Wyden, Merkley back road work

Oregon’s two U.S. senators have endorsed a plan to rebuild a road through Baker City’s watershed as part of a logging project designed to reduce the risk of wildfire in the 10,000-acre area in the Elkhorn Mountains about 10 miles west of town.

In a letter to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, support the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s request for almost $1.3 million through the agency’s Capital Improvements Project fund to improve the Marble Creek Pass road.

“Funds from the Capital Improvements Project and the subsequent restoration work would provide greatly needed access for hazardous fuels reduction treatments to reduce impacts from a large fire,” the senators wrote.

Those impacts could include ash and mud fouling the streams and springs from which Baker City obtains its drinking water.

City officials have worried for more than two decades that such a blaze could force the city to build a filtration plant for its water, at a cost likely exceeding $10 million.

“Your support for this project would be greatly appreciated and significant for this small, rural community,” Wyden and Merkley concluded in their letter to Christiansen.

The proposal is to rebuild about 6 miles of the road, which climbs through the watershed to Marble Creek Pass, 7,542 feet.

The work could happen in 2022 or 2023, said Kendall Cikanek, Whitman District ranger.

It’s the only road through the watershed that’s open to the public, as the 10,000-acre area is closed to public entry, except for limited hunting when the fire danger isn’t high, to protect water quality.

Marble Creek Pass is also the southern trailhead for the 24-mile Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail. The road continues over the pass and connects to other Forest Service roads that lead to Highway 7 in the Sumpter Valley.

The road, which includes steep grades and sections littered with boulders, is too rough to accommodate log trucks, Cikanek said.

The reconstruction, which would include spreading gravel on the road surface, would also improve access for firefighters and for hikers, mountain bikers and others who use the Elkhorn Crest Trail, he said.

Cikanek said the project is a high priority for the agency’s Regional Office in Portland, and he’s optimistic that money will be allocated.

“It’s looking very promising,” he said in January.

The Baker City Council has also sent a letter to Christiansen urging her support for the project.

City Councilor Arvid Andersen, a professional forestry consultant who has urged the city and Forest Service to work together to reduce the fire danger in the watershed, said he’s glad to see progress.

“I am so thankful things are moving out, finally,” Andersen said.

He said City Councilor Doni Bruland has been working with Cikanek on the project as well.

There hasn’t been a large fire in the watershed for more than a century, but such a blaze likely is overdue, based on a study of fire scars on old trees in the watershed conducted by researchers from the University of Washington in the mid-1990s.

In the late 1990s the Wallowa-Whitman spent more than $2.2 million to cut trees and light prescribed fires to create fuelbreaks on the fringes of the watershed. Most of the work was on the south end and along the road under which is buried the city’s water pipeline, with a goal of giving fire crews a place to head off a blaze moving toward the watershed.