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Various Care-Taking Projects Under Way in Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park crews are working to repair sections of the Alpine Ridge Trail. NPS photo.

With the busy summer season behind us, crews in Rocky Mountain National Park are getting down to some care-taking projects in the park, ranging from trail repairs to wrapping up a project to rebuild a patrol cabin that was leveled by an avalanche back in 2003.

Four of the projects require the use of a helicopter, so don't be surprised if you see whirlybirds flitting about the park this week. Projects requiring this aerial support include:

* Transporting a mini-excavator into and out of the Lulu City wetlands to dig between 50 and 100 soil pits to assess the depth and particle sizes of sediments deposited by the 2003 Grand Ditch Breach;

* Importing trail tread material to the North Inlet Trail above treeline to finish a multi-year effort to reconstruct the trail from the July backcountry campsite area to near the Flattop Mountain Junction;

* Transporting materials to replace a bridge on the Little Yellowstone Trail, and;

* Demobilizing from the reconstruction of the patrol cabin near Chasm Lake that was destroyed by an avalanche in 2003.

No trails are being closed during these projects, according to park officials. While the helicopter is flying over work areas, park staff may temporarily delay hikers. The Colorado River Trailhead parking area will be closed for two days during the Lulu City project for staging of materials. This project could be wrapping up today, September 15, weather and resources permitting. The Timber Lake Trailhead parking area across the road will remain open.

Hazard tree mitigation is scheduled to take place this week near the North Inlet Trailhead. During the project the access road to the North Inlet Trail as well as the lower and upper parking areas will be closed. Temporary work stoppages can occur, on occasion, to allow hikers through. However, vehicles will not be allowed.

The Alpine Ridge Trail, commonly referred to as Huffer Hill, across from the Alpine Visitor Center, is closed through next year for major reconstruction, according to park officials. By removing the old trail structure this fall, trail crews can get a head start on the reconstruction for next summer. This popular trail climbs over 200 feet, has steep grades, and provides incredible views. As the accompanying photo shows, the condition of the trail has significantly deteriorated resulting in erosion around the log steps and un-level stepping surfaces, contributing to safety concerns and resource impacts to the tundra.


I am gratified to see NPT's implicit support of these projects, even though they involve use of a mini-excavator and construction of a new cabin within a Federally-designated wilderness area. This work is essential for visitor access, safety and administration of the Park. However, it would be illegal within USFS-administered wilderness areas, and within National Parks in western Washington (due to the misguided 2005 Burgess decision A more reasonable, uniform, national wilderness policy would go far to increase public support and decrease tensions over wilderness areas.

Wasn't the cabin work completed or mostly completed prior to the wilderness designation earlier this year?

RodF et al,

Here's the park's explanation of how they decided on how best to perform this work:

Most projects within the park, and specifically projects within designated
wilderness, go through an extensive project clearance review that asks
several questions: (1) Is this project/action necessary? (2) What options
are available to complete the project? (3) What are the minimum
requirements and what are the minimum tools needed to complete the project?

For the North Inlet Trail, the decision was made to construct the trail to
an appropriate standard to handle the horse and hiker use and to provide a
sustainable trail. As part of this decision, a good trail tread/surface is
needed so people will walk on the trail as opposed to off the trail because
it is easier or more comfortable. Options considered for obtaining tread
material included:

1. Digging on-site (not viable due to large amount needed, creates other
impacts from barrow pits located off trail, and this activity is strongly
discouraged in RMNP Backcountry/Wilderness Management Plan).
2. Using mules to pack in the material- analysis determined that delivering
the estimated 200 tons of material would take 270 days and impact visitors
from increased wear and tear on the trails, to extra manure on the trail
and safety factors of mixing large numbers of hikers with pack teams of
horses or mules day after day.
3. Use a helicopter and fly in the 200+ tons of material in 6-8 days.

The decision was made to use the last option.

For the Lulu City wetlands project it was determined that a mini-excavator
was needed to dig down through sands, gravels and debris deposited during
the 2003 Grand Ditch Breach. Delivering the mini-excavator to the project
site via helicopter was preferred over driving the machinery over land.

For the Little Yellowstone Trail bridge replacement no suitable native
materials are available in the vicinity of the old bridge and the length
and weight of the replacement treated logs would be prohibitive to
transport by pack animals.

Over one year ago the decision was made to use a helicopter to deliver
construction equipment and materials to the Chasm Meadows Patrol Cabin
site, and to use a helicopter to demobilize when the project was completed.
The project is now complete and demobilization is necessary. Similar to the
decision for the North Inlet Trail, use of a helicopter was preferred over
the use of multiple pack teams of horses or mules on the trail.

The use of motorized equipment is prohibited when other reasonable
alternatives are available to protect wilderness values. While Congress
mandated a ban on motors and mechanized equipment, it also recognized that
managers might occasionally need those sorts of tools. It remains an
exception to be exercised very sparingly and only when it meets the test of
being the minimum necessary for wilderness purposes.

I completely endorse RMNP's analysis and actions.

NPT should be aware that the (re)construction of such a Patrol Cabin would be illegal in Olympic, Mt. Rainier and North Cascades NPs, because they lie within the jurisdiction of the Federal District Court of Western WA. Its 2005 Burgess decision referenced above is the reason. Alas, the DOJ was embroiled in an internal political scandal at the time, and failed to act on NPS' appeal of this decision. So it stands.

As a direct result, Olympic NP alone has since forever lost wilderness shelters at Home Sweet Home, Low Divide, Twelve Mile, Falls, Wilder and Pelton Creeks. Despite the facts that all were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Wilderness Act itself (Chapter 4(3)) states "'The designation of any area of any park, monument, or other unit of the national park system as a wilderness area pursuant to this Act shall in no manner lower the standards evolved for the use and preservation of such park, monument or other unit of the national park system...".

Similarly, the USFS just rejected the use of a mini-excavator within wilderness to reopen the Pacific Crest Trail, despite the fact that it almost triples the manual labor required.

NPT should be aware that the Wilderness Act has been interpreted by one Federal Court District in Western Washington differently than in the rest of our nation. And that this has resulted in the permanent loss of historic structures, deemed by the NPS essential to visitor safety and administration of the Park. This conflicts directly with NPS' mission: to "preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." This should deeply concern us all.

Bobby Mcgill writes "Wasn't the cabin work completed or mostly completed prior to the wilderness designation earlier this year?"

True, but irrelevant. National Park Service policy is to administer any potential or recommended wilderness area as if it were designated wilderness. 94% of RMNP has been recommended wilderness, and has been administered as defacto wilderness, since 1974. The actual wilderness designation in 2009 causes no change in administration of RMNP.

The (re)construction of Chasm Creek Patrol Cabin (a new building of all new materials, in a rustic style) within Park wilderness is precisely what was ruled illegal by the 2005 Burgess decision in Federal District Court for Western Washington, which is binding only on Olympic, Mt. Rainier and North Cascades NPs. In both cases, NPS performed full Environmental Assessments, and found the structures essential for the safety of Park visitors and administration of the area, and these findings were not challenged. Simply the construction of a new structure within wilderness was outlawed here.

As historic structures, many built by the USFS, long predating the designation of these National Parks or wilderness areas, are lost to the ravages of time and weather, they can be replaced in any National Park... except Olympic, Rainier and North Cascades NPs. That's the effect of this court ruling.

We need a single, uniform, national wilderness policy. We don't have one. And we need these historic structures... they save lives.

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