News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Marion County working on restoration of Canyon parks

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

Marion County is engaged in a planning process for its fire-damaged Santiam Canyon parks that likely will be wide-ranging and whose effects will be felt for decades.

Marion County supervises six parks along the North Santiam  and Little North Santiam rivers and is adding the North Santiam State Recreation Area, currently under state jurisdiction. North Santiam is the lone facility currently open, with North Fork, Bear Creek Salmon Falls, Minto, Packsaddle and Niagara all closed because of the Labor Day 2020 fires.

And with Marion County, like many jurisdictions, awash in federal and state funds from both wildfire and COVID relief sources, the parks work will be starting with money in the bank, or on its way. Parks officials note $1.5 million in current money, mainly $990,000 in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. Officials also will be seeking planting grants for work next year.      

In fact, there is so much loose change about that the process is proving confusing to the Marion County Parks Commission, the volunteer body that is working with parks officials on a plan that will ultimately come before the three-person Board of Commissioners.

“I’m lost. There are a lot of things we are working on here,” said parks commission chair Wayne Rawlins at its March 17 meeting. “I really want to know what pieces we’re involved with out there.”

Rawlins also expressed concerns about the financing of the work, noting “we’ve got $990,000 here, $500,000 there … and I don’t know what our budget is. What funds are we expecting to come down the road?”

Brian May, division manager for Marion County Parks, sympathized with Rawlins and his board.,

“We’re as confused  as you are,” May said. “So many dollars are being thrown in. Everything is very fluid. As a commission you guys are going to have a lot of stress and a lot of fun and a lot of stress. It’s a great opportunity to restore a beautiful area, and we are real excited about that.”

The commission meets every other month, with its next session set for May 19. Meetings are open to the public and public comment is welcome. In addition, Marion County parks officials are planning a public meeting on proposed upgrades  in the Canyon for late April or May.

Here is a look at some of the ideas the parks commission is working with. Some of the information stems from studies performed for the county by Walker Macy and Eco Northwest.

Officials are looking at three main components to its restoration work: hydro seeding, replanting of trees and removal of noxious weeds. Improving the vegetation situation is critical because of how many trees were lost in the fires. 

The Canyon Weekly visited the North Santiam Recreation Area on May 22, with the loss of trees in most of its 16 acres so pronounced that you want to add the word “prairie” to the park’s name. But the bones are still there. The restrooms and picnic shelters remain intact, there is a good-sized trail system, and the river access is so good that officials are considering adding it to the put in, put out rafting/kayaking system in the Canyon.

“We’re super excited about it,” said Tom Kissinger, program supervisor for Marion County Parks.

The county also is working on renaming the North Santiam Recreation Area, with Rawlins suggesting using the name to honor someone who died in the fires. First, however, the county must come up with a policy on renaming. 

Residents can also expect to see more amenities in Marion County facilities, in contrast to the Forest Service model of basic tent camping. Cabins and yurts will be in the mix as well as better plumbing, electricity and wifi and perhaps fish cleaning stations.

County officials also will look at the possibility of a pricing structure that might charge more for high-demand periods such as Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day.

Also in the mix is a shuttle bus concept for day-use visitors, with Marion Parks Commission vice-chair Katy Waid, who lives in Mill City, urging that the county look at an electric model.

Much further in the future is the possibility of a rail trail for bikers and hikers, using railroad right of way that exists between Stayton and Idanha. A shuttle bus also could be a key component there.

No timelines were available regarding any of the proposed changes. Highway 22 travelers can tell just by driving past Minto, Packsaddle and Niagara — which look like logging staging areas these days – that a long road lies ahead.

CANYON PARKS

There are approximately 40 parks and campgrounds in the Santiam Canyon river corridor that are managed by public agencies. These include Marion County, Linn County, Oregon State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Santiam State Forest and Mill City, Gates and Idanha.

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