Sunday, July 19, 2015

Debris Flows and Turbidity Inundate the Klamath River.

North Fork of the Salmon River on July 6, 2015 following severe thunderstorms. The turbidity and sedimentation from this event turned 230 miles of the Klamath River brown and turbid, from Beaver Creek to the mouth of the River near Klamath Glen. (Photo: Scott Harding)

           The fires on the Klamath River in 2014 burned on a vast scale across over 200,000 acres in the Klamath, Scott, and Salmon River watersheds. The fires burned in a mixed severity fire mosaic, including many acres of low severity understory fire and some large high severity burn patches. Most of these high severity patches burned during extreme weather conditions, including high winds and temperatures. At other times fires burned intensely when inversion layers lifted and created unstable atmospheric conditions. These high severity burn patches include areas of nearly complete tree mortality, where soils were, at times, scorched, causing them to become hydrophobic. Hydrophobic soils absorb water very poorly and tend to produce large volumes of runoff. 
            On July 5, 2015 the Klamath River area received intense thunderstorms, including heavy downpours, some of which were reported to have produced over 1.5” of rain in less than a half hour. On numerous afternoons the rain came down on these fragile post-fire landscapes, producing extreme sedimentation in fire-effected watersheds and turning the Klamath River itself turbid, dark and silty-brown, from Beaver Creek to the mouth of the Klamath River. This turbidity has impacted 230 miles of the Klamath River watershed. Tributary streams affected by sedimentation include Beaver Creek, Walker Creek, Grider Creek, and Elk Creek. 
           Tributaries affected by the Whites Fire of 2014—including South Russian Creek, Music Creek, and Whites Gulch—also filled the Salmon River with sediment from the upper North Fork to the mouth near Somes Bar, California. It is feared that the impacts to the spring-run Chinook salmon currently in the Salmon River will be severe. The sedimentation and debris flows pouring into some of these streams filled in a large number of pools that are very important as refugia for endangered salmon and steelhead species. Numerous of these streams are important habitat for anadromous fish because they pour cold, high quality water into the Klamath River, and many of these streams themselves also provide cold water habitat, deep pools and important spawning gravels. These gravels and pools have been filled in with fine sediment, reducing available habitat to our local salmon species. The impact has been severe, and unfortunately, could only get worse if the Klamath National Forest proceeds with the enormous post-fire logging project known as the Westside Fire Recovery Project. 

Before and after photos on the North Fork of the Salmon River (Photos: Scott Harding)

            Many of the watersheds affected by this turbidity event have one thing in common: unstable and highly erosive granitic soils. I believe this is one of the most important factors contributing to the turbidity and sedimentation. The events we have watched unfold were the perfect storm. A combination of high severity burn patches, highly erosive granitic soils, steep topography, sudden torrential downpours, and the historic impact of industrialization in our forests, including fire suppression, road building and logging. All things are connected, and likely many things contributed to the watershed impacts we are seeing, most notably high severity fire, erosive granitic soils, and unusually severe rain events.
            Unfortunately, these same fragile, granitic watersheds have been targeted for large-scale industrial logging in the Westside Fire Recovery Project. Many areas that recently experienced severe erosion, and watersheds that were seriously impacted by turbidity and sedimentation, are also proposed for clear-cut, post-fire logging, large scale road reconstruction, and other impacts associated with heavy industrial logging. Walker Creek and Grider Creek are proposed for the largest concentration of salvage logging units in the Westside Project. 

Grider Creek on July 9, 2015. Notice the heavy sedimentation piling up along the banks of the stream. Deep pools and spawning gravels have been filled with decomposed granite that washed down during the heavy rain events on July 5, 2015. Grider Creek is being targeted for large-scale, post-fire logging on very steep, erosive slopes. (Photo: Mark Moytka)

            One thing is for certain: to implement one of the region’s largest industrial-logging projects in recent history in the wake of this turbidity event and in the wake of these large fires is irresponsible. The Westside Project should be canceled and real watershed recovery projects proposed that would sustain our natural legacy into the future. The Klamath River salmon are simply too important to lose. 
        This summer turbidity event should be seen as a game-changer for the Westside Project; the situation has taken a drastic turn and a new analysis should be done to take this turbidity event into account. 
            Please contact the Klamath National Forest and tell them that the environmental baseline from which they did their analysis has changed, new information and new environmental conditions exist that should make the current Environmental Impact Statement for the Westside Fire Recovery Project null and void. Likewise, given what we have seen already, the potential for water quality and fisheries impacts associated with the Westside Project are too high. The project must be canceled!

