After winter storm, Mount Pisgah in Lane County is a hard hat zone

By Karen Richards (KLCC)
Jan. 26, 2024 7 p.m.
Brad van Appel, executive director of Mount Pisgah Arboretum, stands in front of a trail closed due to storm damage in Eugene, Ore., in January 2024. A winter storm caused severe damage to the natural area, taking down trees and nearby powerlines.

Brad van Appel, executive director of Mount Pisgah Arboretum, stands in front of a trail closed due to storm damage in Eugene, Ore., in January 2024. A winter storm caused severe damage to the natural area, taking down trees and nearby powerlines.

Karen Richards / KLCC

Because of extensive damage to trees and power lines from this month’s ice storm, Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene is now a hard hat zone.

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There are electronic closure signs on Seavey Loop Road and barricades before the bridge at the entrance to Mount Pisgah. They’re there for the public’s safety. After a week of cleanup efforts, the roads and trails are still an unnavigable bramble of downed trees.

Brad van Appel, the longtime executive director of Mount Pisgah Arboretum, said he’s never seen this level of damage.

“We’ve been through a lot of ice storms and snowstorms, floods and even fires out here on the mountain over the years, seen a lot of damage,” he said, “but this is by far the worst I’ve seen.”

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Van Appel said he thinks there was about an inch of ice on the trees here. It was more than most of them could take.

“We have 209 acres, much of it full of trees,” he said. “I think nearly every tree took some damage.”

He said the same is true for the 2,300-acre Howard Buford County Park the nonprofit leases its land from.

Just behind the office, a cluster of picnic tables is barely visible through a tangle of branches. A bridge to the White Oak Pavilion, which hosts the annual mushroom festival, is jammed with debris, and two large, widow-maker limbs dangle above it.

“We’re wearing hard hats for a good reason,” said van Appel. “There are still limbs that are going to come down, there are trees that are going to still fall over. You can think you’re paying good attention, but things can happen. And the resources to do rescues out here are not readily available right now, people are pretty tied up with all the storm recovery.”

An equipment shelter suffered extensive damage at Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, Ore., in January 2024.

An equipment shelter suffered extensive damage at Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, Ore., in January 2024.

Karen Richards / KLCC

He pointed to the jagged remains of a large oak tree in front of the pavilion. Its two main trunks split and fell in opposite directions. One hit a metal awning on the pavilion.

“We are pretty lucky as far as damage to buildings and infrastructure,” he said. “We have five different roofs that got hit by downed trees and branches. One of our caretaker’s cars got crunched. But the roof damage so far seems to be fairly minor.”

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A construction zone

If the park is a hard hat zone, the main trail to the summit is a utility construction site. Van Appel said the trucks are from the BPA.

“Bonneville Power Administration has some high tension lines that go through the park here, and two of those lines broke, one on the east side of the mountain and one on the west side of the mountain,” van Appel said. “The trucks are gravel trucks that are going up to make the road stable enough for the other equipment they need to get up there and create a pad for the crane and bucket trucks that’ll be going up to try to conduct these repairs.”

He said the truck traffic and utility work are among the many reasons it’s not safe to be in the park right now.

A sign marks the closure of Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, Ore., in January 2024.

A sign marks the closure of Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, Ore., in January 2024.

Karen Richards / KLCC

So far, park staff have been working to clear roads and main trails. Van Appel said Lane County is finding resources and contractors to help. He also hopes to be able to access federal funds.

“Basically the federal government has to also declare a state of emergency and once that happens, FEMA funds would be available and could help with some of the expenses out here,” he said.

How to help

For those who are eager to pitch in, the arboretum and its sister organization Friends of Buford Park, are looking for volunteers as soon as this weekend, and they can sign up online.

Van Appel said it won’t be OK to just show up.

“It’s going to be a sign-up volunteer event,” he said. “We’re going to have to let people in through the barricades, and we need to make sure the number of volunteers that we have for any event is a number that we can manage with our staff and supervise, because it is not safe. We’re not going to send volunteer crews off on their own.”

Related: Students at storm-damaged Portland schools will move to different buildings

Walking past the empty parking lot feels eerily quiet. Van Appel agrees, saying it feels like a ghost town, but that’s what it needs to be right now.

“I know a lot of people miss being out here,” he said. “This is a very popular spot. We get a half a million visitors a year, and it’s really heartbreaking for folks not to be able to come out and enjoy this place.”

Van Appel said when it’s safe for the public to return, the park will look different. But, he said, nature is resilient, and it will still be a beautiful place.

© 2024 KLCC News

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