Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

Construction on a well-traveled stretch of the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road scheduled for 2019 will improve fish and human passage to federal lands.

Part of the $8 million reconstruction project beginning at the intersection of the Loop Road and Imnaha Highway includes
replacing three culverts with an open bottom bridge, which will improve fish passage for threatened bull trout, chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said the Oregon Department of Transportation is providing the $591,000 necessary for the new bridge and reconstruction of the Y-shaped intersection.

“The state is providing funding because the project improves safety off of their highway,” Roberts said.

The bulk of the $8 million came through the Federal Land Access Program, a Federal Highway Administration grant, and will pay to reconstruct five miles of county road from the Imnaha Highway to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest boundary.

Roberts said the road will be repaired and repaved and the shoulders hardened to prevent them from sloughing off into nearby Little Sheep Creek.

Roberts said renewed road funding through the Secure Rural Schools Act will help pay for the project and additional funding is being sought through other state and federal sources.

Fixing the county’s portion of the road has been on the commissioners’ wish list for more than a decade. Roberts said Mike Hayward, former county commission chairman, began writing a grant several years ago, but because of the expense, it took a long time to secure the county’s portion of the funding and put the project into action.

The Wallowa Mountain Loop Road is a popular summer recreation route, providing mountain access from Halfway and from Idaho through the Wallowas, a range dominated by thousands of roadless acres. In 2011, a washout temporarily closed a key section of the Loop Road along Pine Creek in Baker County. The importance of the route expedited reconstruction just months after the flooding.

More attention was paid to the Loop Road when the U.S. Forest Service began a two-year project in late 2013 reconstructing 13 miles of the 45-mile route from the junction of Oregon 86, 10 miles east of Halfway, to the junction of Forest Road 66, the Duck Creek/Fish Lake Road.

Meanwhile, Wallowa County Commissioners worked closely with Western Federal Lands Highway Division staff to secure the county’s portion of the cost.

“The Western Federal Lands people have been magnificent to work with,” Roberts said.

The Zumwalt Road, running through the heart of Wallowa County, gives access to federal land like the Chesnimnus hunting unit and the managed recreation opportunities in the Joseph Creek watershed. This year, the county received a Federal Lands Access Program grant for $760,000 to crush enough rock to re-gravel 21 miles of the Zumwalt Prairie Road to the forest boundary.

See more in Monday's edition of The Observer.