential to harm fragile alpine meadows, streams, and other unique habitat for salmon, elk, and other wildlife. The construction and use of 17 miles of bike trails would have real impacts on the landscape and the aquatic system. As the Sandy Basin Watershed Council noted in its assessment of the proposal, the sedimentation from the trails could have major impacts on the critical habitat of salmon in Still Creek and the West Fork Salmon River. The Council also noted the likelihood that the project would disrupt the summer forage range of elk and potentially affect elk calving.
In addition, an expert hydrologist took a thorough and independent scientific look at the impacts of this project and at the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment. In Jonathan J. Rhodes’ analysis, he presented the Forest Service with scientific studies that contradicted the agency’s key assumptions, including the Forest Service’s own studies from its own scientists. Among his key findings:
“The Project will degrade a variety of critical ecosystem components and processes, including habitats for fish listed under the ESA and habitats for aquatic species designated as Sensitive and/or Management Indicator Species (MIS), although it is not adequately disclosed in the EA. The Project would also degrade RR [Riparian Reserves] in Key Watersheds, both of which are cornerstones of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) in the ROD (1994). The Project action would also degrade soils and water quality. The proposed action would cause impacts that are irreversible and irretrievable, including loss of topsoil, soil productivity, and loss of productivity of aquatic habitats. All of these impacts are plainly highly significant to the environment.” (Rhodes Declaration at p. 33)Furthermore, as noted in the complaint, the existing infrastructure associated with Timberline Lodge and Ski Area is already a major and chronic source of sediment delivery to Still Creek and West Fork Salmon River. And the restoration that was supposed to have happened in conjunction with the most recent lift construction – the Jeff Flood Express lift – has either failed to work or was not implemented correctly. So in order to approve the bike trails for the mountain bike park, the Forest Service proposed to finish the previously-required restoration projects as a way to try to cancel out the degradation and disturbance from the new bike trails. The construction of those new trails will result in 12 acres of bare mineral ground and most of the miles of new bike routes will carved into land that is currently in a natural state. So we will just see even more disturbance and degradation on top of the existing chronic condition and the restoration activities that have not been done. The bike routes will also double the number of routes that cross streams in the area, and thereby further increase the chances that sediment will get into the streams.
Beyond our ecological reasons for having concerns about this proposal, another rationale for our entering this action is that the Forest Service has fundamentally failed in its obligation to fully evaluate the potential for additional mountain bike recreational opportunities in the Mt. Hood National Forest. It is more than disheartening that the conservation community and mountain bike advocates are being divided over a debate about this one privately-owned bike park. Wouldn’t it be better if we could engage in a collaborative effort to substantially expand the publicly accessible mountain bike trail system on Mt. Hood?
The Sierra Club firmly believes that the Forest Service should be carrying out a robust analysis and implementing a formal stakeholder process to expand mountain bike opportunities on our national forests. The Club has a longstanding history of collaborating with mountain bikers and we are very interested in working with the mountain bike community to achieve this goal on Mt. Hood. Sierra Club staff will be meeting with representatives from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and the Central Oregon Trail Alliance to discuss these issues and more in the coming weeks and we would welcome the opportunity to have similar conversations with other organizations.
In short, the Oregon Chapter believes strongly that there should be ample mountain biking opportunities on Mt. Hood, but we are also convinced that the Timberline Bike Park is just not the right solution. Timberline has not been able to successfully restore the areas it has already damaged and this new construction would simply add to the area’s degradation. Ultimately, the Forest Service needs to engage the public in a meaningful discussion of how to provide for ecologically responsible recreation on our public land, instead of taking more risks with Mt. Hood.