The Forest Service (FS) is proposing to build a new a bridge in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in Oregon at the site of a former bridge destroyed by fire in 2015. Unfortunately, the agency appears to be leaning toward a plan that includes a partial steel structure rather than native materials, and using helicopters rather than pack stock or human power to haul materials to the site. Neither the use of steel nor helicopters is appropriate in Wilderness unless the structure is essential to wilderness protection and motorized equipment is the only feasible way to get the job done.
The Wenaha-Tucannon is a rugged 176,000-acre Wilderness in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington that consists of steep canyons and forest-covered mesas standing as high as 2,000 feet above the valley floors. The area is home to native wildlife such as elk, cougar, bobcat, black bears, mule deer, bighorn sheep, Chinook salmon, and more.
The FS is proposing to replace the 80-foot bridge with one made of either wood girders or steel trusses, wood decking and railing, and most likely concrete abutments constructed on site. The former bridge made entirely of wood provided an adequate crossing for many years. The bridge lies only a mile from the wilderness boundary, though it’s a several mile hike through roadless country to reach the boundary.
Before constructing a new bridge at the site, the Forest Service needs to seriously consider providing a ford instead, even if it means rerouting the trail to a better location. Fords require minimal maintenance and don’t burn when fires visit the landscape. Visitors have continued using the area since the old bridge burned, there’s no reason that use can’t continue. Crossing in early-season high water is risky, but that’s true of many places in Wilderness without bridges and in and of itself isn’t justification to build one. Challenge, risk, and accepting nature on its terms are all part of the wilderness experience.
The Forest Service also needs to consider the benefits to the Wilderness and its wildlife if a new bridge isn’t built. Visitors will find more solitude, there will be fewer human impacts, and wildlife will find more security.
If the FS decides to build the bridge, it needs to design a structure that is the minimum size required and doesn’t require motorized equipment to build or maintain it. Many larger bridges have been built in Wilderness without motorized equipment, in fact every bridge was constructed this way before helicopters were invented. There is simply no justification for using helicopters for such projects in Wilderness.
Please urge the Forest Service to adopt a wilderness-compatible alternative for addressing the burned out bridge at Crooked Creek in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. Comments are due this Friday, April 9.
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