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Forest Service Crews Do the Impossible on Deer Creek Road
Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Kurt Nelson beamed as he pointed to what he called the Rubik’s Cube of Deer Creek.

A dark wall rock loomed over a freshly laid trail of rock just wide enough for horseback riders, motorcyclists, bikers and hikers at the end of the road. A year ago, there was absolutely no way to get past the wall, as the trail had abruptly ended in floodwaters plunging into Deer Creek a dozen feet below.

But a crew for the Ketchum Ranger District had done the unthinkable, with the help of some heavy-duty excavators and a little dynamite.

“I had told them, ‘If this doesn’t work, look up,’ ” said District Ranger Nelson, gesturing towards a steep hillside way above the rocky wall. “I’m glad we didn’t have to go there.”

Deer Creek, a popular hunting, biking, equestrian and hiking area just north of Hailey, has been the most difficult area for the Forest Service to restore following the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire.

The former mining area covered with Douglas fir and rocky outcroppings was heavily damaged during the fire, which burned 70 percent of the area’s watershed. The damage was compounded shortly afterwards by a so-called 100-year downpour that sent mud and rock hurtling down the slopes into the creek below.

After spending last fall constructing a road on the hillside out of wetlands where it had been, Nelson took in two large excavators, a backhoe, bulldozer and dump truck in May to finish the restoration work.  But he had to bring them out a week later when record snowmelt between 200 percent and 400 percent of normal ravaged the Warm Springs area west of Ketchum.

Crews had to drive the equipment out through several feet of water as Deer Creek flooded, as well.

Flooding in both areas was exacerbated by sediment loosened by erosion that reduced the creeks’ capacity to take water. It took $230,000 and 350,000 cubic yards of material over a six-week period to restore the Warm Springs damage.

A dump truck holds about 10 cubic yards of rock, said Nelson.

“We didn’t get back to Deer Creek until mid-August—eight weeks later,” he said.  “It turned out the road we’d laid across the hillside was intact. And the culvert we put in was intact. But some of the road lower down that we had rehabbed last year had to be redone, as the creek took out sections of the road.”

Crews seized the opportunity to build the new roadway up and away from the wetlands—something Clare Swanger, who was on the tour, called “a wonderful opportunity.”

“When we can get the road out of the bottom up on the hillside where it’s more sustainable, we should,” responded Nelson, who was able to use material from the hillside construction to build up the road in other areas. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve rebuilt this road two to three times.”

Nelson told the 18 tour-goers, who included representatives of 5B Restoration Coalition, National Forest Foundation and Idaho Conservation League, that the damage from flooding in the far reaches of Deer Creek was worse than that in Warm Springs.

Chip Deffe, an avid mountain biker, related how he had tried to bike through the area in June.

“I had to take my bike and hold it on my shoulder as I waded through 12 crossings in less than two miles,” he said. They were high, too—thigh high,” said Deffe, who is 6-foot-3. “Once I turned uphill, Kinsey and Curran trails were fine. But I thought, ‘Boy, they have a lot of work to do.’ ”

Trail crews have piled logs and brush on the old road that ran right through the wetlands. They have yet to extract the fill pushed into the creek by floodwaters, although they were able to put clumps of willows in with an excavator.

But beavers are already back at work. And, while fish were wiped out in the lower reaches of Deer Creek, some large Wood River  sculpin have been found in the upper reaches.

Rangers still need to develop additional sites for dispersed camping, replacing more formal campgrounds taken out by the fire. And Nelson is trying to get funding to replace a bridge that he knows will be a problem every time there’s high water.

“But with Harvey and Irma our chances are diminished,” he said, referring to the hurricanes that left parts of Texas and Florida in shambles. “We did, however, get $148,000 of emergency response money for road repairs in Warm Springs.”

The work in Deer Creek has been funded by a variety of sources, including the Forest Service, the Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Levy and the National Forest Foundation, which has been working with 5B Restoration Coalition, a grassroots organization founded after the fire to restore fire-ravaged areas and advocate for preventative wildfire measures.

Contractors will plant 10,000 seedlings on the hillsides along the North Fork of Deer Creek in early October to provide upland vegetation erosion control. They’ll scatter seed and cover it with protective jute matting made of a high-strength fiber to allow it to get established.

“We’re planting bitterbrush, Great Basin wild rye, lupine, yarrow, arrowleaf balsamroot, Idaho fescue and blue bunch wheatgrass, said the Ketchum Ranger District botanist Deb Taylor. “We’re also treating for knapweed and rush skeleton. So, hopefully, we can stay ahead of the game.”

Next summer contractors will plant whitebark pine seedlings, as the Forest Service restores the riparian area and reclaims North Fork so it has a way to meander.

Nancy Humphrey, who has taken field trips into the area for the past three years, said she was impressed by the work that has been done: “When I think back to what we saw on our first field trip three years ago, I’m just amazed.”

“I like to under promise and over deliver,” said Nelson.


In addition to rehabbing areas damaged by fire, the Ketchum Ranger District has rehabbed an area in Deer Creek where mining had left highly toxic tailings.

The “cradle-to-grave” project involved digging out a cradle in the ground. Contaminants were then placed into the cradle, which was sealed and rolled. Crews then laid a fabric liner on top and covered it with two inches of clay and top soil. Today it’s covered with grasses, the only sign that work was done a slight mound.

The Ketchum Ranger District is doing the same thing to an area of heavy metal contamination left behind by the Ontario Mine at Rooks Creek in Warm Springs.

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