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

Residents remain cautious as parks reopen after fire

Approximately 30 residents of the North Fork area filled the Elkhorn Fire Station on May 1 to hear from a wide range of public officials regarding recreation and livability issues in the corridor.

On hand were officials from Marion County, including Commissioners Kevin Cameron and Colm Willis, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Stayton Fire District. A report from the Oregon Department of Forestry was presented to the audience.

Summer is not that far away and with the North Fork Road open and some parks soon to be reopened for the first time since the 2020 wildfires, residents still have concerns about parking, public safety and other livability issues in the region.

Here is a look at what is open now, opening later and closed indefinitely:

• Marion County is opening Bear Creek and North Fork for day-use only on May 15. There will be a $5 parking fee, with pay stations at the parks and at an information kiosk on North Fork Road just past the turn from Highway 22.

• Shellburg Falls on ODF property opens May 17 after extensive salvage harvesting and trail restoration. • The BLM hopes to reopen Canyon Creek and Elkhorn Valley for day use this summer, with Canyon Creek most likely to open first, said field manager Amanda Hoffman. The BLM also will charge a $5 day use/parking fee.

Marion County facilities along Highway 22 at Packsaddle and North Santiam, key put-in/take-out spots on the North Santiam River’s paddling system, already are open. Ditto for the BLM’s Fishermen’s Bend site. The BLM has received $15 million in a pair of grants from the federal government for continuing restoration, with Fishermen’s Bend likely to receive the bulk of the money.

County facilities at Salmon Falls, Minto and Niagara all will open later, with Minto likely to debut first in the fall of 2024.

The U.S. Forest Service has received a grant from the state to help finish restoration of the Little North Santiam Trail, with a reopening possible for next summer. Popular attractions such as Opal Creek and Three Pools are years away from opening because of fire damage and extensive forest road repairs. 

Michelle King, ranger of the Willamette National Forest’s Detroit District, told the audience that work on 40 miles of a phase one of the road repairs is underway, with 150 more miles to be part of a second phase.

The good news from the USFS is that access to Jefferson Park via the Whitewater trail might open up as early as this summer.

Marion County has added a veritable blizzard of signs in the North Fork area noting which properties are public and which are private and red stripes have been added to North Fork Road to identify the huge sections in which parking is prohibited.

Marion County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Wilkinson, who was on hand at Elkhorn along with deputies Derrick Ramseyer and Tom Lyons, who patrol the North Fork area, said “we plan on very good enforcement on hot days, with increased patrols and we have a great partnership with the BLM and the ODF.”

Ramseyer and Lyons went a step further, giving out their cell phone numbers to audience members and vowing to do whatever it takes to keep the corridor safe.

Residents retain some bad memories, particularly of a water emergency at Salmon Falls in which the area was so parked up first-responders had trouble getting to the scene. Cameron told the audience of an Opal Creek trip in which he literally could not get out of the parking area at the trailhead in a small Honda because of the crush of parked, incoming and outgoing vehicles.

Another concern of property owners is that the lack of tree cover has taken away buffer zones that used to exist between the parks and private property. County officials told residents that they were welcome to put up their own “no trespassing” signs.

One audience member asked what the county would do if the situation becomes unmanageable.

“We’ll adjust as we go,” said Kevin Thompson, parks supervisor. “Changes might be necessary and we’ll navigate that.”

“This is a process,” said Cameron, a long-time property owner in the Detroit area. “We need you to have input. It’s neat to see this place come back.”

Willis added that if there are problems “the people in this room will fix it.”

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