Birch Creek, Smithfield, UT

Setting: Birch Creek is at the intersection of private, city, county and National Forest properties.
Problem: A Cache County road widening project is staging with the machinery already in place, trees marked for removal. A colony of endangered Pygmy Rabbits will be impacted, as well as a tree marked for removal which has Great Horned Owls (have fledged) and nesting Red Tailed Hawks (not fledged).

Reported by: Kayo Robertson

Current Status: TBD

Kay Robertson to Matt Phillips, Cache County, May 17, 2021 7:57 am:

Here is a synopsis of our talk last Saturday.

Birch Canyon is more than a road.

Birch Canyon is unique in that it receives more use from foot and bike traffic than from motorized vehicles. It is a much loved and highly popular route for family strolls, nature walks, runners, horseback, hikers and bicyclists. The road has not been maintained to county standards and oddly the rough nature of the road has benefitted these uses by discouraging both motor vehicles and speed. Currently lower Birch Canyon is more a destination, a charming country lane wandering through a lush, shady riparian zone than a thoroughfare to the National Forest. Any “improvement”, or widening of the road that encourages more vehicular use and higher speeds will have the unintended consequence of making it less desirable for walkers or cyclists. It will also make it a more dangerous pathway for those not in a vehicle.

One of the first points of our conversation was a request to inform landowners of such significant public works prior to construction. This “good-neighbor policy” dialogue would go a long way to mend fences before they are broken. Landowners are not only those most impacted by such county decisions they also are best equipped to advise the best ways to facilitate construction. We know and love the canyon intimately and have watched it and its use over many years.

Beyond increasing speed, noise, dust and overall vehicular use of Birch Canyon the most important concern is the health and well-being of the riparian area. In the west riparian systems host some 80% of our wild species. The challenges of building, much less widening, a road in a narrow canyon bottom, without damaging the riparian area are many. A number of healthy trees were recently cut along the creek side of this narrow canyon bottom. These trees serve to stabilize the stream bed. Biological structure has proven a much more reliable and flexible means towards streambank stabilization than old slabs of concrete. The stream bed was severely degraded during the floods of 1984-5 and is only now beginning to recover. The basic idea is that a healthy watershed slows the movement of water from the mountains to the valley. Our historic land-use practices have often resulted in just the opposite. This is dry country. Water means life.

Cache County wishes to make the road passable for a road grader. A once a year maintenance could then be maintained.

Cutting a steep footwall into the north side of the road will likely contribute to more erosion until an “angle of repose” can be attained. This can take decades.

The springs that cross the road mid-way up the canyon have often flooded the road bed itself doing significant damage to the road. Sensitivity is called for in addressing the feature. A simple culvert might not be the best answer.

Currently there are two gates on the road. The primary function of the first gate is to slow down traffic. The second gate is to contain cattle. It has been suggested that the gate be removed and a new gate be placed near the bottom of the canyon. Poorly placed gates are easily circumnavigated by ATV’s and motorbikes. The lower half of the canyon, particularly the south slope, has seen some real damage from off-road vehicles. These scars soon turn into gullys. Once damaged, south-facing slopes are all but impossible to re-habilitate. The impact of unrestricted off-road use can be see in the mountains behind Hyde Park. It is not pretty. Off-road damage has been a number one factor in land-owners closing off their lands to public access.

Two of the old Narrowleaf Cottonwoods on the turn-off to the Calengor/Robertson property just beyond the first gate have been marked with orange paint. Currently they both contain active Great Horned Owl and Redtail Hawk nests. The owls have fledged but not the redtails. As with all trees they will eventually fall. These trees have been used for nesting by these birds each year for the past seven years. Is it necessary to prematurely take these trees down?

There is a colony of North American Pygmy Rabbits that have a warren in the Squawbush (Rhus trilobata) adjacent to the road. Pygmy rabbits are listed as an endangered species. This is a topic that merits special concern and may have legal ramifications.