Walker Creek has been filled with sediment, cobbles, and woody debris from debris flows. The area is also being targeted with the largest concentration of post-fire logging units in the Westside Project. The logging proposed is likely to increase sedimentation and erosion in the watershed, impacting riparian values and salmon fisheries in Walker Creek and downstream in the Klamath River. Post-fire logging in these sensitive watersheds is irresponsible and should be canceled. (Photo: Mark Mytoka)

            Contact the North Coast Water Control Board and ask them not to approve a water quality waiver for the Westside Fire Recovery Project. The stakes are simply too high.
            Contact the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or NOAA Fisheries) and let them know that the fisheries of the Klamath River are too precious to lose and that the Westside Project will put the future of the Klamath River salmon in jeopardy.

Listen to an excellent radio interview about the issue with Scott Harding of the Salmon River Restoration Council. 

Stop the Westside Fire Recovery Project!
Contacts for the appropriate officials are posted below.   

  • NMFS: 
  • North West Water Control Board:
  • Klamath National Forest Supervisor:

Thursday, July 9, 2015

OHV Impacts in the Dakubetede Roadless Area

The Dakubetede Roadless Area from upper Birch Creek.

The Dakubetede Roadless Area is located in the Little Applegate River watershed on the south-facing slopes of Anderson Butte and the surrounding ridgelines. Local environmentalists have long fought to keep this relatively intact piece of the Applegate Valley foothills wild, unroaded, and mostly undisturbed. In acknowledgement of the area's unique and important wildland values, the BLM has recently identified 5,099 acres of land within the Dakubetede Roadless Area as "land with wilderness characteristics" (LWC).

Located in the rain shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains' highest summits, and at the eastern-most portion of the range, the area is the driest watershed in Western Oregon. The watershed contains a diverse and unique mixture of Pacific Northwest forest species and high desert species, as well as California oak woodland and chaparral associates. The largest population of western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) in the Siskiyou Mountains clings to the ridgetops here, growing in harsh, sunbaked grasslands and on rock outcrops. The area also supports a disjunct population of water birch (Betula occidentalis), as well as a robust population of the rare Gentner's fritillaria (Fritillaria gentneri), a red lily endemic to the valleys and foothills of Southwest Oregon and protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Disjunct populations of western juniper and rabbitbrush on the southern face of Anderson Butte. The shallow soils, heavy exposure, and aridity of the area provides habitat niches for species more characteristic of Eastern Oregon's high desert country. Much of this isolated and unique plant community is currently being impacted by OHV use.

A local hiking club called the Siskiyou Uplands Trail Association has begun renovating, maintaining, and recreating historic hiking trails in the region, including the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, Wolf Gap Trail, Tunnel Ridge Trail, Bear Gulch Trail, and the Little Applegate Trail. The group has also proposed a long distance hiking trail called the Jack-Ash Trail that would link Jacksonville and Ashland, Oregon. The central portion of this proposed non-motorized trail system would be Anderson Butte and the high ridges above the Dakubetede Roadless Area. 

Non-motorized trail use in the region is clearly increasing with trailheads on Little Applegate Road and Deming Gulch Road heavily utilized by hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. In fact, the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail has recently been declared an Oregon State Scenic Trail due to its scenic beauty and popularity. The proposed Jack-Ash Trail would only provide more non-motorized options for trail-hungry hikers, and offer loops tying together the Jack-Ash Trail and the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail.

A log landing turned into a dumping, shooting, and OHV staging area.
It would appear that all is well in the Dakubetede Roadless Area and the Anderson Butte region. Community groups are stewarding this landscape, activists are fighting for its preservation, and the BLM is slowly acknowledging the area's important wildland character. Yet, other, less responsible forest users are doing substantial damage to the area's important resources; they are building user created OHV trails, hill climbs, and camps littered in garbage, shotgun shells, shattered clay pigeons, and beer cans. Loud explosions ring out across the Little Applegate River canyon as local yahoos explode tannerite, blowing apart old appliances, garbage, trees, stumps, and other natural features. Click here for an explanation of tannerite by Wikipedia. The desecration of Anderson Butte has become so routine that many in the BLM and local Applegate Valley community seem to throw their hands up and declare: "What can we do?"

What we can do is document the impacts, advocate for the responsible management of recreational activities, advocate for the closure of damaging OHV routes and work to protect this wild, diverse landscape with permanent protection. These are the goals of the Applegate Valley OHV Monitoring Project.

Numerous unauthorized, user-created OHV trails have penetrated the steep slopes and wild ridgelines of the Dakubetede Roadless Area, including the Goat Cabin Ridge Route, the Little Applegate Divide and a number of particularly egregious hill climbs on the steep and grassy slopes below Anderson Butte.

OHV damage on Goat Cabin Ridge, where deep ruts and compaction are channelizing run-off and badly eroding the heavy clay soils.

