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Klamath National Forest Proposes to Pave Botanical Paradise and Put Up A Parking Lot at Mt. Ashland

At 7,532 feet in elevation, Mt. Ashland is the highest peak in the Siskiyou Mountains, and the highest peak west of the Cascades in Oregon. The area is spectacularly beautiful and easily accessed by the paved Mt. Ashland Ski Road, which currently ends at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, and Road 20, a gravel Forest Service road that extends from the eastern flank of Mt. Ashland to the Grouse Creek Basin and beyond to the Upper Applegate River. The area contains abundant biological values, unique botanical diversity, fragile granitic soils, and incredible natural scenery. It is also extremely popular for backcountry recreation, including hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking and mountain biking on trails leading into the Ashland Creek Watershed and the McDonald Peak Roadless Area, and camping at both the Mt. Ashland Campground and at Grouse Gap Shelter, a 1930s, CCC-era snow shelter built at the headwaters of Grouse Creek.

A view south from the summit of Mt. Ashland.

At times, the high biological values and recreational values have conflicted on Mt. Ashland due to heavy recreational use, excessive roadside parking, the creation of unauthorized parking areas and trails, trampling from recreational use, and significant damage to native vegetation, including some extremely rare and unique plant species found near the mountain’s summit and across its southwestern flank.

In previous years, the Forest Service has closed unauthorized “use” trails and blocked off unauthorized parking areas in the Mt. Ashland area that were damaging rare plant populations and creating excessive erosion. This demonstrates that high levels of recreational use are already impacting the area’s unique plant communities, and yet recreational use in the Mt. Ashland area continues to explode. “Mt. A” has become one of the most popular areas in southwestern Oregon for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snow shoeing, jogging, botanizing, camping, star gazing, dog walking, and much, much more. Mt. Ashland has become a year-round high mountain escape and is very important to surrounding communities.

Although Mt. Ashland and the surrounding area is already receiving significant impacts associated with heavy recreational use, and the area is already highly accessible — perhaps too accessible — by gravel Forest Service roads, the Klamath National Forest has proposed paving Forest Service Road 20 from the Mt. Ashland Ski Area to Grouse Gap Shelter, and to the summit of Mt. Ashland itself. What they have not explained is why road paving is necessary and what purpose it actually serves.

The Klamath National Forest also approved this project with a paltry, one-page Categorical Exclusion, with absolutely no input from the public or the many local residents who know and love this beautiful place. No open or transparent analysis of potential impacts occurred and no project design features were identified to protect rare plant species, rare pollinator species, wildlife or cultural sites. The Klamath National Forest freshly graded and graveled these roads in the summer of 2021, but has not begun the paving portion of the project, and those of us who love Mt. Ashland and the Siskiyou Crest hope they never do!

Sign our petition to Stop the Mt. Ashland Road Paving Project at the following link: https://ann.secure.force.com/petition?pid=Mt%20A

Why Should the Klamath National Forest Cancel the Mt. Ashland Road Paving Project?

1. It is unnecessary

The project should be canceled because it is totally unnecessary — access to the area is already more than adequate. The roads in question are relatively well maintained and well traveled Forest Service roads that are easily driven at low to moderate speeds. The area contains numerous hiking trails, a small backcountry campground, and a snow shelter, all of which are already among the most accessible recreational opportunities in the Klamath National Forest and on the Siskiyou Crest. Significant recreational use occurs where the pavement currently ends at the spacious Mt. Ashland Ski Area overflow parking area. This provides an ideal situation for many recreational users who park at the end of the pavement, in the existing, very large parking area, and walk, mountain bike or jog out Forest Service Road 20, providing a summer recreational use, with little to no additional impact on the surrounding environment. The graveled Road 20 provides adequate vehicle access, as well as a highly accessible and important non-motorized, backcountry experience for both residents and visitors of the surrounding valleys. The area is well loved and well used as it is and many want it to stay that way.

2. Paving will dramatically increase use and traffic speeds, impacting current recreational uses in the area

The Pacific Crest Trail winds through aspen glades and wet meadows in the Grouse Basin below Mt. Ashland.

