Open Letter to Mt. Hood National Forest
Improved bridge needed to stop hiker deaths
Entry 8: August 22, 2014
Dear Ms. Wade:
I'm going to take some heat from the Forest Service for not sharing this letter privately. However, I've watched this situation evolve since I moved to Oregon in 1981 and hiked to Ramona Falls at least once a year, and I'm fed up. Public pressure is the only way to change it. On August 12, 2014 Brent A. Ludwig, a 34-year-old man visiting from New Lenox, Illinois, was crossing the Sandy River on the Ramona Falls trail during a severe thunderstorm that poured around an inch and a half of rain in less than an hour on the slopes of Mt. Hood above the trail's bridge, where he was crossing with a group of 19 others. A flash flood washed away the bridge, and he was carried to his death as his wife looked on. The day of Ludwig's death I was planning a hike on Mt. Hood, but canceled it when I checked weather radar and saw severe thunderstorm warnings on the mountain.
This isn't the first time. In August 2004 Sarah Bishop, who was a skilled hiker, died under similar conditions in another rainstorm.
The Ramona Falls trail is a popular hiking destination because it's close to Portland, relatively easy, and offers a great wilderness experience with a wild river, views of Mt. Hood, and an iconic waterfall.
Thousands of people visit every year. It attracts a lot of photographers too. It also requires an expensive Northwest Forest Pass for trailhead parking. So visitors are providing funding for the Forest Service to maintain the trail, and keep tabs on safety. On most days it's a wonderful hike with an easy crossing of a temporary bridge that rangers install in the spring and remove in fall.
Long ago, there was a permanent bridge but the unstable conditions in the riverbed washed it away and the Forest Service decided on a temporary bridge to reduce costs. But things have changed. The popularity of the trail has grown since those days, and on many weekends the parking lot is near capacity. Climate change has also increased the severity and frequency of intense storms. Ramona Falls is talked up in most local hiking guides and websites as a top visitor destination. For that reason, it attracts many inexperienced hikers who are not familiar with the dangers of crossing glacial streams.
The sign directs readers to the homepage of the Mt. Hood National Forest website where "more river crossing tips" are available, but there is no information to be found easily there by visiting the link. Typing "river crossing tips" or "stream crossing tips" into the site's search box gives nothing useful. The only document I could locate was buried in the site's trail description for Ramona Falls, and it's an exact copy of what's on the sign. It's an example of government at its worst: taking taxpayer dollars, promising something, and then failing to deliver. Much credit is due Bishop's family for paying for the signs, but the Forest Service isn't let off the hook. They have been negligent in not doing anything to improve the safety of their bridges. While the signs are helpful, we now know they are not enough.
In particular, when reading the sign the section listing reasons to turn back and not cross doesn't list the most important thing to be aware of: heavy rainfall upstream. That was the cause of both recent deaths and needs to be listed as one of the red flags. Right now, it's only hinted at in the footnote with Bishop's picture.
The time has come for a fix to the dangerous crossing on this trail. Ramona Falls needs a safe suspension bridge of the kind used along trails in New Zealand. These bridges are also in use in places such as Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail. They're not unheard of in the USA. Until there's a safe, permanent bridge in place, the deaths are likely to continue.
As a temporary measure until a safe bridge is installed, improved wireless technology makes it possible to put a solar-powered warning light at the river crossing that could be activated from the nearby ranger station. If a storm warning is declared, the light could flash and alert hikers to not cross the stream until help arrives. A sign with the light should indicate for hikers to wait and that help has been summoned. It's a travesty to realize that while Ludwig and Bishop perished, rangers were sitting warm and dry at their desks in the ranger station in nearby Zigzag, just a ten-minute drive and 30-minute hike away. This is a stopgap measure and wouldn't work when the station isn't staffed, but it could help a lot.
