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We Just Saved Paradise from Becoming a Parking Lot at Mt. Ashland! KFA litigation Leads to the Withdrawal of the Mt. Ashland Road Paving Project

Federal land management agencies are increasingly utilizing Categorical Exclusions to circumvent the public involvement and environmental review process. By utilizing a Categorical Exclusion they can expedite public land management projects while minimizing oversight, reducing transparency and limiting scientific review. This allows for less analysis, less consideration of public concerns, less thoughtful, and less effective land management projects.

Mt. Ashland as seen from McDonald Peak.

In September 2021, the Klamath National Forest approved the Road 20 Project utilizing a Categorical Exclusion for “road maintenance and repair.” It was approved with absolutely no public comment, no public analysis of environmental effects, and no public notification either before or after the Decision was made. The Road 20 Project authorized the paving of currently gravel roads to the summit of Mt. Ashland, the highest peak on the Siskiyou Crest, and on Road 20 to Grouse Gap Shelter along the PCT. Erroneously claiming that the road had been previously paved, the agency claimed this major road upgrade was actually just “routine road maintenance,” and therefore did not require a robust, scientific review and public comment process.

In response, Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA), our allies at Applegate Neighborhood Network (ANN), myself and local activist Eric Navickas filed suit claiming that the Categorical Exclusion was inappropriately applied and “intentionally misleading.” Our suit contended that the Forest Service failed to meet its legal obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and failed to consider numerous “extraordinary circumstances.”

In fact, there is a breadth of “extraordinary circumstances” that should have precluded this project from Categorical Exclusion. For example, the roads in question parallel and cross the Pacific Crest Trail, a designated National Scenic Trail and one of the most famous backcountry hiking trails in the world. Road paving would have degraded the natural experience and increased vehicular traffic along the trail. The proposed paving would have increased access to the Ashland Municipal Watershed where risk of fire and illegal mountain bike trails are already problematic. The Mt. Ashland Summit Road is adjacent to and forms the boundary of the McDonald Peak Inventoried Roadless Area, and road paving would have impacted the roadless character of the area. Additionally, the area is the last known location of the endangered Franklin’s bumble bee and we also had concerns that the Grouse Gap Shelter, a beautifully constructed snow shelter at the headwaters of Grouse Creek and along the Pacific Crest Trail, would be damaged by increased use.

The Mt. Ashland lupine (Lupinus aridus ssp. ashlandensis).

The project was also located entirely within the Mt. Ashland/Siskiyou Peak Botanical Area designated by the Klamath National Forest to protect numerous rare and endemic plant species, including Jaynes Canyon buckwheat (Eriogonum diclinum), which is found in about 8 sites on the Siskiyou Crest and a few sites in the Marble Mountains, and Henderson’s horkelia (Horkelia hendersonii), which is found in about 8 sites on the Siskiyou Crest between Mt. Ashland and Dry Lake, with the largest population in the world located on the face of Mt. Ashland. The Road 20 Project area also included the world’s only population of Mt. Ashland lupine (Lupinus aridius spp. ashlandensis), which is endemic to the Mt. Ashland area. Paving the access road to and through this sensitive area would have increased foot traffic, disturbance, and the degradation of this unique Botanical Area. In fact, increased use, unmanaged recreation, roadside parking, user trail creation, and road related erosion have historically impacted these rare plant species, requiring corrective measures by Forest Service officials.

Additionally, these impacts were identified in the 2002 Conservation Agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service for the Mt. Ashland lupine and Henderson’s horkelia. This document identified conservation measures intended to preclude the protection of these species under the Endangered Species Act, and to mitigate or minimize impacts associated with public use, recreation and roads. The Road 20 Project was inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the conservation measures identified in the 2002 Conservation Agreement.

On February 10, 2022, just days after our coalition filed suit, the Klamath National Forest officially withdrew the proposed road paving project on Mt. Ashland after additional analysis and research demonstrated that the roads in question had never actually been paved, and the Categorical Exclusion was inappropriately applied. According to Klamath National Forest Supervisor Rachel Smith, our coalition’s “sustained engagement and activism on this was really what prompted me to direct staff to do the research and discover that we were wrong and the project has been halted completely.”

A view across the McDonald Peak Roadless Area from Mt. Ashland.

This is a victory for the biodiversity and connectivity of the Siskiyou Crest region that will have significant, long-lasting implications. The paving of roads on Mt. Ashland would have seriously compromised the area and its ability to support the scenic, recreational, botanical and biological values it maintains today. Increased use would have led to addition impacts to the area’s botanical rarities, a loss of solitude in the area, degradation to the backcountry character so important along the Pacific Crest Trail, increased traffic, increased traffic speeds, additional wildlife impacts and damage to the area’s renowned connectivity values. Although located directly above the town of Ashland, Oregon, Mt. Ashland sustains a distinctly wildland character that should be cherished and maintained into the future.

The original approval of the Road 20 Project was based on faulty and inadequate analysis, but was withdrawn due to public concerns and our recent litigation. Yet, it should not be public litigation that leads to robust analysis and well informed project approvals. The Road 20 Project demonstrates why all federal land management projects of interest to the public, with meaningful environmental impacts and/or proposed on sensitive federal lands should include full environmental analysis, public comment and scientific review through an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement. If the process had been adhered to, our litigation over road paving at Mt. Ashland would have been avoided, meaningful and relevant analysis would have been conducted, and the voice of the public could have been considered before a decision was made and the project was approved.

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

In a recent news interview the Klamath National Forest Supervisor, Rachel Smith, praised the community for their involvement in this process and expressed her support for “continual collaboration and open dialogue with the public.” Yet, this important public engagement and the appropriate level of analysis could have been implemented on this project before a decision was made and litigation was filed. Rather than being a hindrance to federal projects implemented on public lands, NEPA process and public involvement makes projects more thoughtful, scientifically appropriate, and socially responsible.

We are excited to have protected the wildlands surrounding Mt. Ashland from the direct and indirect impacts of unnecessary road paving. The area contains world-class biological, recreational and scenic values. Our coalition believes these values are best protected through the withdrawal of the Road 20 Project, increased protection for the Siskiyou Crest, and through robust public involvement for all future projects affecting this important area.

As the much loved Joni Mitchell song refrain goes:

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
They paved paradise, put up a parking lot
(Ooh, bop-bop-bop-bop, ooh, bop-bop-bop-bop)”
It feels good to know that sometimes grassroots community activism, like that of KFA, can prevent the paving of a botanical paradise like Mt. Ashland! We all need a little positive news sometimes, and this feel-good story, with a positive outcome all around, provides the hope and motivation needed to sustain our grassroots activism.

If you love Mt. Ashland and the wildlands of the Siskiyou Crest, please support our work with a generous donation. We depend on your support to maintain our programs and the Siskiyou Crest depends on us to stand up for its protection!

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