Friends of the Forest: The Restoration of the Columbia River Gorge

By Audrey Gingras

On September 2, 2017, the massive Eagle Creek fire started, burning “more than 48,000 acres in the scenic Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood National Forest” along with “121 miles of national forest trails” (Cowley). It all started when one teenager hurled fireworks into a canyon near one of Oregon’s most breathtaking hiking trails during a burn ban, sparking the wildfire that raged through the Columbia River Gorge for months before containment; areas still smoldered into May of 2018 (Eltagouri).

The gorge holds federally protected status as a National Scenic Area called the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area (Friends of the Columbia River Gorge). Cascade Locks, the heart of the gorge, is just 2.5 miles east from where it all began. The Eagle Creek fire swept through miles of the town’s trails and business took an estimated hit of two to three million dollars in lost revenue (Ryan). Even now, over a year later, many trails are still deemed unsafe due to the fire and are closed until further notice. As a popular recreational destination, the gorge suffered effects beyond the local community, devastating avid hikers and nature enthusiasts. Fortunately, the Cascade Locks Loop, a favorite trail in the Pacific NW that sustained burning, was recently reopened.

I began the hike at the Cascade Locks Trailhead, a small lot marked by a large forest green sign with bold white lettering. The trailhead sits along the Columbia River, just before the majestic Bridge of the Gods. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a National Scenic Trail and spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada (Pacific Crest Trail Association). This hike includes what is said to be the most urban section of the entire PCT (Trailkeepers of Oregon). To get to the trail I walked a short distance only a few feet away from Interstate 84, the rushing traffic contrasting with the stillness of the towering trees. After crossing under the freeway, I approached a simply constructed gateway made of tree limbs that marked the PCT Winter Trailhead. I noticed the hum of traffic had faded into the distance, gradually replaced by chattering birds. From the trailhead I stood at, the PCT leads to Dry Creek Falls, Benson Plateau, and eventually Mexico (U.S. Forest Service Department of Agriculture 1).

The PCT Winter Trailhead is right in the middle of a small residential area. The Cascade Locks trail was significantly affected by the Eagle Creek fire, including areas only yards away from several homes. In an interview with OPB about the Eagle Creek fire, Kent Kalsch with

the Oregon Department of Transportation said that many “people spent a lot of restless nights wondering if they would have a home to go back to” (Guevarra, “Juvenile Pleads Guilty To Starting Eagle Creek Fire”). How terrifying it must have been for people living near the Cascade Locks trail to watch the forest burn right outside their window. Although 5,000 homes and buildings were threatened during the Eagle Creek fire, fortunately only one primary home and three secondary homes were burned (Ryan).

Passing by those homes near the trailhead, I entered the gateway and continued on to the forest trail. Right away my eyes were drawn to the blackened tree bases, the shadows of flames that had once swept the area. A common species of pine trees found across the west coast have thick, heat-resistant bark to protect the living tissues inside from rising temperatures (Asher). Some of the old pines along the trail still stood strong, while others had burned all the way to the root and toppled over. Several areas had sustained quite some damage, but parts of the trail showed no sign of the fire at all, only breathtaking scenery, offering the “deep forest” feel filled with the towering trees and rocky crags it’s known for (Trailkeepers of Oregon). During the Eagle Creek fire, 55% of the area inside the fire perimeter wasn’t burned or sustained low burn intensity, 30% had moderate burn intensity, and 15% had high burn intensity (Ryan). Even in areas of higher burn intensity, a lot of the canopy was still intact. I noticed new growth all around, little green sprouts making their way over burned, fallen trees, and covering the forest floor. White lichen striped the charred trunks of trees, like bandages over a healing wound. Although fires can be vital in preventing forest-floor vegetation build up, only if the fire is smaller and relatively cool burning will the crowns of the larger trees be unharmed, allowing the forest to survive (Asher).

I met Susan McDonnell, a volunteer crew leader with Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), at Elephants Deli in downtown Portland. I had no idea what she looked like so when I arrived I found a table and waited, staring at the door, hoping I’d somehow recognize her when she walked in. After a few minutes, I turned around and saw a woman enter from the back entrance, with searching blue eyes and windswept hair. We made eye contact and she approached me, “Are you Audrey?” she asked over the din of the deli. As a crew leader, McDonnell leads volunteer groups in restoration projects on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and trails in the gorge. She was inspired to get involved with PCTA since she loves to hike, and after her best friend and hiking partner moved, she joined the organization to help herself get out into nature more, and fell in love with trail work. “It’s addicting!” she added, “The PCT, I’ve been doing that since 2013.”

In terms of her favorite part of her job, McDonnell finds trail work extremely rewarding. “You come away with a feeling of accomplishment; you can see what you’ve done. In

terms of leading crews,” she paused, “I actually prefer just to be a member of a crew, but they

needed help when the Eagle Creek fire happened,” she admitted and explained that, after

the fires, there were so many people that wanted to help, but not enough people to lead the trail work.  

“I’m a crew leader because the promise I made to myself was that whatever it is that needs to be done to help,” she continued, “I’m going to do that thing, and that was what they needed.”