I've done a lot of backpacking and made many crossings of dangerous streams. Some of those trips were to New Zealand, where the rainfall is legendary. I remember one time I had to turn back trying to ford a stream alone in dangerous rains causing widespread flooding in the region over several days. Fortunately, I received training and it helped me to find a way across. New Zealand's Department of Conservation thoughtfully placed a shelter at the stream where I could wait for help if I decided to not make the crossing. I was able to wait there, keep dry, and have lunch while I waited for a lull in the storm that lowered the river level. Ramona Falls should also have a shelter to make hikers more inclined to wait in a storm than to take a chance with the crossing. Peer pressure can be your own worst enemy in a situation where a group is rushing to get back to the car and avoid getting drenched in an afternoon rainstorm. The shelter needs to be located on the side of the river where hikers returning from the trip can wait before crossing the river and stay dry while waiting for help or for rains to let up.
The Forest Service is conducting an internal investigation into what can be done in the wake of Ludwig's death. They need to look at an electronic warning light, a safe suspension bridge, a shelter at the crossing, and a better effort to educate hikers on the danger of mountain streams, emphasizing the danger of severe upstream storms. Please, do something useful with our taxpayer and recreation pass dollars. The time has come to take action to stop these senseless deaths. Tourism is an important part of our local economy, and the expense of better infrastructure is justified.
I'll share two excellent links to safe stream crossing tips that should be part of the Forest Service's education efforts below. All hikers should read these.
The Eighth Wedge
Entry 7: November 7, 2012
If you have read Al Gore's book "An Inconvenient Truth," Page 280 has a chart of seven wedges representing different approaches to controlling carbon emissions contributing to climate change. The chart is based on a paper by Robert H. Socolow and Stephen W. Pacala published in the journal Science. The paper proposed seven strategies to level off emissions: energy efficiency, renewables, clean coal, forests, soils (stop deforestation and agricultural tilling), fuel switch (coal to gas, oil to heat pump, etc.), and nuclear power.
Source: Pacala, S., and R. Socolow. "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies." Science 305 (August 13, 2004):968-972.
The premise of the paper is that there is a way to control carbon emissions through these techniques that could successfully mitigate human impact on climate. However, even though the paper talks about current technologies, there are many uncertainties in the success of these strategies. Clean coal, for instance, could be too costly to implement and it relies on unproven technology such as carbon capture and storage. But what if we were overlooking an eighth wedge, a strategy that doesn't require any new technology at all?
Roadside Trash: Causes and Solutions
Entry 6: March 29, 2012 (updated October 23, 2012)
For several years I've picked up trash along different stretches of roadway. I do it to make the world a better place and as a way to do exercise that produces a benefit to society rather than just to burn calories. Trash pickup is an endless job though; it's hard sometimes to realize that there's no way to make permanent progress.
While doing all that work I have plenty of time to think and I've come up with some ideas that might make a dent in roadside litter. It started with analyzing what gets thrown away. Much of the trash comes from products involved with addiction, such as beer cans, liquor bottles, and cigarette boxes and butts. A lesser amount is fast-food packaging and cups, followed by food packaging from the grocery, and finally random non-food items. Below is what I found on a recent cleanup trip along Old Highway 8 near Lyle, Washington. This road is near a lake, so there's a disproportionate amount of fishing items such as bait cups. Other than that, it's fairly typical. Contrary to what most think, I've never found drugs or syringes over the several years I've done this work. We hear about it on the news a lot, but most trash is quite boring.
Just like on TV commercials, I tried to turn most items so their corporate logos are visible. These companies deserve some bad press for contributing to the mess along America's roads. Some of the items say "Please recycle," but as you can see the message is not getting through. If you click on the photo above it will open a high-resolution version (3MB file.) The collection above came from along about 1/2 mile of country road. I've cleaned that stretch many times before, so it's representative of what appears in the course of a couple of months.
I see two solutions to the problem of roadside trash. The first is to fine the companies producing product packaging and use the money generated to fund cleanup efforts. It would be relatively easy to do this, just collect trash along a sample of roadways and sort it by the manufacturer, grade it by weight or volume, and then assess a fee.