The proposed paving of Road 20, the Mt. Ashland Summit Road (Road 20A), and the road to Grouse Gap Shelter (Road 30S40) will create significant increases in use, increased traffic, and increased driving speeds. Increased use and traffic in the area will, in turn, most certainly increase impacts such as soil compaction, vegetation damage, increased garbage, increased noise pollution, a loss of solitude, overuse at the small backcountry campgrounds, and impacts to the historic Grouse Gap Shelter. These impacts will also be particularly acute on the Pacific Crest Trail which parallels Road 20 between the Mt Ashland Campground and Grouse Gap Shelter. The significant impacts to the Pacific Crest Trail experience were not even mentioned in the one-page authorization for the project.

The proposed paving project would also significantly impact the current non-motorized uses of Road 20 itself. This section of gravel road is popular for hiking, running, mountain biking, equestrian use, and dog walking. Increased traffic and driving speeds will eliminate this popular recreational use. Increased use from paving will also impact the already extremely popular Ashland Watershed trail system, where problems with concentrated use and conflicts between hikers and downhill mountain bikers already exist.

Paving the road to the historic Grouse Gap Shelter will  increase use and impacts in the Grouse Creek Basin and to the historic and currently well maintained Grouse Gap Shelter.  All existing recreational uses and infrastructure will be degraded by road paving and the increased use it will undoubtedly create. The Klamath National Forest’s own information about the Grouse Gap Shelter states that it is used by PCT thru-hikers, but most PCT thru-hikers don’t want to use places with high use and pavement, because they are hiking the trail for the wild, remote and quiet trail experience.

Numerous websites describe a loop trail that utilizes the PCT from Mt. Ashland access road to Grouse Gap, and hiking Road 20 to complete the loop, showing that Road 20 it currently seen as part of the hiking trail system on Mt. Ashland; however, no analysis of the impacts to hiking trails was included in the one-page authorization document for the Mt. Ashland paving project.

3. Paving will directly and indirectly impact botanical values and rare plant species

The Mt. Ashland lupine (Lupinus aridus ssp. ashlandensis) on the southwestern flank of Mt. Ashland.

Unfortunately, if implemented, the proposed road paving project will take place in the Mt. Ashland-Siskiyou Peak Botanical Area, an area designated by the Klamath National Forest to protect the area’s exceptional botanical values. The paving of roads will undoubtedly create direct and indirect impacts to the unique and rare plant species through direct mechanical impacts associated with road construction and by paving over rare plant species and habitat. Increased use will also lead to indirect impacts such as excessive roadside parking, the creation of unauthorized, ever-expanding parking areas, the compaction of soils, damage to rare plants and vegetation, as well as accelerated erosion. The proposed paving would certainly  increase use in the area, traffic on the roads, and parking both on the side of the existing road network and at the summit of Mt. Ashland and Grouse Gap Shelter. These issues are particularly problematic because extremely rare plant species can be found growing directly at the margin of the roads, and previous impacts associated with dispersed recreational use have been significant.

Rare plant species that have a high likelihood of being impacted by road paving on Mt. Ashland include the Mt. Ashland lupine (Lupinus aridius ssp. ashlandensis), which grows nowhere else on the face of the earth. One of the rarest plants in the Pacific Northwest, this species’ entire worldwide population consists of 43 acre on the southwestern flank of Mt. Ashland. Large portions of the population were already destroyed with the development of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, the communication infrastructure on the mountain’s summit, the Doppler weather dome, and the road that accesses the summit. Populations of Mt. Ashland lupine can be found at the margin of the Mt. Ashland Summit Road and would likely be impacted by both road paving and the increased traffic, use and roadside parking.

Henderson’s horkelia (Horkelia hendersonii) on Mt. Ashland.

Other rare species that could potentially be impacted include, Jaynes Canyon buckwheat (Eriogonum diclinum) and Henderson’s horkelia (Horkelia hendersonii) which also grow along the road and adjacent to the parking area at the summit.

Jayne’s Canyon buckwheat is endemic to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains and is found in only a handful of locations across the Siskiyou Crest and a few locations in the Marble Mountains Wilderness.

