Elk Creek lands will open as park
Elk Creek lands will become park with swimming holes, seven miles of trails
By Mark Freeman
May 14, 2014
TRAIL — The vast tracts of public lands that were once destined to be Elk Creek Lake have an aura of wild Oregon for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crews who frequent them.
Justin Stegall, the Corps’ natural resources manager, in the past year alone has seen Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer, a bobcat, black bears, wild turkeys and bald eagles.
One day, a particularly stunning golden eagle rode a thermal column like an aerial elevator over the remnant concrete of a dam that was demolished before it was finished.
“It was a big, beautiful bird,” Stegall says. “It was great watching it soar right past the dam.”
Oregonians will get a better chance to see these critters while hiking or biking more than seven miles of roadways in the Elk Creek lands that officially open to the public Thursday as a new park.
After three years of banned vehicle access because of unsafe bridges, the road into what would have been the bed of Elk Creek Lake will be opened and two new parking lots will be available for accessing trails, swimming holes and other wildlands within the Corps’ 3,502-acre holdings north of Shady Cove.
The gate to Elk Creek Park will remain open through Oct. 31 this year and future years for day-use activities ranging from bird-watching and mountain biking to hunting.
Two new lots — at the Yellow Rock and Homesteaders trailheads — anchor each end of a nearly seven-mile stretch of old Jackson County paved road that now serves as a trail. Two new footbridges have replaced dilapidated road bridges, and restrooms and picnic tables line each lot.
And, of course, there is walk-in access to the area where the partially built dam remains anchored to the ground and where the massive environmental rehab project in the Elk Creek riparian zone was once scraped clean as if it were a moonscape.
Now the banks are alive with vegetation amid meadows starting to pop with wildflowers.
“I think we can get some good use of these green open spaces,” Stegall says. “Then again, you can come up here and maybe not see another person for a half hour or more.
“It’s a different type of recreation,” he says.
It’s certainly not what the Corps had in mind when the federal government purchased the private lands in 1971 and began to build a concrete dam that was to inundate the basin for flood-control and fisheries enhancement.
It was to join Lost Creek and Applegate dams as Corps projects in the Rogue River Basin, but Elk Creek Dam’s construction was halted in 1988 over environmental lawsuits.
The Corps could not legally complete the half-built dam because it couldn’t create mitigation to offset the warmer waters that would flow out of the reservoir. So the dam was notched in 2008 to allow fish passage.
With the lands no longer managed for a lake, the Corps had to come up with a new management plan, and in public outreach the primary issues raised were access and stewardship of the land there.
The Corps has joined forces with other state and federal agencies in stream-enhancement projects to benefit wild coho salmon and steelhead that spawn and rear in the Elk Creek Basin.
“We really want to protect the habitat and the site,” Stegall says.
While walk-in access always has been available, the Corps faced hurdles over vehicle access. The new infrastructure added in the past year cost slightly more than $300,000, Stegall says.
Plans are to turn another old bridge over West Branch Creek into a foot bridge and replace a vehicle bridge over Alco Creek so Corps crews can have access for projects there, he says.
The park is open for day use, with no fires or overnight camping. The bridges and parking lots meet Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements.
The actual dam features and the massive gravel mounds remain off-limits to the public. Corps rangers and Oregon State Police troopers will continue to patrol the grounds.
The Corps has installed vehicle counters on the road and infrared people counters on the trails to measure use.
Stegall says he hopes more people discover the backwoods wilds of a drainage that was supposed to be more than 100 feet under water but now gets two bars on a smartphone.
“I’d like to see people get back in here, but it’ll be interesting to see how the use turns out,” Stegall says. “I think a lot of people know about it. Word of mouth goes a long way.”
ELK CREEK DAM WAS AUTHORIZED AS PART OF THE ROGUE RIVER BASIN’S TRIO OF DAMS MEANT TO CONTROL WINTER FLOODS AND RELEASE STORED WATER IN THE SUMMER TO ENHANCE FISH HABITAT. LOST CREEK AND APPLEGATE ARE THE OTHER TWO. HERE’S A BRIEF HISTORY:
1986: Construction begins.
1987: Court injunction over fishery and water-quality concerns halts construction.
1988: Work on the dam ends Jan. 5.
1989: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes finishing the dam but with a hole in its base so Elk Creek could flow through it and fish could swim past it under most conditions. The dam still could be used to curb flooding during high-water events.
1992: The Corps begins trapping and hauling fish around the dam.
1996: After continued resistance from environmental groups, the Corps decides not to pursue the environmental studies needed to get a court injunction lifted.
2006: The Corps plans to notch the dam before a permit to trap and haul threatened coho expires that year.
2007: The Corps has spent $113.9 million on the project as of Sept. 30. If the dam had been finished as planned in the late 1980s, the total bill would have come to $121 million.
2008: Blasting crews detonate their first load of dynamite under a $7.9 million contract to notch the dam on July 15. The final blast is detonated Aug. 17.
2009: A $2 million restoration effort rebuilds the stream channel and adds 45,000 plants for bank stabilization and a future streamside riparian zone.
2010: The Corps embarks on a plan for managing its 2,600 acres of what was to have been the reservoir and banks. Poor bridge facilities trigger a year-round vehicle ban.
2013: Work begins on new parking facilities and trail facets for hiking and biking access.
2014: New parking facilities open, improving access to hiking and biking trails.