The second approach, while more complicated, would attack the problem at its source. This would be to tax all product packaging. The tax would be calculated on how biodegradable the packaging is, how easily it's recycled, and just as in the first suggestion above, on actual measurement of how much trash is found along roadways. Money from the tax would fund cleanup and recycling efforts.
Both of these approaches would create jobs cleaning up litter. The packaging tax would be especially effective at spurring manufacturers to create more efficient packaging that creates less litter, and perhaps find ways to eliminate some kinds of packaging altogether. We should also allocate a portion of the money collected to addiction treatment programs. That would reduce alcohol and cigarette consumption and decrease litter as well.
Today most states have a deposit on carbonated beverage containers, but as you can see in the picture above they still make up a huge portion of trash even though in theory one could make money by picking up and returning the cans and bottles. We could increase the deposit and that would certainly help. But it wouldn't address the trash coming from other kinds of packaging. At the current redemption rate of 5 cents per container in Oregon, I couldn't even buy half a gallon of gasoline from the cans and bottles above. Oregon pioneered a bottle-return bill but the latest version was watered down by retailers and beverage companies. There is a provision for refunding a dime per container but it would require the number of cans returned to drop below 80% of sales for two years.
There is a possible shortcoming to these ideas, and that's the notion that people might be more inclined to litter because someone will clean up after them. But people who litter already think that today, and I don't think there will be much of an increase of littering, if any.
Some of the alcoholic beverage containers are likely discarded by underage youth who are drinking in their cars and don't want the containers to be found at home. That's a tough problem to solve. Reducing underage drinking has never been very successful. But we could certainly take some money from the ideas here and put it toward better education and enforcement campaigns. Georgia has studied the profile of people who litter, and the majority of people who litter deliberately are young males between the ages of 11 and 24. I think anyone caught littering in that age group should be the first to work on a cleanup crew.
We can also expect some ranting from the right-wingers who claim that we shouldn't be paying a tax on product packaging. I don't think the tax would be very high though. Also it would likely decrease over time as manufacturers found ways to reduce wasteful packaging and improve recycling. Either a tax or a manufacturer charge is more practical than trying to more strictly enforce littering laws. The cost of patrolling to catch violators is prohibitive and couldn't be done without an intrusive police presence. We know who makes the trash in the first place, and that is the manufacturers. They are easy to locate and bear responsibility for the problem too.
While on the topic of trash, Nestle Beverage has a plan to bottle water from a spring in Cascade Locks and sell it. Since the spring is on state land and feeds the local fish hatchery, they've come up with a proposal to provide well water from the city to the hatchery and take the natural water. That water is a public resource and belongs to everyone in the Columbia Gorge, as well as to the plants and animals that rely on fresh water to survive. We shouldn't squander this spring for the benefits of a corporation, and neither should water from the Columbia Gorge end up contributing to the growing mountain of discarded water bottles. Nestle only wants the water because it's free, and they've found a town that's willing to gamble its future on this scheme in exchange for jobs. If Nestle were serious about helping small towns, they could purify water from the city's well and sell that instead, creating the same number of jobs and leaving the natural spring alone.
Just about every state has studied the composition of roadside litter in ways far more detailed than my own analysis. I've yet to hear of anyone proposing a fine on manufacturers or a packaging tax though, likely due to industry opposition. We have all the data we need and have spent all the money we need to spend to understand the problem; what we lack is the political will to create a solution. Until we do, many volunteers will waste tireless hours picking up a never-ending stream of trash.
October 23, 2012 update: After making another trash pickup, I found an interesting connection between this story and the one below about Washington State Parks. Rowland Lake State Park lies along the road and it's seen visitation drop to near zero due to the Discover Pass fee hikes. The law of unintended consequences (see maxim below) has taken effect and now people park at the junction of Old Highway 8 and SR-14, where parking is free, and camp and litter in the woods there. No one polices the site and there are no trash receptacles. So the perverse result of raising state park fees is that we now have more litter.
