Crews repair damage from Willow Creek washout


CORVALLIS, Mont. - The Forest Service is making good progress repairing Willow Creek Road, its hillsides and working to protect the waterway itself after a massive washout from last week's flood.

Willow Creek Road remains closed at the forest boundary west of the Butterfly Junction.

Heavy equipment operators are busy working, and the public is not permitted in the area.

On Wednesday the Bitterroot National Forest did offer an escorted press tour up Willow Creek to see the effects of the 100-year flood event.

The water is gone. But you can see the deep, wide chasm it created as it gushed down the mountainside to the road and Willow Creek below.

"This would have happened in a minute," Forest Service soil scientist Cole Mayn said, pointing to the steep and rocky scar. "All this material -- rocks, trees sand and silt would have come down."

A Forest Service crew was working above the wash when it happened and couldn't drive the road so they had to hike out.

"There was a lot of flow," said Mayn. "But it also saturated soils to the point where they couldn't hold up. The sheer strength of the soil gave way, and this material essentially liquefied and ran down the slope."

He said the soils at Willow Creek do drain well.

The area received close to 4 inches of rain in one day.

"A variety of factors happened in a short period of time," said Stevensville district ranger Tami Sabol. " We literally probably got one-third of our annual precipitation here in less than 24 hours."

The road below the wash captured most of the debris, about 4 feet of it. The road has been repaired.

Some sediment went into Willow Creek. Sediment can be detrimental to fish.

Sabol said there could be some impact, but she said scientists don't expect serious problems.

"It's still very cool," she said. "The real risk is when fish are spawning, and we don't feel that's happened at this point. So it could have been much worse, and we're happy that it wasn't."

Grass plugs and shrubs are being planted above Willow Creek to prevent sediment and to quickly re-vegetate the banks.

The area of the wash has already been re-seeded with natural grasses. It's hoped that the shrubs left there will rebound and help fill the spot in.

Some 64 dump trucks filled with natural debris have been hauled to an area off Butterfly Road where it will be contoured and fit into the landscape.

Mayn said the Bitterroot National Forest will probably join the Beaverhead and Deer Lodge National Forest in applying for funding for federally owned roads through the Federal Highway Department.

Willow Creek is the site of the proposed Gold Butterfly Forest Health Restoration Project. It is a proposal to harvest, thin, prescribe burn and re-plant more than 10,000 acres of diseased and overcrowded forest land. Roads would also be improved.

Public comment on Gold Butterfly has been extended from July 10 to 17.