Sunday, October 17, 2021

Forest Road NF-1509, Larch Mountain

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I need to set the stage for this post a bit, since we're visiting an area that's likely unfamiliar to most people in the Portland area, despite being fairly close to the city and very close to major tourist spots in and around the Columbia Gorge. Larch Mountain, 30 or so miles due east of Portland, is one of these tourist spots: A huge and (hopefully) extinct shield volcano that includes the highest point of the western Gorge (4062'), with a famous view from the top, reachable by Larch Mountain Road whenever the road isn't closed by snow. It gets a lot of snow, and a lot of rain when it isn't snowing, and many of the Gorge's famous waterfalls (Multnomah, Wahkeena, Oneonta, etc.) are on creeks that flow north off the mountain or out of its eroded crater. A raindrop that falls on the north side of Larch Mountain likely ends up on Instagram on its way back to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile creeks that flow south off the mountain flow into the forbidden Bull Run Watershed and become part of the Portland city water supply, so a raindrop that falls there could flow out of somebody's showerhead, drop some minerals on their shower door, and then flow through some pipes to the Willamette, and eventually back to the Pacific that way. Or maybe it'll end up inside a beer bottle and eventually wind up on the far side of the planet, who knows. There's also a third possibile destination: Several large creeks with unfamiliar names -- Gordon Creek, Buck Creek, Trout Creek, and a few others -- flow due west off Larch Mountain toward the Sandy River, and a raindrop that falls somewhere on this western slope will likely get to the Sandy completely unseen by anyone. This watershed area is roughly south of Larch Mountain Road, and north of the Bull Run boundary and the invisible force field barrier that probably keeps eviloers out of our water supply, and also keeps the watershed's resident Sasquatch population from sneaking out for midnight junk food. I mean, as far as I know.

Anyway, the uppermost part of this area, the first couple of miles west of the summit, largely belongs to the Mt. Hood National Forest, but is outside the national scenic area boundary except for the very top of the mountain. West of there it becomes a checkerboard of BLM and private timberland, and then more private timberland mixed with scattered farms and rural homes, and then some undeveloped Metro greenspace along the Sandy River. So there's actually a lot of public land around here, but as far as I can determine exactly one hiking trail in the entire area south of Larch Mountain Road; it's obscure, less than a mile long, and not the thing we're visiting today. What the area does have is a web of little-known and rarely-used forest roads, all gated and closed to motor vehicles, so they function as really wide trails. They don't always go anywhere interesting or offer dramatic scenery along the way, but if you just want to go walk in a forest for a few hours without meeting a single other human being -- or any coronaviruses said human being might be superspreading -- these roads do fit the bill for that.

So with that long prelude out of the way, let's get to the destination for this post. A bit over 8.5 miles from the start of Larch Mtn. Road, you're greeted by a very weatherbeaten sign welcoming you to the Mt. Hood National Forest. On your right, immediately past this sign, is the... trailhead? Intersection? I'm not sure which word applies here, but it's a spot where you can pull off the main road and park, and there's a gate, and a road behind the gate that continues south. If you know where to look, signs tell you this is the Lower Larch Mountain Gate, and the road behind it is Forest Service road NF-1509. (Depending on which map you look at you may see it labeled as 1509-000, with or without the hyphen, which is its full 7-digit road number.) This road is flat, and level, and the first ~2 miles of it are even paved. Which is really unusual if you know anything about Forest Service roads, especially gated ones.

The deal here is that this road doubles as a service road into Bull Run for the Portland Water Bureau, and triples as a service road for the Bonneville Power Administration, which has a major powerline corridor south of here. One of the Forest Service road inventory reports that I've been linking to a lot lately (specifically a huge spreadsheet inside this report) has a semi-cryptic description for this road: "Under SUP w/COPWB for Road Maintenance, OF=BPA Accesses BPA Transmission Towers". I'm reasonably sure COPWB stands for "City of Portland Water Bureau", and the "OF" refers to another column indicating who the primary maintainer or maybe user of the road is. Or something along those lines. I don't know the exact arrangements, but someone who uses the road and is paying for its upkeep thinks the first 2.3 miles ought to be paved, so it is.

I couldn't find a lot of other info about the road besides that official road list. Basically just was a lost dog notice from several years ago, and a 2018 sighting of Anchusa officinalis right at the gate/trailhead. Apparently this is a non-native/invasive plant that's taken up residence here and there around the region, but it's not considered that bad as far as nonnative plants go as it's known for producing lots of nectar for pollinators. So watch out for bees, I guess.

