Bagby's Slow Burn

The group that rescued the popular hot springs from the ashes 20 years ago is now engulfed in an internal inferno.

Thirty minutes southeast of Estacada and a half-dozen left turns into the heart of Mount Hood National Forest, this is the quintessential beaten path, full of old-growth masses, dense forest vistas and a roaring river. The 1.5-mile dirt trail to Bagby Hot Springs, with only the occasional knot of craggy roots defining the edges, leads visitors to hand-crafted wooden baths and a refuge of tranquility.

Or so it did five years ago, that is.

Today, Bagby is in turmoil, suffering from a rise in crime and an internal meltdown of the group that nurtured the springs' rise from the ashes.

For more than 100 years, Bagby has served as a peaceful getaway. Friends of Bagby Inc. formed in 1981 as an all-volunteer effort to rebuild the original bath houses, which had burned in a fire. The group negotiated an alliance with the U.S. Forest Service that allowed them unlimited access to a cabin overlooking the springs in exchange for their supervision and maintenance. For 20 years, these steam enthusiasts were the heart of a wooded wonderland. This summer, however, all that came to an end when the Forest Service terminated their contract.

"For me it's really heartbreaking, because Bagby is such a sacred place," says Margie Kingsley, former FOB secretary.

This heartbreak, in a way, can be traced to February of 1997, when Leigh Springer, then FOB vice president, turned a Discovery Channel crew away from the lookout cabin, even though the crew had Forest Service approval to stay there. He followed up with an angry letter to the federal agency, further shaking the critical partnership between the two organizations. Fed up with Springer's unauthorized power plays, Jeff Murphy, who was then president of the group, resigned. Most longtime members followed, leaving Springer and his allies in control.

"He likes to order people around," says Dave Bybee, a former FOB vice president who emerged as Springer's chief rival. "He likes to tell them what to do."

During Springer's reign, visitors to the springs lodged several written complaints, alleging indecent dress, drinking and a generally gruff attitude among the volunteers. The Forest Service's liaison to the group complained to her supervisor that Springer had threatened her.

Springer denies all charges, saying that Bybee was the decisive force in splitting FOB. This June, however, the Forest Service had had enough. Tired of dealing with the fractured group, it severed ties and booted FOB from the cabin.

The springs have lost their guardian just when they're in desperate need of protection. Vandalism, always a problem, has increased sharply this year. In July, for example, the Clackamas County Sheriff's office was called for incidents near the springs 21 times, compared to three times in July of 2000.

One of these calls was made by 17-year-old Christopher Dwigans of Estacada. According to the police report, Dwigans was camping near the springs in the wee hours of July 8 when he went for a soak, only to find a score of self-identified "Russian Mafia" and a collection of empty whiskey bottles. Dwigans told the police that a man called Big K smashed a Maglight over Dwigan's head, leaving a one-inch-deep cut. With Friends of Bagby banished from the cabin and no ranger in sight, Dwigans went back to his campsite and reported the incident the next morning from his home. The police retrieved a whiskey bottle but little else. Dwigans never showed up at the police station for a follow-up interview.

Clackamas County Deputy Angela Blanchard says Dwigan's experience is unusual. "It's the belongings and the property that you have to worry about," she says. "Physically, people are generally safe."

Mount Hood National Forest Service Park Ranger Jeff Walter is aware of the safety problems at Bagby and has hired a new Mount Hood ranger to be on call. Two sheriff's deputies who patrol the area have been making more regular checks at the parking lot. But Blanchard concedes that even the cops do not feel safe on the trail and only go for emergency calls.

Some longtime Bagby boosters see yet another threat on the horizon: Sometime soon, 40 truckloads of gravel will be dumped on the trail.

The Forest Service claims the path is currently unsafe, especially in dim light. Bridges over swamps can be slippery, and bulging rocks are hazards for the less aware hiker. Most would agree the trail needs some work, but critics say turning it into a turnpike for troublemakers will permanently alter Bagby's rustic spirit. Even Walter admits the $100,000 project was overdesigned. "If it had started with me, I would have scaled it back a bit," he says.

But there was no resistance when the Forest Service unveiled the plans four years ago. FOB's Executive Committee was informed of the project in 1997, just when the Springer contingent assumed power. The committee supported the trail improvements and did not think it important enough to put in the group's newsletter.

"If [FOB members opposed to the plans] had come forward sooner, we would have worked with them," says Walter. "There would have been chances to make modifications in the trail, but it's very awkward to stop now. We have a legal contract."

Bybee, who learned of the trail changes last year, is well aware of his missed opportunity and the role that Springer played in it. This was FOB's trail to look after, he says, and the group failed her. Even though laborers are already ascending the hill, Bybee has still not given up. He has gathered 941 signatures of opposition, and he has rallied the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs and Mazamas, a Portland mountaineering club, to publicly denounce the trail.

But the official campaign against the trail suffered a big setback last week. A Thursday-evening strategy session disbanded after Springer and his allies showed up, Bybee says, and the focus shifted from the trail to the ongoing internal dispute.

The Forest Service is trying to reestablish a volunteer presence at the hot springs. Some former Friends of Bagby are now staying at the cabin under terms they've worked out individually with the federal agency.

Criticisms of the improvements to the Bagby trail, and news about the project's status, can be found at .

In a May 27 letter to Gary Larsen, supervisor of the Mount. Hood National Forest, the Columbia Group of the Sierra Club said the proposed improvements to the path "will dramatically diminish the rustic qualities" of the trail and are "certainly not appropriate for a trail leading into a designated wilderness."

WWeek 2015

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