McDonnell expressed that following the news about the burning was really hard for her. “I was watching the maps and looking at where the fire’s going and I could picture that trail in my head,” she said. Before her first time doing trail work since the burning, McDonnell expected to be horrified by the damage. “It felt like those were the bodies of my friends floating in onto my windowsills you know because I love that place,” she recounted, looking out the window with sorrowful eyes. Just as I had observed on the Cascade Loop trail, McDonnell also noticed the burn area varied. In some places, there was no green at all, and in others, McDonnell described the trail in wonder as “a ribbon of green” weaving through the black of the burn. “None of us know why the trail was green but it was like, that’s the only place there was anything sprouting up,” she said.

After a few of the safer trails affected by the fire were opened for reconstruction, PCTA sent crews out to rebuild. The first thing McDonnell did with her crewmembers was clear a workable path. “Our goal was not to make it pretty, not to bring it up to spec, not to make it nice but to clear it sufficiently so that search and rescue could get through because people will go,” she emphasized, “and search and rescue needs to be able to get in there safely.” In 2017, 14 deaths were reported due to wildfires (National Interagency Fire Center). Fortunately there were no deaths or serious injuries in the Eagle Creek fire; however, McDonnell said that search and rescue did have to find people who went in and got lost.

When there is damage done to the trails or to the gorge in general, Oregon State Park’s (OSP) first step is public safety. When the Eagle Creek fire happened, hundreds of people were evacuated all over the gorge (Ryan). Park manager Clay Courtright’s campground was in the same situation, and he had his unit immediately clear out the area. “The first piece really is public safety with any type of emergency, whether it’s flooding or fire… [OSP takes] public safety pretty seriously,” he said earnestly. Right away Courtright’s team “got people out of the area, closed trailheads, barricaded all the trails of parking lots.” However, responders continued to be placed at great risk rescuing hikers who ignored barricades and signage in burn-affected areas still at risk of landslides, rockfall and falling trees (Guevarra, “First Responders Say Hikers Continue To Disregard Hazards After Eagle Creek Fire”).

Clay Courtright is a park manager with OSP in the West Columbia River Gorge. The unit he works with oversees 22 parks and he manages up to 40 staff members during the summer season, making sure they have everything they need to do their jobs. I was unable to meet Clay in person, but I called his office and talked to him over the phone. He was inspired to become a park ranger and eventually and park manager by his love of the outdoors. He told me that just “seeing people sitting around the campfire enjoying the hot dogs… smelling those smells, being out in nature… going on a kayak trip, that by far is was inspired me.” Courtright has now worked with OSP for 22 years.

In terms of his favorite part of his job, Courtright enjoys the diversity of what

he gets to do, as well as being in the “memory making business.” Being in the recreation field,

he works where “people come to recreate themselves or memories. They step away

from the busy, fast-paced world of today and they’ll go walk a trail, go look at the

wildflowers, go watch birds… and kind of try to slow down and connect with nature,” he continued.

However, managing all the Oregon park visitors can be overwhelming, as the unit Courtright works with alone receives 4 million each year. The hardest part of his job is “just meeting the demands,” he said. Making sure restrooms are clean, water is drinkable… the trails are in good shape,” he continued, “so just making sure that the public stewardship piece is being taken care of so that when folks come to parks, the can have a good time.”

As for how OSP plans to recover from the damage done by the Eagle Creek fire, Courtright is grateful to have a biologist and arborist on his team to keep an eye on the new growth, although he modestly mentioned he has “a little bit of that in [his] background” as well. Their jobs are to look at “early detection, rapid response for integrated pest management,” he explained, “making sure weeds aren’t coming in, assessing native regeneration to make sure plants are coming into the area as they should be.”

The short term plan is “more observing, and making sure the succession of the forest is occurring properly,” Courtright explained. OSP wants to see “what comes in naturally, because you want the local plants to come in naturally as best as possible, and that’s occurring,” he continued, “If it wasn’t occurring, then we’d have to do some more replanting and augment that.” There are other dangers and worries now in the gorge, especially due to the lack of green on the ground and the excess of blackened remains of trees. A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team evaluated risks to life, property, and critical natural and cultural resources resulting from the impact of the Eagle Creek fire. Specific concerns include falling trees, landslides, rockfall, and debris flow, which can be triggered by heavy rainfall or freeze/thaw cycles (US Forest Service). Similar to BAER, State Parks is concerned with falling debris, and their long term plan in the next 3-10 years is “keeping a close eye on the root masses because they’re going to start to decompose, and then come down the hill because in the gorge there is so much slope,” Courtright rationalized. “That along with freeze-thaw, until the new vegetation and the plants gets established,” he added.

Courtright’s unit manages over 30 miles of trails. However, he expresses that it’s sometimes confusing determining jurisdiction in the gorge.  “The upper elevations are US Forest Service, then Parks is in the middle and then the roadways and parking areas a lot of times are owned by Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT),” he explained. During the fire, ODOT had to close 6 miles of the Historic Columbia River Highway for 11 weeks (Ryan).  Every department has its role to play in an event like the Eagle Creek fire and Courtright voices that OSP wants “to be a good partner in that,” but “the basic maintenance is one thing, having to do whole reroutes of trails and repairs and all that is tricky,” and that’s where PCTA comes in.

