Agreement reached on controversial Lava Thin

Vista Ridge Trailhead off limits as groups push for more wilderness

After attracting controversy from environmental groups earlier this year, a compromise has been reached that will help move forward a thinning project proposed on Mt. Hood National Forest land west of Parkdale.

In a letter released last month, Janeen Tervo, district ranger for the Hood River Ranger District, announced that the plan for the Lava Restoration Thin, which proposed thinning 1,600 acres of forestland, would no longer include a contentious plan to thin an area near the popular Vista Ridge Trailhead.

“My rationale for this is due to the social concerns about the proximity of this unit to the Vista Ridge Trailhead, the potential interruption to use of the trailhead for forest visitors, and visual concerns from local community members and other concerned citizens,” Tervo explained in the letter.

The U.S. Forest Service has been working on planning the thin for years in an effort to improve forest health as well as stimulate huckleberry production. However, the project caught the eye of groups like Oregon Wild, BARK, and Hood River Valley Residents Committee, who aired concerns over the proposed logging in the vicinity of the trailhead. The proposal also got the attention of State Representative Ann Liniger of Southwest Portland’s 38th District, who asked the Forest Service to reconsider the logging. Tervo said her agency received 1,220 comments on the proposal.

The site at Vista Ridge Trailhead, dubbed Unit 52, which was targeted for thinning to promote huckleberry production, was dropped. To offset the loss, a unit from a different thin, the Red Hill project, was added as a thinning site for huckleberries.

Tervo said the compromise was forged between environmental groups and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, whom she said initially showed “great concern” at the prospect of dropping huckleberry units. Clay Penhollow, natural resources planner with Warm Springs, did not respond to email requests from the News for comment. Tervo said she expected to issue the draft decision early next month.

Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator with Oregon Wild, said logging at the trailhead was “definitely the flashpoint” for his group’s involvement, noting that “for my money, I’m not sure there’s a better trail on Mt. Hood.” Fernandez said there were still some issues with the thin, but felt the compromise was adequate.

“No project is ever perfect, but we think this compromise resolves the biggest concern, by far, we had with this project,” he explained.

“From Oregon Wild’s perspective, there’s got to be a two-way street,” he added. “There’s got to be some restoration thinning, but there has to be protection of the best areas of what we have left.”

Vista Ridge is one of the areas Oregon Wild feels is deserving of protection under the federal Wilderness Act — an expansion of which the group is hoping will pass when the 114th U.S. Congress meets for the first time early next month.

The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 and designed to protect federally-owned lands from development that were of “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Lands designated as wilderness enjoy a variety of protections from development, such as logging and road building. Recreation activities are also highly restricted.

The feds created the Mt. Hood Wilderness by passage of the original act and greatly expanded it in 2009. Oregon Wild is trying to put back in around 20,000 acres that were removed from that proposal, including areas in Hood River County such as Tamanawas Falls, Bluegrass Ridge, and Boulder Lake.

Oregon Wild approached the Hood River County Board of Commissioners in January to ask for a letter of support for the proposal. Commissioners, however, were split on the appropriateness of the proposal, citing concerns such as reduced recreational access, increased fire danger, and whether the areas targeted for protection truly fit the definition of wilderness.

The effort has gained the unlikely support of mountain bikers — unlikely, because bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas. Anna Laxague, who lives in Parkdale and is the Pacific Northwest region director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said her agency “worked with (Oregon Wild) to create a corridor that would leave existing trails out of the proposal,” but protect the land beyond the trails by using a “cherry stem” approach.

“By just moving that back up the hill a little ways, you don’t lose very much wilderness, but you avoid impacting whether or not you’re losing mountain bikes,” Fernandez said.

He acknowledged that getting support from mountain bikers could be a lot easier than getting it from the new Congress, which he believed would be “not particularly wilderness-friendly.” Fernandez added it could be years before the proposal is even voted on, let alone approved.

“Realistically our job is to get the homework done, get it queued up, and get it as far along in Congress as we can,” he said.

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