In any case, before you start hiking, you'll want to look around for a blue arc painted on the street in front of the gate. Don't park past it; the gate opens outward, and there's a small but nonzero chance it might need to while you're there. One that's all sorted, the road heads south-southeast from the gate, meandering side to side a bit, crossing several forks and branches of Gordon Creek in the process. These streams rush downhill into deep forested canyons to the west, and you'll catch occasional glimpses through the trees suggesting there'd be a really nice view in that direction if only there wasn't a forest in the way, but at no point does it actually open up and let you see more than that, which is too bad.

At least the near-solitude is nice. I encountered one other person near the start of the trail with two large and very good dogs, and later was passed twice by an official Portland Water Bureau truck. First as he was heading out to the gate and again on his way back back. At first I thought maybe the driver was off shift and going home, then the second time I figured maybe he popped out to grab a late lunch down in Corbett or Springdale, though he must've driven extremely fast once he hit a main road to be back so soon. Or maybe he was going home but forgot his hat or something. Later I figured out (via a recent "Interim Measures Watershed Report") that the water bureau employs a number of "watershed rangers" here, and one of their duties is making the rounds checking the various gates into the area, and generally sort of securing the perimeter.

At one point along the road, just before it meets an old decommissioned side road (no. 1509-041, if you're keeping track at home), a small creek passes under the road in a culvert and then disappears over the edge of a cliff just steps from the road. A little map-based guessing suggests this miiight be the top of a waterfall, possibly up to 70' high, though I've never read anything about one being here. And just below that, it looks like the stream tumbles down a steep slope maybe another 150' to where it joins Gordon Creek, kind of like the stretch of creek below Wahkeena Falls. I'm not a big fan of sheer cliffs and didn't peek over the side of this one, so I'm not positive about any of this, mind you. I tried to check it out from below a couple of weeks later via an old BLM road, but I couldn't find it from there, so either it's not visible from below due to trees, or possibly I was just looking up the wrong creek, as there are several others that join Gordon Creek at around the same spot. At this point I'm about two-thirds convinced there isn't a safe or practical way to settle the question, at least for a risk-averse person like yours truly. This might be a perfect use case for a drone, actually, but I'm still trying to figure out whether drones are legal here, plus I don't actually own any drones.

So after that unsolved mystery, the next point of interest is the spot where the road turns to gravel, right after the four-way intersection with a pair of decommissioned, dead-end roads (1509-180 and 1509-190). As far as I can figure out, those were purely logging roads and they just end after a while without going anywhere interesting, and they're well on the way to being reclaimed by the forest, so exploring them further seems like a lot of effort for very little reward. I don't know why the paving ends where it does, and whether that's connected to the two side roads. I don't have any theories about that, unfortunately.

After a half-mile or so of gravel road, the forest abruptly opens up and you're in the powerline corridor. The buzzing wires overhead belong to the Bonneville Power Administration, and carry power to Portland from various dams along the Columbia as well as the one commercial nuclear plant at Hanford.

This spot is also home to another four-way intersection. You can turn around and go back at this point, which is what I did, but if you wanted to keep going you have a couple of options. To your left, a gravel road heads uphill under the powerlines. This is a continuation of NF-1509, so you can keep going that way if you feel like hiking under powerlines. Eventually it intersects with NF-20, another forest road that runs sort of parallel to NF-1509 but a bit further up the mountain. In fact you can form a loop route this way, heading south on either NF-1509 or NF-20 to the power corridor, connecting to the other road from there, and then heading back to Larch Mt. Rd. that way. The 2010 USFS study that resulted in decommissioning NF-20 and the side roads along 1509 mentioned this route as a known recreational use of the area, but since the area isn't managed for recreation they went ahead and tore up the road anyway. NF-20 is still passable on foot (and I'll finish that post eventually) but going by bike now is going to be a hassle unless maybe you've brought a BMX stunt bike and your advanced half pipe skills, or you're up for a bit of cyclocross. On the other hand, getting from the NF-20 trailhead to the NF-1509 one or vice versa involves a stretch of Larch Mountain Road, which would be fine -- even fun -- by bike, but sketchy if you're trying to walk it.

To your right from the crossroads is road 1509-016, which continues on west under the powerlines to the National Forest boundary and then beyond under various other names. This long stretch of road figures in several variants of the (highly unofficial) Dark Larch cycle route, eventually ending up somewhere vaguely near the eastern side of Oxbow Park. Looking that direction, in the distance I could see the same Water Bureau ranger truck that had passed me earlier, because there's plenty more perimeter that needs securing off in that direction.

It turns out the gate check thing is less about evildoers and more about germs, specifically Cryptosporidium, a waterborne intestinal parasite that causes diarrhea in people and animals, and can cause more serious disease in immunocompromised people. The microbe has an outer shell that largely protects it from chlorine in water, so if it exists in your watershed, just chlorinating your water supply isn't enough, and you also need an expensive filtration system to keep these little bastards out of the water supply. Portland doesn't currently have one of those systems, and didn't want to build one, and (uniquely) got away with a series of repeated waivers until a few years ago, arguing that its water supply is so remote and pure and natural and pristine thanks to the watershed closure plus chlorine that it would be a huge waste of time and money building a plant.

