Forest Service plan falls short

When I first hiked into the middle branch of the east fork of Ashland Creek nearly a decade ago, I was struck by what a unique place it is. I had hiked through a lot of forests in southern Oregon, but this one was different. No stumps. No cow pies. Large trees.

And, water everywhere. I was struck by the sheer size of these large trees, some more than 5 feet in diameter. They were awesome. But it was clear that it is the water that dominates this area.

I already knew that this was some of the best habitat available for the Northern spotted owl due to the large trees and high canopy cover, coupled with open meadows for hunting its prey. I also knew that this was the only place on Earth where the Mt. Ashland lupine grows and that it is the largest habitat for Henderson's horkelia (it is found in only four other places — all in the Siskiyous), and the only place where Henderson's horkelia grows below a ridgeline — here on the old glacial moraine just below the bowl.

As I moved into the middle branch, I saw water everywhere. Water in a large upper meadow, just below the crest, water in seeps and springs sprouting everywhere.

Rivulets of water, above ground, below ground. I could actually look into "water tubes" and see water flowing in streamlets underground. There were other wetlands, including a lower meadow, bogs and even swamps. Everywhere that I went in the middle branch I found water. I learned that the middle branch is an old glacial deposit and that it soaks up water like a sponge and releases it slowly during the year.

While sitting in the lower meadow, I watched water running right, running left in small streams. I saw water seeping from under rocks, and springs spouting water. The air was filled with the sounds of water gurgling, meandering and rapidly running downstream. I could imagine an owl swopping down to catch its prey.

I knew that in the meadows the rare Arctic Blue Butterfly reigned supreme. As I headed down the slope I marveled at the majestic Engelmenn spruce — here found at the extreme southernmost part of its range. The spruce were clearly fed by the underground rivulets that snaked around its roots. Many of the spruce had fallen leaving large holes filled with water and creating even more diversity.

At the time, the Forest Service had told us that no Pacific fisher lived here. But, unbeknownst to us all, the fisher lives in this special place — foraging, making dens, raising its young here — stamping its approval on this high-quality, old-growth, closed-canopy, diverse land of water and trees. There are only two populations of native fisher on the West Coast: in the southern Sierra Nevada and here in southern Oregon. Numerous other rare species live here.

In less than one mile of hiking I had seen more diversity than almost any other place in Oregon.

But, this sublime, diverse, fragile and unique area is proposed to be sacrificed — sacrificed to expand a declining ski area. Sacrificed, not because there is a great demand for skiing, but because of a 20-year dream of carving 70 football fields of linear, permanent clearcuts through this area in the hopes that more will come to ski.

They might. They probably won't.

Planned are new ski runs that will cut through the habitat of the lupine and horkelia. Planned are 150-foot-wide clearcuts that will enter, traverse and exit the upper meadow.

In some areas, the runs will be cut into the mountain, even in areas high at risk for landslides. Most of the skiway road will be cut-and-fill. Large legacy trees will be felled to make way for the runs. Wide clearcuts will slash through the spruce stands, opening them up to windthrow and interfering with the intricate networks of water that feed their roots.

The fisher will be expelled, again, as it has been over the entire West Coast for decades. It will have to move on, or die, as the area will no longer be good habitat due to the fragmentation of the area by 150-foot-wide swaths of clearcuts. The springs and seeps may cease to exist, the water may be silenced. The swamps and bogs will be violated by ski runs.

This rarest of rare places — this refugia for rare plants and animals, this fragile and unique place — is proposed to be sacrificed for 12 weeks a year of skiing. It is proposed to be sacrificed even though climate change will make much of it unusable during the winter — and even though expansions at other ski areas have not increased attendance.

It is unlikely that this expensive ($5 million-plus) proposed expansion will bail the Mt. Ashland Ski Area out of its visitor doldrums.

Instead, we at the Rogue Group Sierra Club believe that the ski area can win back its customers and the middle branch can be preserved at the same time. We believe that a compromise can be struck that will allow the ski area to make needed improvements quickly and relatively inexpensively (we've already found a way to allow more parking, at lower cost, while protecting the environment), win back its customers, preserve the unique middle branch and bring the community together in support of the ski area.

That's why we reject the Forest Service's same old line — that ski expansion into the middle branch must happen, that the middle branch must be destroyed for this speculative proposal. We reject the Forest Service's lame "analysis" in the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that does nothing but openly advocate for the death of the middle branch.

We believe that, instead of this "business as usual" approach, the Forest Service can point us, help us, even lead us to achieve something bigger and better — something that reflects our values, our willingness to work together and the absolute necessity of doing so.

Ashland resident Tom Dimitre is the chair of the Rogue Group Sierra Club.

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