Each year, dedicated PCTA volunteers and staff flock to the woods with shovels and spirit to rebuild washed-out bridges, cutaway fallen trees, and restore eroded portions of the trail. They recruit young and old by the hundreds to give time and energy to fix what needs repair from Mexico to Canada (Pacific Crest Trail Association). Courtright recommends that “If you’re interested in checking to see how plants are growing back in, or if we end up doing replantings in certain areas… [or] teaching folks about proper use of trails and responsible recreation you can reach out to Friends of the Columbia River Gorge… and if you want to be involved with repairing trails you would call Trailkeepers of Oregon.” Similar to Trailkeepers of Oregon, PCTA works to protect, preserve and promote trails in Oregon, particularly the PCT. The trail work opportunities they offer allow volunteers to deeply connect to the trail, the land, and one another in a unique and lasting way (Pacific Crest Trail Association).

Along with updates on plant growth after the Eagle Creek fire, the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge website also provides current trail closures, along with a list of trails and recreation areas in and around the Gorge unaffected by the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, or that have been restored and are open for exploring. Almost all of the trails affected by the fire are open; however, due to rockfall, most of the the Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls Loop trail system is closed indefinitely. From the Multnomah Falls trailhead, the trail remains open until Benson Bridge. From the Wahkeena Falls trailhead, the trail is open for 1.5 miles and is closed at the intersection with the Devil’s Rest trail (Friends of the Columbia River Gorge).

As I walked along the Cascade Locks Loop, I came to appreciate the exhausting, physical labor of annual trail maintenance and restoration. I felt the passion for nature that drives the volunteers and corps crew members hard work. I now noticed the tree trunks of fallen trees half my size in diameter, hand sawed with crosscuts and rolled out of the trails way; the boulders carefully dug out from the hillside, providing structure for the rocky trail that supported me; the bridge constructed on site, so that I could witness the beauty of Dry Creek Falls, cascading over a mossy basalt wall. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness, for a breathtaking view of the Bridge of the Gods through the trees, all while traveling on the safety of the trail.

 

Works Cited

Asher, Claire. “Earth – Why We Should Let Raging Wildfires Burn.” BBC, BBC, 25 July 2016,

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160722-why-we-should-let-raging-wildfires-burn.

Cowley, Jared. “One Year Later: An Eagle Creek Fire Timeline.” KGW 8, KGW-TV, 2 Sept.

2018, http://www.kgw.com/article/weather/wildfires/one-year-later-an-eagle-creek-fire-timeline/283-590297111.

Courtright, Clay. Personal interview. 5 Mar. 2019.

Eltagouri, Marwa. “Teen Who Started Massive Oregon Wildfire with Fireworks Must Pay $36

Million, Judge Rules.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 May 2018,

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/05/21/teen-who-started-massive-oregon-wildfire-with-fireworks-must-pay-36-million-judge-rules/?utm_term=.f89dfc49c0d7.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “Friends of the Columbia Gorge.” Trail Alerts | Friends of the

Columbia Gorge, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, gorgefriends.org/hike-the-gorge/trail-alerts.html.

Guevarra, Ericka. “First Responders Say Hikers Continue To Disregard Hazards After

Eagle Creek Fire.” Oregon Public Broadcasting, Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television, 17 Mar. 2018, http://www.opb.org/news/article/hazard-trail-oregon-columbia-gorge-eagle-creek-fire/.

Guevarra, Ericka. “Juvenile Pleads Guilty To Starting Eagle Creek Fire.” Oregon Public

Broadcasting, Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television, 1 Mar. 2018, http://www.opb.org/news/series/wildfires/eagle-creek-fire-juvenile-court-charge/.

McDonnell, Susan. Personal Interview. 18 Feb. 2019.

National Interagency Fire Center. “Wildland Fire Fatalities by Year.” National Interagency Fire

Center.

Pacific Crest Trail Association. “Pacific Crest Trail Association.” PCTA Mount Hood

Chapter, mthood.pcta.org/.

Ryan, Jim. “By the Numbers: A Look Back at the Eagle Creek Fire, 3 Months Later.”

OregonLive.com, OregonLive.com, 8 Dec. 2017,

http://www.oregonlive.com/wildfires/2017/12/by_the_numbers_a_look_back_at.html.

Trailkeepers of Oregon. “Cascade Locks West Loop Hike.” Cascade Locks West Loop Hike –

Hiking in Portland, Oregon and Washington, Trailkeepers of Oregon, http://www.oregonhikers.org/field_guide/Cascade_Locks_West_Loop_Hike.

US Forest Service. “Eagle Creek Fire.” InciWeb – Incident Information System, US Forest

Service, inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5584/.

U.S. Forest Service Department of Agriculture. Pacific Crest Trail. Pacific Crest Trail, U.S.

Forest Service Department of Agriculture.

 

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