Beloved and abused
Think of one of your favorite, and most beautiful hikes. Now think of one of the most overrun, busy, and abused places you’ve been in recent years. For many people, Tamolitch Pool on the McKenzie River probably falls into both of these categories. As the word has spread about the relatively easy (and beautiful) hike and the gorgeous pool at its destination, this special place is one of those in danger of becoming “loved to death”.
Located along the designated Wild & Scenic McKenzie River at a point where the river reemerges from a stretch where it runs primarily underground through lava rock channels for much of the year, Tamolitch Pool (also known as Blue Pool) is one of a kind. It has long been a day hike destination - with a beautiful two-mile trail through streamside old-growth forests and unique lava formations - along a stretch of the 26-mile long McKenzie River Trail. The narrow trail and increased user conflicts led to the construction of a mountain bike bypass trail a few years ago. In the meantime the crowds kept coming. A parking area that was never designed for a lot of use now typically sees hundreds of cars on a busy weekend - with unsafe parking on busy roadsides, and interfering with access to EWEB’s power generation facility. Toilets have been added to the trailhead area, but use overwhelms these limited facilities.
At a near constant 37 degrees, the icy waters of the pool are inviting - but dangerous - in summer months. The steep cliffs surrounding the pool offer no easy (or official) route to the water’s surface, so rogue trails have led to erosion and trampled vegetation. Numerous people have been injured, and even killed, at the pool, where the rugged terrain makes rescue difficult.
A new proposal by the Willamette National Forest, which manages this area, would dramatically change the trail, parking, and experience of visiting Tamolitch Pool.
What’s being proposed?
Though the issues here have been building for years, the Willamette National Forest has been slow to respond. In recent years, their management plan for the area can be described simply as “chaos management.”
What initially began in 2018 as a parking lot improvement project has been dramatically changed after hearing from the public and internal specialists. The Draft Environmental Assessment, available for public comment through May 28, 2021, seeks to address numerous issues - from being a better neighbor to EWEB, to addressing damage caused by user-created trails, to dealing with public safety and protecting threatened fish habitat.
The current proposal includes the following actions:
- Construct a new three-acre parking area for 100 cars, including four toilets, picnic tables, signage, and a fee station.
- Decommission the current two-mile trail on the west side of the river and build a new three-mile trail on the east side. Part of the new trail would be built to accessibility standards and lead to a scenic view. Two portions of the trail would include switchbacks to go up and down steep portions of the river canyon.
- Tamolitch Pool would be closed to swimming and guardrails (using natural materials) would be put up around cliff edges. A toilet would also be added near the pool.
- Traffic and infrastructure improvements would be made, including gating old roads, adding signage, adding a highway turn lane, and adding a helicopter landing site for search and rescue access.
- Designated dispersed camping sites would be added along the new trail.
The Draft Environmental Assessment explains some of the other options the Forest Service considered. These included additional parking options in the current location, and installing a bridge over the river from the new proposed parking lot location that would have allowed continued use of the existing trail. Given the constraints they were working with, such as protecting fish habitat and being a better neighbor to EWEB, they ultimately eliminated any of these options from detailed consideration.
Certainly, there are benefits to better regulating human use in this special place, and the draft EA makes some good arguments for the benefits of this proposal to human safety, water quality, and fish habitat. While we have concerns with the scope and potential impacts of the proposal, the fact of the matter is that the Forest Service has to try to balance and manage for an overwhelming increase in public use of this area while also protecting natural resources. There is no easy solution to this.
On the positive side, this proposal is likely to help a lot with the overall safety issues that have developed.
- Better regulated parking means the carrying capacity won’t be exceeded as much.
- More toilets and trash bins should help with the issues of human waste and garbage.
- A new fee will hopefully help the Forest Service pay for needed maintenance and enforcement at the area.
- Safety and access around the EWEB facility would be improved.
- Moving people out of the floodplain and streamside areas will help threatened bulltrout.
- Having a designated accessible portion of the trail will improve safety and allow more people to experience the Wild & Scenic McKenzie River
- A ban on swimming and adding barriers around the pool area will, in theory, lead to fewer people being injured, and allow fragile vegetation to recover after years of trampling on unofficial trails.
That said, some of the concerns our staff have after looking at the proposal include:
- Does the USFS have sufficient funding to implement this project? In particular, do they have funding for continued maintenance, enforcement, and public education that will make this project a success? We encourage the agency to have a solid plan, including partnering with the public and other organizations, to ensure success.
- The Forest Service should analyze and be clear about how the user experience will change, and what the impacts of this will be. For example, how will having a designated camping area near the trail impact trail users? How will the USFS inform people about the more difficult nature of the trail when many people visiting the area are not experienced hikers?
- The EA should address what on-the-ground impacts the building of a new trail will have. In particular, how will building switchback trail sections on steep slopes impact vegetation and erosion?
- This area is incredibly popular and used by local residents as well as mountain bikers, through-hikers, and day visitors from all over the world. For a large-scale project such as this, the Forest Service should involve the public at all stages of planning and implementation to ensure that accurate information is being shared and to respond to public suggestions and concerns.
- One of the things that makes this area of the McKenzie River so popular is the forest that lines the river and trails. Construction of the parking lot and trail should be without cutting any of the large, old trees that offer such an important scenic and wildlife resource.
- Additional trail signage will be important to inform trail users about the changes and to prevent use of the old trail. Considering other trail management options for the area could also help disperse use, like opening the existing mountain bike trail to through-hikers on the McKenzie River Trail.
If you’ve visited Tamolitch Pool, please consider weighing in on this proposal by May 28. Take a look at the draft Environmental Assessment, think about whether the proposal makes sense and will work to address the issues at hand, and send a comment that offers specific thoughts and suggestions on what is being proposed, as well as specific alternatives the USFS might consider. Your comment will become part of the public record. Just visit this link to find the analysis (under the Analysis tab) and how to comment.