Washington Parks' Discover Pass: The $10 Picnic
Entry 5: March 8, 2012
On March 7, 2012 I visited Beacon Rock State Park in Washington to hike the Hamilton Mountain trail. I knew there was a new user fee for visitors because Washington is facing a budget shortfall and wanted park users to pay up. What shocked me was the $10 fee for one day's use at Washington parks. This is called the "Discover Pass." What it looks like to me is that Washington is doing everything it can to discourage people from using their state parks, especially if the visitors aren't wealthy. Perhaps a better name for this fee is the "Discourage Pass."
Most of us would say that there is a way out, and that is to buy an annual pass for a $30 fee. But $30 is a lot to pay for many families, especially in the tough economic times we're in. There's another gotcha to Washington's fee program that's hidden away: The pass is licensed to only one vehicle by the plate number. So if you have more than one car, choose carefully which one you get a pass for. If you carpool in another person's car, your pass will be invalid.
The "one pass per license plate" policy also creates a mess for recreation clubs, which used to buy annual passes for the club and share them for carpooling to the park. Now that can't be done unless the club knows the same vehicles will be driven on each trip. So it will be necessary to poll everyone at the start of the trip to find out who has a pass, who must drive their car in order to use it. Otherwise each car will need to be sure there's $10 available to buy a day pass at the park.
Why does all of this matter to my photography blog? I can afford the pass, but I am concerned that walling off nature so only the wealthy can afford it is a good way to make it irrelevant to the public. It sends a message that the parks don't matter, and we can't pay for them as a community resource so we'll just charge the visitors as much as can be gotten away with. Once the public gets used to life without parks, why have any land set aside at all? If I had my way, parks would be free to the public and paid for by taxes on polluters and developers. After all, people who impact nature should be asked to give something back. Given Washington's rubber-stamping of wind power projects without considering their impact, I'm not surprised to see them doing something as stupid as making a family pay $10 to visit a park to have a picnic.
Washington's policy of discouraging visitors is working. On March 24, a sunny Saturday, I drove by Rowland Lake park near Lyle and it was completely deserted at noon. So even the well-to-do are choosing to stay away. I've always seen lots of people at the lake when the weather is nice on a weekend. Nearby trailheads for Catherine Creek and Coyote Wall were filled to overflowing with parked cars. These are Forest Service sites and don't have any fees.
Another way to look at the problem is to ask how much it would take to pay for Washington's state parks through the gasoline tax. Washington used approximately 3.2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel combined in 2010(1), and the state parks annual budget is approximately $74 million (2). If a gas/diesel tax were implemented of 2.2 cents per gallon, it would completely pay for the state parks budget. I'm not saying this is the best way to pay for parks, but a balanced funding approach that drew money from several sources such as gasoline, other pollutant taxes, land development, and the sales tax could easily pay for parks. A small user fee for park use could reduce the amount from other taxes, of course. Oregon's approach is much more sensible and funds parks partially through the state lottery, which is a voluntary choice on the part of those providing the money. Oregon's annual passes are not registered to a vehicle plate.
Wake up Washington, nature is important.
Wind Turbines Blow Away Gorge Views
Entry 4: July 2, 2011 (updated January 11, 2013)
In view of the monumental damage this decision will cause to the region's scenery by opening up wind power development to all comers, I think it's time to rename Whistling Ridge to Gregoire Ridge:
Back to the main topic:
Another shoe is about to drop. Whistling Ridge (see map below) is a proposed project that's only five and a half miles from this viewpoint. While the turbines off to the east are small enough to miss on a cloudy day, the fifty turbines on Whistling Ridge will be close enough to be a real eyesore. They will be visible from Mitchell Point, Nestor Peak, the Columbia Gorge Hotel, portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, Cathedral Ridge Winery, and many other sites where scenic interest is paramount.
It's too late to fix the Biglow and Windy Flats projects. But there is time for the Columbia Gorge Commission to oppose Whistling Ridge and the continuing assault on the view. Whistling Ridge isn't inside the Scenic Area boundary, but the Gorge Commission has every right to comment on it and their silence is telling. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Scenic Area Act, we need to remember how important it is to be ever vigilant of new development threats. The Act was visionary when it was written, but could not anticipate new impacts that rapid changes in society and technology are creating. Now when we need it most, the system set up to protect Gorge views is failing us.
