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In the Wake of the Storm: The White Mountain National Forest Picks Up After Tropical Storm Irene

May 10, 2012

In August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene raged through the Northeast.  While much of the press centered around damage to the towns and infrastructure in the neighboring state of Vermont, the White Mountain National Forest sustained approximately $10 million worth of damage across the 800,000 acre forest.  On a forest known for the wild weather that regularly besieges Mt. Washington, between three and ten inches of rain fell in just a few hours, seriously damaging or washing out bridges, eroding roads, and causing rivers and streams to jump their banks and rage down the forest’s trails.

In the aftermath, the Forest Service surveyed the extensive damage.  Once-shallow streams had become deep channels, and sediment and debris had filled in some area’s of the deeper rivers.  Bridges and culverts sat askew, no longer appropriately sized for the drastically shifted water flows.  Access to trailheads and campgrounds was no longer navigable, leaving eight roads still completely closed to vehicles.

Though the forest management and local partner organizations have taken action to repair as much as possible as quickly as they can, visitors to the White Mountains this summer will still see an area in need of much repair.  Trails are still quite rough, with exposed roots and rock work as well as ever-changing water patterns making for wet footing.  Some trails are completely closed both for hiker safety as well as erosion control—or in some cases, the trail just isn’t there anymore.

In a dynamic ecosystem, this storm represented not just destruction, but change.  The sediment deposited on streambanks and gravel bars will provide nutrients for increased vegetation to take hold.  Timber and debris deposited in river channels will provide new habitat for fish like the Eastern Brook Trout, and the employees on the WMNF are working to evaluate how to address the changes in a way that both respects the goals of recreationalists as well as the needs of the resource.  In some cases, this will mean that trails and campgrounds are closed for a significant period of time while staff determine how the ecosystem will settle out naturally.  Some trails will need to be significantly re-routed. Some trails are just not possible to restore as they existed in their previous incarnations due to major shifts in terrain.  All in all, the staff of the White Mountain National Forest and their local partners have a significant amount of ground-truthing and planning to do.

Fortunately, they have put in place a number of agreements with local partner organizations to address a significant amount of the required trail restoration. The Appalachian Mountain Club and Randolph Mountain Club maintain extensive networks of trails across the forest, and a contract with Trout Unlimited will enable work to be done to provide aquatic passage for native fish.

Furthermore, the White Mountain National Forest will be rolled out as a Treasured Landscape campaign site by the National Forest Foundation, helping to bring in additional funds to help restore ecosystem function and forest access to this iconic Northeast landscape over the coming years. 

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