Henderson’s horkelia is a diminutive little plant in the rose family, found in only 8 locations on the Siskiyou Crest and nowhere else in the world, its largest population is on the slopes of Mt. Ashland near the summit, and on the mountain’s south and western flank.

Also near the summit is the only population of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) in the Siskiyou Mountains, consisting of only a few relatively small, vulnerable trees, and one of only two populations of subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) in the Siskiyou Mountains. Both of these populations are located adjacent to the summit parking area and could be impacted by increased use.

Despite the high occurrence of rare, endemic and special plants in the Mt. Ashland-Siskiyou Peak Botanical Area, where the Road 20 Paving Project is located, no botany surveys were completed as part of the project approval process, so no protections for rare or listed species will occur while heavy machinery paves the road on Mt. Ashland. No environmental analysis means no protection for rare plants on Mt. A!

4. Increased traffic and driving speeds will disrupt wildlife

If implemented the paving of Forest Roads on Mt. Ashland will increase traffic and driving speeds to the detriment of local wildlife. Increased driving speeds will lead directly to wildlife-vehicle collisions and mortality. It will also, almost certainly, increase nighttime traffic, which will compound the effects on wildlife. From the perspective of wildlife, paving these roads will likely increase traffic, which in turn, creates more harassment, increases the potential for poaching, creates barriers to wildlife movement, and increases hunting pressure in the wet meadows, open ridges and subalpine forests of the Grouse Creek Basin. Mt. Ashland provides important wildlife habitat for imperiled wildlife such as Pacific fishers.

5. The project was not approved with public input or adequate consideration for the unique values of the region

Jaynes canyon buckwheat (Erioginum diclinum) growing from granitic soils on Mt. Ashland.

The Road 20 Road Paving Project was approved by the Klamath National Forest through an inadequate, one-page Categorical Exclusion, used specifically to exclude the public from the process. Categorical Exclusions limit, or in this case eliminate, public input, public comment, scientific review and the public disclosure of project impacts. This has allowed the Klamath National Forest to approve the Mt. Ashland Road Paving Project without considering any public input or the impact on the environment.

The Happy Camp Ranger District, which approved the project, only announced it through one brief post on the Klamath National Forest Facebook page.

As described above, we believe this proposal will significantly impact the recreational experience in the Mt. Ashland area, degrading one of the most iconic and well-loved landscapes easily accessible from the Rogue River Valley. We also believe the public should have a voice in public land management; however, the Klamath National Forest has approved this project without considering the public and our right to participate in the public land management process.

6. Cumulative impacts were not adequately considered

The cumulative impacts of this project were not adequately considered by the agency or disclosed to the public in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The impacts listed above are far reaching and constitute “extraordinary circumstances” that should preclude the use of a Categorical Exclusion for this project. The Klamath National Forest should cancel the Mt. Ashland Road Paving project due to a lack of environmental or cultural analysis.

7. The proposed paving project may impact rare pollinator populations such as Franklin’s bumble bee

Franklin’s bumble bee is one of the rarest bees in the world and was historically endemic to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. Last seen in 2006 on Mt. Ashland, the species has precipitously declined in recent years and is now listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, some believe this species may be functionally extinct, while others believe small populations may still exist, they just need to be found. Being the last place documented to support Franklin’s bumble bee populations, the Mt. Ashland area may prove important for its survival and for species viability. The proposed Road 20 Paving Project has the potential to create direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on the Franklin’s bumble bee and its potential habitat. Impacts to soils and native plant communities associated with road construction, increased use, increased parking impacts and increased trampling by recreationists would certainly have the potential to negatively impact this species and its last known habitat on Mt. Ashland.

Mt. Ashland from McDonald Peak.

The continuing history of degradation of Mt. Ashland

Since 1964 when the ski resort, ski lodge and aerial chairlift were first developed, the Forest Service and business interests at Mt. Ashland have incrementally degraded the environment on the highest summit in the Siskiyou Mountains. During this initial ski resort development stage, significant watershed impacts were sustained, rare whitebark pine and subalpine fir trees were destroyed, and the numerous rare plant populations in the area were impacted, including significant impacts to the Mt. Ashland lupine. During this time period, the weather monitoring stations and communications towers were also developed, creating more impacts to rare plant communities and the unique ecology of Mt. Ashland.

