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KLICKITAT — The official schedule shows that the removal of an old haul road along the Klickitat River began in 2009.
But really, the river started the job long before that.
In 1996, a flood washed away two sections of the road as the river reclaimed a portion of its historic floodplain. High flows swallowed entire chunks of pavement and its foundation, leaving an island of roadway stranded between two gaps.
That's where the Columbia Land Trust took over. The Vancouver-based nonprofit organization is leading a yearslong restoration effort that will remove more than eight miles of the obsolete road. That means navigating some tough, transforming terrain along one of the truly wild stretches of Washington's longest un-dammed river.
"It was a feat to build," said Lindsay Cornelius, a stewardship lead with the Columbia Land Trust, "and it is somewhat of a feat to dismantle."
Crews have removed about three miles of road along the main stem of the Klickitat to date. Another 1.5 miles will come out this summer, Cornelius said. In the meantime, the land trust and its partners this spring continue to monitor progress where pavement is gone.
The Columbia Land Trust often receives fleeting attention for its high-profile acquisitions in Southwest Washington and beyond. The Klickitat project is part of the organization's efforts across the Columbia River watershed toward habitat restoration and recovery, often carried out under the radar by comparison. Officials hope the result creates a better natural setting for people and salmon on the Klickitat, one of the Columbia's major tributaries in the Columbia River Gorge.
Workers began at the location of the washouts, then worked outward in each direction to maintain access from both ends. A phased approach has taken out sections of the road each year since 2009. Assuming funding comes through, the project could be done in 2016, Cornelius said. Most of
the $2.4 million in work so far has been paid through grants.
Crews are reshaping the landscape as they go, planting native vegetation and returning slopes to a more natural grade. But the land trust isn't trying to tell the river where to go, Cornelius said. The idea is to open up a historic floodplain, and let the river decide what to do.
Some areas have already seen dramatic change.
"That's what's so dynamic," Cornelius said. "You're re-establishing the opportunity for the river to do what it does best."
Glenn Lamb saw the result up close not long after the project began. The land trust executive director joined a small group for lunch on site. They picked a favorite perch overlooking the Klickitat.
"We got to that spot, and it was right on the banks of the river, and there was no river," Lamb said. "It was a river form with all the river rocks, but no water."
With the road out of its way, the river had shifted to another path farther upstream. Other side channels have formed where there used to be pavement. Once-severed wetlands are now more directly connected to the river. Planners hope the evolution boosts an already pristine stretch of river, making it more valuable for fish and people alike.
Old road, new use
The road first came onto the land trust's radar in the late 1990s, around the same time the organization was expanding its reach beyond Clark County, Lamb said. As it looked east toward the Columbia River Gorge, the Klickitat River soon became a major part of the trust's conservation efforts there. The trust now holds more than 3,000 acres on the Klickitat watershed alone.
The trust purchased 15 miles of the haul road, comprising 487 acres along the banks of the Klickitat, in 2007. It paid $478,000 with money from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which has also backed much of the restoration work since.
The project is a joint effort by the trust and the Yakama Nation. The tribe has provided some funding of its own, and heads up much of the technical work associated with the job, said Will Conley, a hydrologist with the Yakama Nation fisheries program.
For the Yakama, the river is a unique asset, and one of the few places where tribal members can fish using traditional methods.
"As far as the tribe is concerned, it's a very important river," Conley said.
The private haul road was used by logging trucks for decades, following the path of an old railroad it replaced in the 1950s. Its use continued until the mill in the nearby town of Klickitat closed in 1994. The flood came two years later. By then, the road was more of a liability than an asset for its last owner, Hancock Natural Resource Group.
The land trust's eventual purchase of the road didn't come simply. The parties first had to decipher a patchwork of old deeds and records, many dating to the days of the railroad.
"Some of them were hardly legible," Cornelius said. "It was a really complicated transaction."
The transformation is a bittersweet event for some local people. Many older residents share fond memories of hopping on the train as kids, riding up to a favorite fishing spot and spending a day on the river, Cornelius said. Others still use the road for bicycling or fishing access.
The land trust will maintain some of that access by leaving two miles of pavement intact at each end of the corridor. And visitors are still welcome to make their way in by foot or bike, even where the road is now gone.
"We're not trying to take people out of the area," Conley said. "It's just that the nature of the use is going to change, not that the use is going to stop."
'Doing the inevitable'
Much of the haul road is near the end of its life now, and it looks the part.
Past the faded green gate, past the stop sign that looks as if it's been used for target practice, the road becomes an obstacle course. Driving it means navigating an assortment of boulders, rocks and other debris strewn across both sides. There's no left lane or right lane to worry about.
Tearing out a road and leaving nothing in its place is an unusual task for most work crews. But Cornelius views it as a controlled, fast-tracked version of what the river would eventually try to do itself.
"You're doing the inevitable anyway. The road is going to disappear," Cornelius said. "At least this way you get the benefit."
The river is already fertile ground for salmon and wildlife, Conley said. Removing fill that blocked much of the Klickitat's floodplain only enhances it, he said — for fish and for people.
Monitoring and weed control is likely to continue after the after the actual removal is done. A handful of time-lapse cameras put in place last month by Yakama researchers will help document changes along the way, Conley said.
For now, the recovery largely mirrors the stages of earlier work. Sections of road taken out three years ago have given way to complex new river formations, new habitat and new vegetation. More recent work areas are still mostly bare ground, temporary cover and seed that hasn't sprouted yet.
Cornelius walked the corridor recently, making note of the slightest signs of life. She surveyed a disturbed landscape, still obviously in transition.
"You look at this and you kind of think, 'Man, this is really an eyesore,'" Cornelius said. "This is not an eyesore. This is potential. It's the future."