I have spent the past seven years discouraging five species of non-native weeds on our property and that of our neighbors. These areas are now basically free from these difficult and noxious weeds. I have spent thousands of dollars and an equal amount of time re-vegetating the land and roadside with desirable native plants. Weeds thrive when the land is disturbed. Roadwork is infamous for creating seedbeds and corridors for invasive species. Chemical control is not enough. A blank spot in nature is quickly filled and “weeds” have every advantage. Weeds such as Cheatgrass and Jointed Goatgrass already have a foothold in the canyon. Once established they can be all but impossible to eradicate.

You seem like a very nice man with an open mind to our concerns. I know I’m not making your job any easier and I apologize for that but what on the outside might seem like a simple matter of widening this road for easy maintenance really involves a lot of complexities. Thank you for being willing to consider them. You mentioned this is a long-term project. Is there any chance that the project might be slowed down a bit. That way all voices and best choices can be considered. People feel good when they are part of a team. The Birch Canyon road improvement project has gotten off to a bad start by beginning construction without informing or asking for input from adjacent landowners and impacted user groups. The work can still reflect best choices and serve as a model for county/citizen cooperation. It could be a model for what is possible when informed folks work together. There are many ways to do it right and many ways to do it wrong. Sometimes slow is fast.

We spoke of getting together, on-site, with affected parties and County representatives to look at the project and consider options.

Thanks for listening Matt. I look forward to working with you.

Per JG, Monday May 17, 2021, 3:57pm:

I just talked to Kayo regarding the Birch Canyon massacre. I’ve include Chris Sands considering he knows the county council and county planners and may have some suggestions on slowing the project.

I’ve been doing nesting bird surveys for the past 30+ years in Birch Canyon. The current roadside vegetation (cottonwood, boxelder, 3 leaved sumac, chokecherry, birch, etc. is a haven for several nesting specie- lazuli buntings, warbling vireos, yellow breasted chats, yellow warblers, black headed grosbeaks, western tanagers, house wrens, kestrels, redtail hawk, several owl species, etc. etc. There should be an official nesting bird survey done before any further work is done.

Per JG, Monday, May 17, 2021, 4:49pm:

Just got off the phone with Chris Sands. He’s of the opinion the road improvements are a priority with County maintenance given the current condition of the road- which has existed as such in the 34 years I’ve lived here. Bio West is working with the County in attempt to stop tree removal. I suggested that the shrubs are a major nesting structures as well and should be preserved where possible. The state of Utah is responsible for the stream alteration permit per the Corps of Engineers, which is in the plans as the stream channel has encroached on the road. Also, there are some small wetlands about a half mile in on the north side which will be impacted.

Having a 16′ wide surfaced road up to the forest service boundary will totally change the character of this canyon in a very negative way. Why weren’t we, as frequent canyon users and property owners, brought to the table in the early planning stages. Why would the county spend several hundred thousand (or a few million?) dollars on this when no one I’m aware of wishes for the improvements? I’m mystified and angry! Time for letters to the editor and county officials.

Per FH, Monday, May 17, 2021, 5:52pm:
I’m not sure what would slow the county down, but we should make sure they have all the required permits and clearances. I’m not sure what the County requirements are for public input; is anyone aware of a public notice or public hearing on this? We should insist on a public hearing before any work begins.

This sounds like a clear waste of county tax payers’ dollars. Why improve a road that has no residents, businesses, or even buildings and dead-ends in a few miles at the Forest Service. Perhaps a tax-payer argument will get the County’s attention?

Other Documents:
Birch Canyon Road Trail,,
Photos of Birch Canyon Road Trail

Smith, Lindy Phippen, Contributor, Hike of the Week: Birch Canyon Road Trail May 30, 2017

Shahverdian, Scott & Wheaton, Joseph. (2017). Birch Creek Restoration Design Report – Prepared for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Bureau of Land Management. 10.13140/RG.2.2.11439.84646.