In 1967 drought struck the region and by 1970 the Mt. Ashland Ski Resort was insolvent due to three consecutive years with minimal snow. The public financially bailed out the ski area, which was then run by Southern Oregon College (now Southern Oregon University). By 1977, the ski area was bought by private business interests who continued to develop the mountain and degrade the surrounding environment. These developments included additional ski runs clearcut into the mountain’s subalpine forests, and the development of the Windsor Chairlift at the headwaters of East Fork Ashland Creek. According to former District Ranger Glendon Jeffries, the East Fork ran a “solid reddish brown” and the ski area was “a major source of sediment pollution in the East Fork Ashland Creek watershed and into Reeder Reservoir,” the drinking water source for the city of Ashland, Oregon.

In 1983 the resort was purchased by Harbor Properties of Seattle, Washington who installed two new chair lifts, onslope lighting for night skiing, and a vehicle shop. Yet, between 1988 and 1991 drought again struck the region, and the resort was again insolvent, bankrupt and unable to remain viable. Again, $2 million of public donations “saved” the ski resort from bankruptcy, making the resort once again both publicly owned and publicly bailed out.

Development on the summit of Mt. Ashland has already significantly compromised the area’s scenic and biological values.

Weather monitoring infrastructure at the mountain’s summit was also upgraded in 1994 when the Doppler dome weather radar station, a white ball sitting atop the mountain’s summit, was installed. This included additional clearing of intact plant communities and development on the summit of Mt. Ashland.

In 1998, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area and the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest proposed a large, highly controversial and environmentally damaging expansion into the McDonald Peak Roadless Area and the East Fork Ashland Creek watershed, where unique hydrological features support rare Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) groves, beautiful old-growth forests and lush mountain meadows. The proposed expansion triggered significant backlash from the conservation community, who fought the ski expansion for many years. It was also one of the first environmental campaigns I participate in as a youth growing up in area and to this day I have a special connect with the forests and meadows surrounding Mt. Ashland. Although the most damaging portions of this project have never been implemented, by 2013 the ski resort had developed a water treatment facility to deal with sewage from the ski resort, widened numerous runs by clearing more subalpine forest, and expanded the parking area by an additional twenty percent.

In the last decade, the area has also become increasingly popular for outdoor recreation, and unfortunately mountain biking enthusiasts began developing illegal trails into the Ashland watershed and McDonald Peak Roadless Area. Increasing recreational use, traffic, parking issues and other problems associated with high levels of recreational use began impacting rare plant communities, including the endemic Mt. Ashland lupine. These issues were ultimately addressed by the Forest Service, who designated parking areas and blocked off sites where impacts were occurring.

The Klamath National Forest has now proposed to continue this incremental, but significant decline in biological integrity on Mt. Ashland, by proposing to pave portions of Road 20, the Mt. Ashland Summit Road and the spur road to Grouse Gap Shelter, which will dramatically increase recreational use and impacts in the area. The paving project would both directly and indirectly impact the area’s ecology, including impacts to numerous rare plant species that have already suffered from significant development on the mountain’s summit and in the surrounding area. The sensitive ecology of Mt. Ashland simply can’t take any more development and still maintain its beauty, vibrancy and bioddiversity.

It is time for the incremental degradation of Mt. Ashland to come to a close, and instead of paving these backcountry roads, the Klamath National Forest should cancel the Mt. Ashland Road Paving Project and work to limit the impacts associated with recreational use in the Mt. Ashland-Siskiyou Peak Botanical Area.

You can help!

Sign our petition to Stop the Mt. Ashland Road Paving Project at the following link: https://ann.secure.force.com/petition?pid=Mt%20A

Write an email to the Klamath National Forest and express your concerns:

Klamath National Forest Supervisor, Rachel Smith: rachel.c.smith@usda.gov

Happy Camp/Oak Knoll District Ranger, Roberto Beltran: roberto.beltran@usda.gov

A Klamath National Forest map of the Mt. Ashland/Road 20 Paving Project. The currently gravel roads identified in red to Grouse Gap Shelter and to the summit of Mt. Ashland are proposed for paving.
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