In his first year as Hood River County Forest Manager, Douglas Thiesies already has a big mess on his hands.
"It was probably a 35-40-year storm in terms of damage to trees … and of course it had to happen my first year on the job," Thiesies said Wednesday to a full room at a monthly Forest Recreation Trails Committee meeting. "While it could have been worse, the storm did hit us pretty significantly, particularly in our areas where we have trails."
Especially hard-hit by the severe January weather were County's forests in the Riordan Hill and Post Canyon areas. Weather patterns created something of a perfect storm of destructive conditions. After heavy snowfall, followed by heavy rain, surface temperatures dropped significantly and rapidly, creating freezing rain conditions that encased snow-covered trees in a thick, heavy layer of ice. Literally tens of thousands of trees lost their tops, snapped completely in half, split up the center or uprooted entirely, taking out nearby trees and branches on their way down.
After evaluating forests by ground and air, Thiesies and his staff estimated that the county will have between 10-12 million board feet of timber harvested because of salvage due to the storm. The county's average harvest is about 9.5 million board feet in a year, which is counted separately from salvage harvests. However, the magnitude of damage in some areas will require large sales and that volume will count against the County's allowable cut.
Salvage operations are already ongoing in the Riordan Hill area, and the county is working on other small and large timber sales between there and Post Canyon Road that will likely get started within the month, depending on the weather.
"These are areas we weren't looking at harvesting for several years, or longer," Thiesies said. "But that's where the storm hit us, and that's where we need to start. In areas that are hardest hit, it often makes the most sense to harvest the whole stand (clear-cut). That's probably what will happen in some areas."
One such area that will likely see clear-cutting is a section by the popular Seven Streams Trail in Post Canyon. The trail, as well as virtually all others in the area and the entire Post Canyon Road, is currently impassible by car or bike and barely negotiable by foot. Literally hundreds of trees and branches crisscross the ground; with the worst patches looking like a game of Pick-up Sticks gone wrong.
"As a tree farm, we have to look at the situation and determine how we can get value out of the timber, and keep the forest stocked with trees" Thiesies said. "Salvage operations are also important for minimizing future damage by bark beetles, which have a high success rate in downed and dead timber. If we just leave everything where it is, it puts our live trees at a greater risk in the future."
While HRCF is taking a pragmatic approach to what areas should be addressed first, trail users -- particularly mountain bikers -- are eager to give input on how efforts could be focused to improve the situation before this year's recreation season. For now, nearly all trails in the widely-popular Northwest Trails Area are both inaccessible and impassable, and will not be usable without significant attention. Meanwhile, and for good reason, HRCF is stressing the importance that people stay out of the area and not attempt to clear roads or trails on their own.
"We realize there will be a lot of pressure to get out there as soon as we can and get trails cleared," Thiesies said. "What we're going to do is continue to meet with our trail adopters and determine what areas we can make an impact on the quickest. If we're going to get the most use out of our trails this year we're going to have to focus on areas that we can get the most done with the resources we have."
On a positive note, HRCF and a large group of trail builders and stewards have been working together for several years on an organized system of building and maintaining the network of trails in the area hardest hit by the storms. When the time comes for trail rehab to get started, there's a small army of dedicated builders and bikers ready for the task.
"I'd say we have about a 250 people on our list, ready to go when the county says we can," said Mike Estes, board member for Hood River Area Trail Stewards. HRATS is a newly-formed nonprofit that will focus on taking care of local trails that already exist, building new ones and working to expand mountain biking access where appropriate. "It's going to take a lot of work to get things back to normal, but we're eager to get started as soon as we are allowed."
Estes said HRAT has already cleaned and cleared the Family Man area off of Riordan Hill Road, so it's ready to ride as soon as logging operations in the area are completed. Other areas are going to require a lot of heavy-duty clearing before they can be opened, and some will probably remain closed for good.
"The lower Seven Streams Trail (also called 12 Bridges) is probably done for good," Estes said. "The landowner hasn't wanted people on that trail for years, and now that it's in the shape it is, it probably won't get cleared out. People will have to head up Post Canyon Road and access the trail farther up the road where the Seven Streams kiosk is."
A first HRATS-organized event is tentatively scheduled for March 17 at the family Man skills area on Riordan Hill Road. The event will feature friendly pumptrack racing starting at 11 a.m., followed by 5 p.m. gathering at the new Dirty Fingers bike shop location at 1235 State Street. If logging operations are not finished in the area, the event may be postponed. For updates and HRATS info, visit the group's Facebook page.