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Environment | Economy

Falcon Nest Stirs Up Questions Over Columbia Gorge Scenic Trail

It sounds simple — a conservation group purchased land at a stunning viewpoint in the Columbia River Gorge and sold it to the federal government.  There’s already a loop trail there, so there’s officially a cool new hike in the gorge, right?

Not necessarily.  

One concern is over the existing trails on Cape Horn.  The area has been a patchwork of public and private land for years.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge
raised close to $4 million dollars to buy private land on the rim of the gorge with a stunning viewpoint. They had to tear down a trophy home before selling it to the Forest Service for a recreation area.

But much of the area already had trails on it.

“These routes were established without any planning, and without any Forest Service involvement,” says Stan Hinatsu, a recreation program manager with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.  “So now, instead of starting with a clean slate, now we’re forced to look at it with some use already established.  Patterns of use established.  Obviously, it’s already become very popular.”

Hinatsu says there are sections of existing trail that would never pass Forest Service trail muster.

“Going through wet areas, going through talus slopes, some safety concerns we have on some really exposed slopes,” he says.  “There still needs to be a lot of work done on the trail.  There’s a lot of pieces of the trail that we would never build that way—that goes right down the fall line, which increases and encourages erosion.”

Friends of the Columbia Gorge agree—the existing trails do need work to protect them from erosion.  But the group doesn’t want to close trails, including one that runs under a Peregrine falcon nest.

“What we don’t want to see is the trail reconfigured to remove all the wonderful attributes that hikers love,” says Kevin Gorman, the executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Diana Ross is a planner for the Forest Service.  She says the land managers proposed the closure because they are concerned about “disturbance distance” with the falcons.

“In other words, how close does someone or something have to be before a bird would flush off the nest,” says Ross.  “It could cause a bird to leave the nest.”

But no studies have shown this to be the case with the Cape Horn Peregrine nest.

Peregrines were one of the first birds on the Endangered Species List.  They were removed in 1999, but remain a “species of concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a “sensitive” species by Washington fish and wildlife officials.

Stan Hinatsu with the Forest Service says his agency has a responsibility to protect “sensitive” species in the gorge.

“Can they adapt?  That’s a big question,” says Hinatsu.  “Can they adapt to the increased human activity underneath their nest?”

Hinatsu says it’s a controversial issue because Peregrines are known to live in cities on window ledges of high rises.  There’s even a Peregrine nest on the Fremont Bridge in Portland.

“That kind of makes you think, well, they live in the city, so what’s a few people walking under their nest?” says Hinatsu.  But he points out that those birds started nesting after human activity was already there.  

He says it’s less clear what impact increased human activity, such as hikers, would have on the nest in the gorge.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge executive director Kevin Gorman says his group takes disturbance of the falcon nest very seriously, but so far hikers haven’t been an issue for the birds.

“Birds have fledged and continued to reproduce and have more falcons come out of this nest,” says Gorman.  “So what we think we need is to monitor this.  We’ve had continually increasing hiking use over the years, yet every year the falcons have done okay.”

Gorman says the highway overlook above the nest is actually closer to the nest than the trail below.  And he says if the trail is closed, people may continue to risk it anyway, to complete the loop.  The alternative is to add several extra miles to the hike.

“People will have to do an out and back.  It makes it a much longer hike.  I think it’s about four miles longer—so it goes from about seven to eleven miles,” says Gorman.

The other alternative, according to Gorman, is that hikers may opt to skip the extra miles and walk back to their cars along a dangerous stretch of highway 14.

The Forest Service says they are planning to study the potential impact of increased trail use on the Peregrines.  But they want to hear from the public about the proposed trail alternatives first.

A public meeting on the Cape Horn Trail Plan is scheduled Wednesday, March 18 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Rock Creek Center in Stevenson, Washington.  Public comments will also be accepted for thirty days after the meeting.

View the trail alternatives being considered for the Cape Horn Recreation Management Plan