But the bug kept popping up sporadically in water quality tests, most likely because you can't close the entire watershed area to all animal life, and you may have heard about what bears famously do in the woods. So the city eventually stopped getting state waivers about this in 2017 and had to agree to build a filtration plant by 2027. In the meantime the city agreed to various mitigation measures so they could continue using the watershed until the new system was ready. Hence the "interim" in the "Interim Measures Watershed Report" I mentioned earlier. The confusing thing here is that the positive tests that caused all of this trouble are not thought to be from a human source, so I'm not clear on how doing more to keep motor vehicles out of the area helps with that. Unless maybe there have been recent hushed-up events involving bears driving trucks, in which case humanity has more to worry about than a little watershed mischief.

That same report notes that they've left out key details of the local security arrangements, because security. Which is why you don't want to take the remaining option at the intersection. Going straight ahead would put you on road 1509-510, which continues south and downhill into dense, dark, creepy Mirkwood-like forest, flanked by stern Bull Run Watershed signs strictly forbidding you from going any further in that direction. Assume you're on camera here, in other words, even if you don't see any obvious cameras. It's bound to happen eventually, at least. The fabled force field barrier I mentioned is probably around here somewhere too. It's quote-unquote probably just the kind you bounce off of, and not the kind that disintegrates you on contact, though it's hard to be sure since both are invisible. And more to the point, speaking as a Portland water customer, I am asking you nicely not to go that way.

Before we leave here, take a closer look at the trees on the Bull Run side. Notice how they're packed together and are all about the same size? A natural undisturbed forest wouldn't form a uniform wall of trees like that. What you're looking at was one of Portland's dirty little secrets for most of the second half of the 20th Century. People tend to think Bull Run is an oasis of pristine wilderness except for a couple of unavoidable dams and some water works infrastructure, but that's not really true. In 1958 the Forest Service concluded they could rake in an extra million dollars per year by allowing logging in Bull Run. Everyone had sort of assumed this was prohibited by the 1904 federal law governing the watershed -- signed by Teddy Roosevelt and everything -- but the agency decided it had found a loophole: The law limited access to authorized personnel only, but neglected to limit exactly who could be authorized and what they could be authorized to do, so they ran with it and started authorizing logging companies to clearcut Portland's city water supply. They suspected this would be a tad unpopular, so the plan was to do the logging semi-clandestinely and rely on the same 1904 law to keep the public from finding out. You might think city government would object to this. What possible inducement could there be for them to go along with this? Apparently the Forest Service brought in some tame industry-friendly scientists of theirs, who argued that old growth trees were "decadent" and prone to forest fires, and probably listened to beatnik jazz records and indulged in a bit of tree communism when nobody was looking, while freshly-planted trees were young, vigorous, non-combustible, upstanding citizens. I may have paraphrased that a bit. The fire argument was especially persuasive just then, as over 2000 acres of Forest Park had burned in 1951 (and in 2021 the city worries it's overdue for another fire now), and the same year saw the fourth and last (so far) Tillamook Burn, in the Coast Range due west of Portland. So the city went along, though perhaps wondering privately why it needed to stay on the down-low if it was such a good idea and based on settled science.

So this arrangement worked out as planned until July 1973, when a federal lawsuit ended up exposing what was really going on. (The suit was a front page Oregonian story that day, just below President Nixon refusing to comply with Watergate subpoenas.) Until then, the party line was that any logging that may or may not be happening was on a small scale, with a negligible impact. As one absurd example, here's an April 1973 Oregonian profile of a gentleman who, yes, was logging somewhere in Bull Run, rather close to one of the main reservoirs, but his was a rustic one-man operation and harvested almost no trees. And due to extremely strict watershed rules he was doing this with adorable draft horses -- Clydesdales and Percherons, just like in the beer commercials -- instead of modern machinery that would compact the soil and hurt trees (other than the ones he was there to hurt). And to protect the watershed from what horses do in the woods, the horses wore cute special diapers, and the guy even had a special shovel ready in case of diaper accidents. And he'd recently been on a national trivia game show about all this, and Hollywood was interested in his life story, and it was all very bemusing for a simple man of the forest. And in short, things were just peachy keen and bucolic on the Bull Run front, and please pay no attention to the chainsawing noises behind the curtain.

A 1973 City Club of Portland report on the watershed tried explaining the contradictory laws and rules and regulations applying to the area. Among other things, the Forest Service was insistent that per federal law, if the city didn't want clearcuts within its supposedly-reserved watershed, the city would have to write annual checks compensating the feds for lost revenue. Which the city wasn't keen to do.