The Act contains a critical flaw. It does not specify buffer zones around the Scenic Area. We now see why that's wrong. Cities and counties can establish buffers, but we must move quickly before more projects are built. Three more are proposed in the sightline between Dog Mountain and Biglow Canyon.
The big issue with not having buffer zones is the sheer size of the turbines. Whistling Ridge, as seen in the map above, is just outside the Scenic Area boundary at one of its narrowest places and only 2-1/2 miles from the Columbia River. The turbines that would be located there are nearly twice the length of a 747 jumbo jet, and one-seventh the height of Dog Mountain itself:
While these turbines would be illegal within the boundary, the Act as written allows them to be built a stone's throw away from it and at that close a distance to the Gorge they would be disastrous for recreation, tourism, and wildlife, some of the major reasons an estimated 8 million people visit the area each year to pump money into the local economy.
The Commission needs to require state energy agencies to include the entire Gorge Scenic Area in the scenic impact simulation mapping that's part of the approval process. Today simulations are only done within a fixed distance from a turbine project, yet we are finding that impacts to the view, as in Dog Mountain's case, are happening far beyond the radius required in the public comment process. View simulations produce computer-generated maps that show the number of turbines visible at any geographic location. The environmental impact statement (Appendix B, page 18) for the Biglow Canyon/Klondike III project stated that view impacts in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area were "low to none." Clearly this was a gross understatement of the truth.
Unanticipated impacts to views in the Gorge from wind energy are out of control. There should never be surprises, such as Dog Mountain. Until we have a functioning regulatory system, we need to go slow on further development and get government officials and the public talking about ways to fix the problem before any new projects are built. With the Bonneville Power Administration already limiting wind generation during spring snowmelt to save salmon, we could put tax incentive dollars to better use through energy conservation programs and urban rooftop solar. These alternatives don't destroy pristine vistas and broaden our generation base beyond wind. The reason we haven't gone in this direction is that big investors are behind the wind industry and it's very profitable to ship the energy out of state. Those investors have the ear of our legislators in Oregon and Washington. Energy from urban solar and conservation primarily goes to the local market. It may not line investors' pockets and provide funding for political campaigns, but it does create jobs that are hard to export and reduces carbon emissions.
As wind power grows, local citizens need to think hard about who will pay for the infrastructure needed to manage wind energy on the grid and export it out of the region. It will likely be the ratepayers. It's a bad deal for all of us to lose the views we cherish while others benefit who don't care about what we're losing. That's poor policy, and it doesn't share the burden of cost fairly with those who are creating the electrical demand.
I think the best solution is to amend the Scenic Area Act to include buffer zones around the area that allow regulation of visual impacts, noise, and pollution coming from outside the area that affect it. Failing that, we need a process that allows the public to regulate new forms of impact that were not envisioned when the Act was created. A gridlocked Congress is unable to respond to fast-moving changes in the local environment. The Gorge Commission is stacked with members who favor development over conservation, and lack the vision and prescience needed to anticipate the unforeseen. This is the wisdom we've learned from the past 25 years of the Scenic Area Act. If we can't amend the Act, I call for the Gorge Commission to set up a local framework that could help with these decisions and gives conservation a voice in decision making. In my dreams, I see that future authority negotiating to relocate the 66 turbines in Oregon and Washington that are visible from Dog Mountain so that once again, we have a view we can be proud of.
More about my position on wind energy:
The Oregonian op-ed article is stimulating a lot of comment on wind energy, and due to the paper's 500-word limit I could not state my position on it. I think that wind energy is a useful way to reduce carbon emissions and I'm in favor of wind energy projects when they are properly located to minimize environmental impacts, including harm to wildlife such as birds and bats, noise, and visual disruption of scenery. Regarding the Columbia Gorge, they should not be located anywhere that they would disrupt the view from key viewing areas notable for the area's scenic resources and tourism potential. The region's tourism economy depends on preserving scenic views.
