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

Parks commission OKs county restoration plan

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

A plan that will lead to a massive restoration and upgrade project in Marion County Parks in the Santiam Canyon is on its way to the Board of Commissioners.

The Marion County Parks Commission, which advises the commissioners on parks issues, unanimously approved its plan for the parks at its Jan. 19 meeting in Salem. 

County officials said that the commissioners likely will review the plan in March, with the beginning of construction work associated with the plan hopefully getting underway this summer. 

Public hearings and public outreach sessions also will be scheduled, county officials said, with at least one meeting likely for the Santiam Canyon.

The commission, in conjunction with consultants from Walker Macy and ECO/Northwest, worked for months on the restoration and update plan, which became necessary when the Labor Day wildfires of 2020 whipped through the Santiam Canyon, severely damaging the parks as well as causing widespread damage in the communities of Detroit, Idanha, Gates, Mehama and Lyons.

“I really like this document,” said Katy Wied, vice chair of the commission and the parks supervisor in Mill City. “It’s really well-organized and set up. I’m super excited.”

The plan affects Packsaddle, Minto and Niagara along Highway 22 and North Fork, Bear Creek and Salmon Falls in the Little North Fork area of the North Santiam River. 

The county also is working on upgrades at a seventh Santiam Canyon facility, North Santiam, after taking over its operations from the state, but that project has its own funding sources and timelines.

Packsaddle and North Santiam are open, but the other five parks remain closed. The Highway 22 parks likely will be finished first because there was heavier damage on the North Fork area. 

The county plans to begin using $1.2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for road and other infrastructure work on the parks upgrades beginning this summer.

The county hopes to use grants, revenues from camping and day-use activities, $560,000 in one-time only funds from salvage timber sales as well as the state’s annual allocation $300,000-plus in annual RV fee allocation from the state to pay for the restoration and upgrades.  

The plan as it currently exists might cost as much as $24 million over a three- to 10-year period. 

“It’s very cool to be at this moment,” said Tom Kissinger, the lead parks planner for the project. “Some of these things we have been talking about since the 1960s.”

Marion County hopes to restore sensitive natural areas, rid the parks of non-native species, preserve wetlands and riparian corridors and build a culture of environmental education and nature interpretation in the six parks. That’s the restoration piece. 

Recreationally, the project also aims to improve river access, rebuild entrance roads and parking lots and add campgrounds, RV sites and yurts. Parks officials think that their counterparts in Linn County have done an admirable job of providing overnight amenities to its parks and will be using Linn sites as a model. 

More camping, the consultants and county officials say, fits better with what the parks user of the 2020s wants. And more camping also would provide revenue aimed at helping the county execute the plan and preserve the system’s resources.

“When I look at this project,” Kissinger told The Canyon Weekly during a September tour, “I look at it as a 50-year project. When you are working in parks you are usually looking at a 10-year window. Even if we manage it well, it might well be 100 years before things look the way they did before.”

By “look” Kissinger meant the landscape, which remains dominated by blackened – but regenerating – trees and wide meadows where forests used to be. All of the hazardous trees are down, and the county and its federal partners with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to work on piles that still need to be removed.

“It was a tragedy,” said Kissinger of the fires, “but it’s also a huge opportunity, a once in a generation opportunity. You don’t usually build things this way. It’s unique.”

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