After several years of legal wrangling, the sneaky feds lost the case in 1976, and if this was a Hollywood plotline the credits would've rolled at this point, and everyone lived happily ever after. That's not how things actually played out, though. A March 1976 Oregonian article described the timber sale situation as merely 'stalled' due to the lawsuit, and explained a major unintended consequence of the recent decision in the case. It seems the ruling was, specifically, that under the Bull Run Act the Forest Service did not have the discretionary authority to permit any commercial or recreational activity within the original 1892 boundaries of the reserve. This was a problem because the 1892 boundaries were based on a gross misunderstanding of the size and shape of the Bull Run River's actual watershed, and the original forbidden zone included over 40,000 acres that were physically outside of that watershed, but legally within it. The USFS had administratively shrunk the off-limits area in 1959 to roughly conform to the actual watershed, as -- law or no law -- keeping people out of the non-watershed area defied basic common sense, and enforcing that limitation cost money. Over the next nearly-two decades, a number of roads and trails extended into the formerly closed area, and people soon became very attached to them. But the judge concluded that this 1959 order was no more legal than the 1958 order allowing clearcuts.

An October 21st 1976 article told readers to "see it while you still can". Seems the judge had ruled that everything had to be gated off and secured by November 1st, and if anyone was caught violating the 1892 boundary both they and the Forest Service would be punished severely. The new off-limits zone included parts of the Oneonta, Eagle Creek, and Tanner Butte trails, along with the road to Ramona Falls, part of the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood, and a third of Lost Lake, among other things. The one big exception to the closure was the Pacific Crest Trail, as was (and still is) governed by a separate act of Congress that superseded the old Bull Run law. So you could still hike that one trail, you just couldn't legally step off the trail even just little, at any time, for any reason, at any point between Paradise Park on Mt. Hood and a point near Cascade Locks.

The closure is mentioned in passing in a March 1977 Roberta Lowe article mostly about how the very dry winter of 1976-77 would likely affect the upcoming hiking season. She speculated that a "nasty" stream crossing on the upper reaches of Eagle Creek (on the Eagle-Tanner Trail #433) would in theory be less sketchy than usual in the coming year, if only it was legal.

Another Lowe article in May 1977 updating readers on the ongoing saga, the bureaucratic gears were still slowly grinding away when one of the state's congressmen and both senators introduced legislation to restore the old status quo and reopen the beloved closed areas. Not putting a whole lot of emphasis on the fact that they were also legalizing Bull Run clearcuts in the same law. Portland city government saw this in the fine print and made a fuss about it, but it was essentially a done deal at this point, the specific deal being that logging in Bull Run had to resume if the public ever wanted to see Ramona Falls or Wahtum Lake again.

In any event, the new law passed, and the clearcuts resumed, and this state of affairs continued for another 20 years, now protected by a special law and unaffected by all the spotted owl stuff going on in the outside world, right up until the 1996 floods, when the bill came due. Mud and silt from clearcuts poured into the Bull Run reservoirs, forcing the city's primary water supply offline. The city fortunately had (and has) a backup supply to switch to, but keeping the status quo was instantly a nonstarter, and Congress changed the law again, this time banning any further logging in the watershed. Sponsored by the same Senator Hatfield who pushed through the previous law, because legislating is like any other job: If you stay long enough, eventually you have to clean up messes you helped cause.

So that's where things stand now. As far as I know the feds haven't found a convenient loophole in the 1996 law yet, and if any top secret special ops logging was happening anyway it ought to show up on your favorite online map's airborne/satellite view. Of course the online photo is not the territory, and in theory the feds could lean on Google et. al. to conceal any new clearcuts, and make it more subtle than the obvious pixelation map services used to do in the mid-2000s. One of the key arguments in the 1973 suit was that if runoff from clearcuts damaged Bull Run's water quality, the city would be forced to build an expensive filtration plant much like the one it now has to build due to cryptosporidium. So when that plant comes online sometime around 2027, we may hear arguments about how the watershed closure is now obsolete and it's time to go in and clear out the trees before they catch fire due to climate change or something. And who knows, maybe the closure as it exists now would be overkill at that point; I know I'd be interested in visiting a few of the 20 or so waterfalls said to exist in the closed area, if that was legal. But I don't really see Portland going along with that sort of proposal anytime soon; as recently as 2019 the city passed a local ballot measure putting Bull Run protections into the city charter. There were already city ordinances to that effect, but the thought was that some future unsavory city council could simply repeal those ordinances and then do as it pleased with the city-owned parts of the watershed. So as of the 2019 measure, that can't happen without amending the city charter again, which would require another public vote.