Appeal threatened after Forest Service approves Timberline bike trails

The Mt. Hood National Forest on Monday, Nov. 19, approved a permit that grants Timberline Ski Area permission to build a lift-assisted downhill mountain biking trail system and skills park.

Numerous local environmental organizations, however, don't believe the hillside's soil can support a mountain biking park, and one group plans to appeal the ruling and possibly consider legal action to prevent construction.

“This is not about biking,” said Ralph Bloemers, attorney for Friends of Mount Hood, an organization that monitors development and management of national forest lands on the mountain.

“It's about preserving this area and taking care of this public space," Bloemers said. "What I think needs to happen is a bigger look at what type of development should happen on Mount Hood, including Government Camp.”

In 2010, RLK and Company, the operator of Timberline Lodge and Ski Area, submitted a proposal to the forest service for a 17-mile mountain bike trail system, which would cross through ski trails and forested areas within the ski area. Mt. Hood National Forest Supervisor Christopher Worth approved the project, which includes plans to prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. The forest service also approved restoration projects that would minimize sedimentation flowing into the West Fork Salmon River and Still Creek watersheds.

The projects would coincide with construction of the bike trails, which will begin next summer and take two years to complete — barring appeals and possible legal action.

In the decision notice, Worth said the restoration projects would offset the environmental effects and improve the conditions of the watersheds.

Worth also said in a report that the park's staff would monitor trail conditions daily throughout the hours of operation to prevent erosion or to fix flaws in the restoration projects.

The Friends of Mount Hood, though, still believes those plans are an insufficient solution.

“We've done scientific analysis of our own, which confirms, in our minds, a biking park would cause significant impact,” said Dennis Chaney, board member for the organization. “The basic issue is no one is going to deny that installing a park is going to bring environmental damage.”

The organization joined with an independent scientist and local citizens, and found that the bike course's location is in a “sensitive alpine location with very fragile soil,” which would erode if a series of bike trails were installed regardless of the provisions made, according to a press release from the organization in April 2011.

“This series of downhill biking trails creates a ticking time bomb,” Chaney said. “We don't think this hillside can sustain a mountain biking park.”

Part of the concern includes not only the damage bikers would create, but also erosion caused by rain each September and October after riders weaken the soil during the biking season.

The public was informed of the project and invited to provide feedback in a letter from ZigZag District Ranger Bill Westbrook on June 29, 2010. Following a field trip to the project area in September 2010, the preliminary assessment, which outlined the non-finalized details of the plan, was released for a 30-day comment period in March 2011.

Jon Rhodes, a hydrologist working with the Friends of Mount Hood, sent a 54-page document to the forest service countering the plans in that assessment.

Worth mentioned in the decision notice that “due to the level of concern expressed by a commenter on the topic of hydrology” he included soil, hydrology and fishery reports in the environmental assessment, but no significant changes were made.

The Jeff Flood Express would be the mountain biking park's only operating lift. But Bloemers said the restoration would damage the existing vegetation.

The forest service received more than 1,200 letters and emails, and many were in favor of the biking trail system.

“We considered all the public comments very carefully, and improved the environmental analysis as a result of the comments we received,” said Laura Pramuk, Mt. Hood National Forest public affairs officer.

The Friends of Mount Hood already is in the process of writing an appeal, which must be submitted to the forest service in January 2013. If the appeal is denied, the organization said it would take its complaint all the way to the federal court, if necessary.

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