The Whistling Ridge site is very close to the White Salmon river. Later in 2011, the Condit Dam will be removed and will open that river to salmon. Along with the salmon will come bald eagles, and they will be endangered by the turbines while soaring to search for fish. This site has many unfortunate parallels to California's Altamont Pass, where 1300 raptors are killed each year from turbine strikes. Lewis' Woodpecker also lives in the forest at this site and unlike most woodpeckers feeds on airborne insects. It flies within the rotor sweep area of the turbines while seeking insects and is a candidate for endangered-species listing by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It is now (January 2013) well documented that bats die from wind turbines. While we don't know all the reasons they seem to be attracted to turbines, it is known that at one wind farm on the east coast of the US, an estimated 2,000 bats were killed in six weeks. (Horn et al. 2008 Journal of Wildlife Management 72:1 123-132. based on data from p. 129) That means wind energy is far from "green."
The Oregon Field Guide segment below describes bat deaths from wind power and has some chilling infrared night video showing how bats seem to be drawn to the turbine blades:
Projects such as Whistling Ridge are tests by business interests to see if they can get a project built just outside the scenic area boundary. If approved, more will follow because the Gorge is a windy place. But there are lots of windy places all over Oregon and Washington, and we need to decide which ones are appropriate for wind power development, and which ones should be protected to preserve the scenery. In reality, the part of the landscape that needs protection is very small compared to the total acreage available for wind development in our region. Keeping wind farms out of that area would not harm generation potential in any measurable way. And yes, I believe there are many other ways to reduce our energy needs besides building turbines. Conservation, efficiency, better public policy such as building codes that maximize roof orientation for solar panels, reducing population growth, and limits on exporting power outside the region are all things we need to investigate.
One change I'm particularly in favor of is to create incentives to allow the many acres of unused rooftops on warehouses, schools, and other buildings to be used for solar power generation. Today, many of these buildings are leased by their tenants and there is no incentive for the landowner to install solar power because the tenant is paying the utility bills. That situation needs to change. A locally owned public utility could install and maintain equipment in these locations and pay the landowner a fee for the power that's generated. I think that would be a far better use of government dollars than the current system of tax incentives that reward exporting power out of state while destroying our views.
The public tends to think that wind power is "green" and has no environmental impact. While it's cleaner than some forms of power generation, this belief is mistaken. Wind power has a number of problems. First, it's a distributed generation source. Turbine installations are spread over many thousands of acres, unlike conventional power plants which take up much less land. Coal and natural gas plants do pollute, but pollution controls are easier to implement because there is only one emissions location to treat. With wind power, there are feeder roads for maintenance that impact wildlife habitat and use oil to build and maintain. High-tension lines are needed to collect and distribute power. Second, when these lines stretch to remote states to supply export markets, hundreds of miles of right-of-way must be kept clear and that requires removing vegetation, often with the use of herbicides. Power-line corridors disrupt wildlife and create pathways for invasive species to thrive. In the Northwest, these corridors are full of Scotch Broom, Himalayan Blackberry, and other non-native species that are resistant to herbicides. Third, there is the impact on scenic views already mentioned. It's one thing to have a power plant on a few acres that mars the view in a small area. It is quite another to have turbines spread across miles of countryside. Fourth, there are well-documented impacts to birds and bats. Fifth, turbines must be lit at night for aviation safety and the lighting can disrupt nocturnal animals and migrating birds, besides being an eyesore. Effects on humans and animals due to turbine noise are being investigated, but it is too early to find conclusive evidence confirming or denying effects other than complaints from people living near turbines where it's obvious the noise will be annoying.
Wind power at its heart is no different from any other form of generation. It has impacts that need to be measured and controlled, and locations must be chosen carefully to manage those impacts.
A number of people have commented that private landowners have a right to do what they want with their property. That's a simplistic argument since property rights play a lesser role in decisions to build. It's taxpayer dollars that are providing the subsidy to build these projects. If public funding is helping to build wind farms, the public has a right to decide how and where those dollars get spent.
Making Conservation Dollars Work: