Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Moving Loop Road Would Save Salmon

By Andy Kerr

Column #34 - Go to next column

Length: 748 words

First published: 6 November 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

The controversy over rebuilding the flood-damaged portion of the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road is an example of people defending irrational positions.

The road blew out during last winter's heavy floods due to both the flooding of Gumboot Creek and being covered by landslides. Since it was in the flood plain, one should not be surprised. One should be surprised that the US Forest Service wants to rebuild the road in the same spot.

Gumboot Creek has been designated as "critical habitat" for Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act and contains the recently listed steelhead as well.

Since the flood, fish habitat has improved. Gumboot Creek meanders again, free from the road's constraint. Fish hide in large woody debris and the pools and riffles are returning to natural.

Due to pressure from salmon lovers, the USFS proposal has been modified to relocate the road out of the flood plain in certain areas. This may not be better for fish, since it would involve logging new right-of-way, and undercutting steep slopes that may set up future landslides into the creek. Any road reconstruction in the Gumboot Canyon will hurt fish.

Amazingly, the USFS refuses to consider an option that would restore the Loop Road, not hurt the salmon, and be done cost-effectively.

The government says it can't consider the option because an "emergency" exists. Neither is true in fact or in law. One can drive around the other side of the Wallowas or one can take the detour route.

Ric Bailey of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council has proposed a rational and balanced alternative: move the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road out of Gumboot Canyon. This alternative would use an existing ridge road (presently used as the detour route) between the Lick Creek and Coverdale campgrounds.

The Coverdale route is more scenic. It's avoids any damage to salmon. It is a little shorter. If the government would pave and realign it slightly, it might well be faster. It might be steeper in a few spots, but a little downshifting for salmon is not too much to ask.

It will likely be cheaper, but we can't be sure because the government refuses to even study the option. This is why Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act: To force bureaucrats to slow down and consider alternatives to their pet projects. To consider options that cause less environmental harm and to inject both fiscal rationality and the public into the process.

So why is the Forest Service opposed to even considering a different route? Probably because it was first suggested by the HCPC. Bureaucrats never like anyone looking over their shoulders, especially outfits as effective as Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

If Bailey said he was for apple pie and baseball, some in the Wallowa Valley would then want to cut down every apple tree and switch to lacrosse.

Bailey's detractors can try to shoot the messenger (only in a proverbial sense, I hope), but HCPC is not alone in advocating the Coverdale Option. Numerous other environmental organizations, along with Indian tribes want it. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife thinks an alternative route ought to be considered. A former USFS district ranger also thinks the Coverdale Option makes sense.

The law requires that the Coverdale Option be considered. A flaw in our system is that bureaucrats, even though they often know what is right and legal, will do wrong and illegal things until stopped. Politically, it is often easier for bureaucrats to ordered by a judge to obey the law, than to just do it on their own.

If the USFS bulls ahead, HCPC will sue and likely win. The government will eventually consider the Coverdale Option.

Merchants concerned with a loss of tourist revenues due to the road closure should back the Coverdale Option as the fastest option to fully restore the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road.

The refusal of Wallowa County officials to support the Coverdale Option is troubling in light of their supposed concern for salmon. After endless talk of their desire to recover the salmon, when given the opportunity to actually do something for salmon, they choked.

Here's a clear case where the needs of salmon and the motoring public need not be in conflict.

Even if salmon weren't an issue, why would politicians and bureaucrats support a route that may again blow out during the next heavy rains? Perhaps if they were paying, and not us taxpayers and the fish, they'd think differently.

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