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Coyote Wall - Catherine Creek Recreation Plan

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has released a new recreation plan for the Burdoin Mountain - Coyote Wall - Catherine Creek areas.

Decision Allows Trail Improvements to Begin

Coyote Wall trails
Braided Trails at Coyote Wall caused by unmanaged mountain bike use. A proposed recreation plan seeks to spare Catherine Creek from a similar fate. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

A Forest Service decision regarding a contentious recreation plan could bring an end to years of debate over how to best manage one of the most popular undeveloped recreation areas in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. In a nutshell, the plan seeks to convert a proliferation of unofficial, user-built routes into a system of trails that reduce trail user conflicts, end trespass on adjacent private property and protect one of the most botanically unique landscapes in the region.

The formal decision notice released on January 7, 2011, is the second attempt at reconciling a variety of disparate interests. The first decision was met with a five appeals that resulted in its withdrawal so that Scenic Area staff could rework the plan to address the unresolved issues. Most notably, equestrian users protested tight restrictions on their access to trails they have used in the past, while conservationists called for greater protection from the damage that increased equestrian use might bring to the unique habitat found primarily at Catherine Creek.

If you aren’t familiar with the Burdoin Mountain - Coyote Wall - Catherine Creek areas, you’ve thus far missed out on experiencing one of the Gorge’s truly unique treasures. Situated just upstream from White Salmon on the Columbia River, these adjacent areas feature rugged cliffs, Oregon white oak woodlands, wide open meadows and sweeping views of the Gorge that rival any other around. The unique soils and climate have created some very special plant communities that include many endemic and rare wildflowers that deliver a spectacular succession of colorful displays. And with unique plant communities come unique species of animals that are equally as rare as the plants they rely upon for habitat.

Catherine Creek Columbia River
The Columbia River from the hills northwest of Catherine Creek. Photo by jhiker.

In recognition of how ecologically special this area is (especially near Catherine Creek), the Forest Service long ago sought to protect it by not developing it for recreation. But in the past decade, some 31 miles of undesignated user-built trails have sprawled across the landscape as an increasing number of people flock to the area for recreation. Mountain biking has been the fastest growing type of recreation and has been a source of unauthorized trail “construction.”

Combine downhill mountain bikers, cross-country mountain bikers, hikers, wildflower enthusiasts, unleashed dogs, hunters, equestrians, private property owners, and an underfunded land management agency and you have a perfect storm that has tossed this collaborative planning effort around and nearly sunk it. If this latest decision notice doesn’t attract an appeal within the 45 day comment period, then perhaps this recreation plan has found a safe harbor.

But a plan is only as good as its implementation. And as difficult as it has been to reach this point, the real challenges lie ahead.

Rather than go into the details of the plan, suffice to say that it is complicated and will require an extraordinary education and enforcement effort to shift people from the status quo to a new set of rules that designate where and when various activities are allowed. For example hikers with dogs need to know that their pet must be leashed at all times within the Catherine Creek area, but dogs are allowed off leash in the Burdoin Mountain and Coyote Wall areas only from July through November. Similarly, equestrians are limited to certain trails and seasons of the year. One particular trail in Catherine Creek will be closed to all users during the peregrine falcon nesting season from February through June.

Columbia Desert Parsley
Columbia Desert Parsley is endemic to the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Susan Saul.

Hikers will enjoy the most unrestricted access, including the ability to wander off-trail as was originally designated in the Open Space Plan that preceded this new recreation plan. However, hikers will need to share trails with other users in the Burdoin Mountain and Coyote Wall Areas and on some trails within the Catherine Creek Area. Also, the longest official trail in Catherine Creek will be built to equestrian standards and utilize portions of an old road bed to reduce additional impacts to the landscape.

WTA’s chief complaint with this part of the plan is that the opportunities for wandering off the old road are much more interesting than where the road takes you. We believe that the long term impact to the environment would be decreased by designing a trail that entices hikers to stay on it rather than risk having  them create their own favorite “social” trails off the official route.

This new plan will only succeed if all of the recreation groups work together to minimize their individual impacts on the landscape and in their interactions with other people they meet on the trail. Only then can we protect this precious resource for future generations and avoid further restrictions on its use.

To see a map of the proposed trail system, a summary of use restrictions, and the Forest Service argument for this latest decision notice visit the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area website.

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