Goat Cabin Ridge
The worst damage is being sustained on Goat Cabin Ridge, a long exposed ridgeline dividing Rush Creek from Birch Creek. The ridge heads south towards the Little Applegate River canyon through the arid, grassy slopes of the Dakubetede Roadless Area and LWC. The Goat Cabin Ridge Route begins by trespassing on private residential land at the southeastern edge of the Dakubtede Roadless Area. The route is extremely erosive and incised with multiple ruts extending from 12" to 30" deep. The trail is 7' wide and cut into thickets of buckbrush. A large portion of the trail climbs up sustained grades of over 20% for the first mile.

The trail climbs into a large, grassy bowl at the upper end of a roadless watershed. Here, OHV users have developed exceptionally steep hill climbs. The hill climbs have cut deep and incised tracks straight into the headwall of the gulch and across the small ephemeral stream channel. Climbing out of the grassy bowl the trail is braided and very wide as it reaches the ridgeline. 

The track reaches a long and gentle ridgeline dropping from between Anderson Butte and Section Line Gap. The single track trail reaches a trashed-out campsite cluttered with shotgun shells, beer cans, old mattresses and fire rings filled with broken glass. Numerous large, old trees have been shot full of bullet holes, damaging the cambium layer and partially girdling the trees. A large, old juniper has also been cut down adjacent to one camp. The trash, which mars the area's beauty, would not be present without this OHV use; it is certainly associated with OHV use, especially those items that are too heavy or awkward for non-motorized users to have carried in. 

The impact of OHV use to the wilderness landscape on Goat Cabin Ridge.

The trail, now a 4X4 track, is doing significant damage to this highly scenic ridgeline. The route climbs the ridge, then heads up a very steep incline creating an erosive, braided, trail between 12' and 20' wide.  It is very unlikely that this route, originally a user-created trail, satisfies BLM road safety standards and should be officially closed to motorized traffic for reasons of public safety, liability, and extreme resource damage. 

An aggressive approach to road closure, enforcement, and monitoring will be needed to sustain an OHV closure in the area. It is also likely that significant physical barriers will be required to eliminate OHV use on Goat Cabin Ridge, yet the extreme impacts of this route justify such a intensive approach. Judging from the popularity of nearby hiking trails, many in the area believe the complex ecology and scenic beauty of the Dakubetede Roadless Area is worth the effort and investment. It is now time for the BLM to get on board and get serious about eliminating the significant and unnecessary impact of OHV use in the area.  

Applegate sedum (Sedum oblanceolatum)
The Little Applegate Divide The longest contiguous, unauthorized, user-created trail impacting the Dakubetede Roadless Area and LWC follows the Little Applegate Divide for roughly 7 miles. The route begins near the roadless area's western boundary and extends to Section Line Gap on a series of open roads, decommissioned roadbeds, and user-created trails. The route includes many steep and erosive sections, with deep and incised tread and wide, braided trail. Some sections of the trail traverse the largest stand of western juniper in the Siskiyou Mountains, disturbing the unique plant communities in these disjunct juniper groves. Other sections travel through late-seral (older) forest, grassy prairie, mountain mahogany groves, oak woodlands, and scrubby thickets of buckbrush or manzanita. Sensitive species such as the endemic Applegate sedum are being directly impacted; as trails widen and affect little rock outcrops high on the ridgeline, OHVs crush mature Applegate sedum plants. 
Unauthorized, user-created trail near Wolf Gap. This section of trail leads up slopes over 30% grade and is creating severe rill and gully erosion that will be very difficult in the future to stabilize. Continued use of this trail will create lasting impacts. 

Numerous locations show the signs of crosscountry OHV use and appear to be the beginning of new user-created trails that will further encroach upon the Dakubetede Roadless Area and LWC, impacting the area's wilderness characteristics, ecological values, and scenic qualities. User-created spur trails also extend up the decommissioned road and ridgeline accessing the summit of Anderson Butte, impacting rock gardens and juniper balds near the summit area.  

The trail climbs through some of the region's most intact and unique plant communities and should be close to motorized use to protect botanical values, wilderness characteristics, and relatively undisturbed wildlife habitat. Closure of the Little Applegate Divide OHV Trail would also reduce erosion, hydrological impacts, noxious weed spread and vegetation loss due to inappropriate and irresponsible OHV use.

Local Hillclimbs
Hill climb in the Dakubetede Roadless Area
Other significant OHV impacts in the area include very steep hill climbs on the area's open and grassy slopes. Numerous hillclimbs are found in the area, including trails on over 30% grade that cross intermittent stream channels and channelize run-off into headwater streams, increasing peak flows and erosion. The area is very susceptible to the proliferation of user-created trails due to the open nature of the terrain.

 One specific hillclimb drops down steep and erosive slopes to a population of heartleaf milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia), a host plant for the monarch butterfly. Monarch populations have crashed in recent years due in part to habitat loss and declines in milkweed populations. The precipitous drop in monarch populations has made the butterfly a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Milkweed is the only food source for monarch caterpillars and is essential for the butterfly's complex lifecycle. Heartleaf milkweed is the main native milkweed found in the mountains and foothills of Southwest Oregon, providing a crucial link between the monarch's mountain/foothill habitat to the valley bottoms where the more common showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) grow in abundance.
Heartleaf Mlikweed (Asclepias cordifolia)

Local heartleaf milkweed populations are widely distributed and often very small in size. Many of its native habitats have been overrun by noxious weeds and non-native grasses. The plant appears to be uncommon throughout Southwest Oregon, colonizing scattered rock outcrops and open, south-facing slopes.

The population of heartleaf milkweed scattered across the Dakubetede Roadless Area appears to be one of the region's largest; however, most of the population is widely dispersed and the population size is still relatively small, consisting of a few scattered plants here and a few scattered plants there. Large colonies of heartleaf milkweed are present in the Dakubetede Roadless Area, but rare. Very little reproduction can be found and most of the population appears to be old, established plants. It is very likely that plants trampled and/or crushed by OHV use will be killed, especially in high use areas. 

Recently, while following one particularly egregious OHV hill climb, I found a population of numerous mature heartleaf milkweed plants. One plant is being directly impacted by the hill climb and is being physically damaged by OHV use. Another plant, not more than three feet from the active hill climb, was being utilized by nine monarch caterpillars, wildlife that cannot disperse away from the disturbance or find nearby habitat. These nine healthy caterpillars are living precariously on the edge, three feet from sure death with no way to escape. Active use of the hill climb could very easily crush and kill the defenseless caterpillars who cannot leave their host plant and are not able to flee from oncoming danger. 

These are the real and sometimes subtle impacts of OHV use. Although less evident on the landscape then the raw, tire churned earth and erosive, incised tire tracks of many OHV routes. The more subtle impacts include the loss of native vegetation and the disruption of native plant communities, the spread of noxious weeds, the destruction of habitat for important native pollinators, and the potential for the localized extirpation of species.
This beautiful monarch caterpillar happily munching on heart-leaf milkweed was surviving with many others within 3' of an OHV hill climb. The hill climb should be closed to protect habitat for the heartleaf milkweed and the monarch butterflies that depend upon the species. The monarch butterfly has suffered huge populations crashes in recent years and is currently proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. One OHV rider could kill this entire population of monarch caterpillars by simply driving 3' beyond the existing trail.
What you can do
Currently the BLM has proposed three Recreational Management Areas (RMA) in the Dakubetede Roadless Area and LWC in the Western Oregon Resource Management Plan. The Sterling Ditch Trail would be managed for non-motorized use while the Anderson-Little Applegate RMA and Anderson Additions RMA would be designated for non-motorized and motorized use. 

The user-created OHV routes described above are all within the Anderson Additions RMA. Many local residents, hikers, and environmentalists are concerned that the BLM will "grandfather-in" many of these unauthorized, user-created trails, as they have in the past. Environmental Analysis and public comment can be conducted up to five years following approval of a new resource management plan. In past OHV analysis, the Medford District BLM has identified user-created trails as "existing trails," with use respected despite their unauthorized creation and often extreme environmental impacts. Many recreational visitors to the Dakubetede region value the area for its wilderness characteristics, botanical diversity, and quiet, peaceful scenery. The Dakubetede Roadless Area and the Anderson Additions RMA lie at the center of a region now well known for its highly scenic and enjoyable non-motorized recreational experience. The designation of OHV trails within these areas will create significant user conflict and impact the developing non-motorized recreational opportunities the area provides. The Anderson Addition RMA should be joined with the Sterling Ditch and Anderson-Little Applegate RMA, creating a large, non-motorized RMA that will sustain the area's important biological and social values. All unauthorized, user-created OHV trails in the area should be closed to motorized use, rehabilitated and monitored for trespass.

Please contact the following BLM officials and consider commenting on the Western Oregon Resource Management Plan before OHV use is codified and encouraged through the designation of RMAs, with allowances for motorized trail use. Let the agency know you would like to see the Dakubetede Roadless Area and LWC closed to all forms of motorized use. Tell them to combine  the Anderson Additions, Sterling Ditch and Anderson-Little Applegate RMAs into one large, non-motorized recreation area. This will protect the viewshed, solitude, and wilderness experience of the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, the proposed Jack-Ash Trail and the Dakubetede Roadless Area. 

Email comments for the RMP:

Local BLM officials:
Dayne Barron, District Manager

John Gerritsma, Field Manager

Jerome Perez, State Director