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

Residents skeptical of county parks plan

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

Santiam Canyon residents got their first look at Marion County plans for restoring and upgrading the six county parks damaged by the 2020 wildfires.

Approximately 20 people turned out for a Monday, April 24 session at the Elkhorn Fire Station, with a second meeting set for May 2 in Mehama.

Tom Kissinger, the chief parks planner for the county, introduced the plan, which was displayed on a pair of tables in a series of six maps. One table contained maps showing the possible future look of Highway 22 parks Packsaddle, Minto and Niagara. It received sparse attention. The second table, with North Fork-Elkhorn area facilities North Fork, Bear Creek and Salmon Falls, was crowded all evening.

Participants were asked to participate in a “dot exercise,” which involved sticking a green dot on items they liked, red dots on items they did not like and yellow dots in areas in which they argued for caution.

There were more than a dozen red dots on the map for Salmon Falls, which was a pre-fires flashpoint for the livability challenges residents face because of the popularity of the park on warm, summer weekends. Residents described trying to cope with issues such as trespassing, firearms use, trash, noise and alcohol consumption as well as severe parking challenges that have hindered the ability of first-responders to reach emergency situations.

Particularly objectionable to the residents was the projected addition of overnight camping and yurts at Salmon Falls. The neighbors fear they will be subjected to loud parties and noise well into the evenings if camping is added.

Kissinger has said the county hopes to open Bear Creek and Salmon Falls for day-use later this year. Adding camping at any of the facilities is years away because of the challenges the county faces just in getting basic amenities up and running.

The condition of the North Fork/Elkhorn area parks has been a mystery to the general public because road entry into the corridor remains restricted until after Labor Day.

This reporter has toured the region four times this year and all three North Fork area facilities need work. Piles of logged trees must be removed and simple amenities such as entry roads, restrooms, parking lots and picnic areas must be essentially rebuilt from scratch.

The rest of the recreational stewards of the North Fork area are in the same boat as the county. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Opal Creek Wilderness Area facilities also will need significant work before they can reopen.

Which leads back to the questions that dominated the discussion at a larger Elkhorn meeting on April 5 that included the commissioners and perhaps 15 or more county, state and federal officials. If the parks aren’t open, why open the road, residents asked? And if the parks are open for only minimal use how do you control how many vehicles wind up in the corridor looking for access to the Little North Santiam River?

The county plans to start paying for the restoration and upgrades with $1.2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for road and other infrastructure work.

The county also 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 of $300,000-plus in annual RV fee allocation from the state to pay for the work  

The plan as it currently exists might cost as much as $24 million over a 3- to 10-year period.


Marion County will host a second public outreach meeting on Santiam Canyon parks restoration at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 2 at the Mehama Community Center.


Salmon Falls debris

Marion County has been working on a project to restore and upgrade the six county parks in the Santiam Canyon since November 2020. All 6 facilities suffered severe damage from the 2020 wildfires.The draft plan, approved by the Marion County Parks Commission in January, still must get the OK of the Board of Commissioners.  Packsaddle is the lone county park facility in the Canyon that is open. Minto and Niagara, which, like Packsaddle, lie in the Highway 22 corridor, remain closed as are North Fork/Elkhorn facilities North Fork, Bear Creek and Salmon Falls (pictured above). North Santiam Park near Lyons, which recently moved from state to county operations, also is open, but its future planning is part of a different process.

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