The Bonneville Power Administration wants to upgrade its communications equipment on the top of Marys Peak, but some of the mountain’s more ardent supporters want it gone entirely — along with the rest of the electronic gear that bristles from a fenced compound on the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range.
The BPA, which markets electricity from federal hydropower plants throughout the Northwest, is one of many entities that use the peak southwest of Corvallis as a relay point for radio transmissions.
Before it can replace any of its aging communications equipment, it has to prepare an environmental assessment that requires a public review process and must ultimately get approval from the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the communications site. The next step will be a public meeting at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Philomath High School (See box on Page A3).
In the meantime, however, the BPA proposal has opened the door for citizens groups such as the nonprofit Marys Peak Alliance, which sees it as an opportunity to revisit the question of whether a cluster of radio towers is really the best and highest use for the mountain’s scenic summit.
Leaders of the group met in July with BPA representatives and local Forest Service officials to deliver a proposal of their own: Move the BPA communications facilities to another location with less conservation and recreational value and start looking for ways to get the other radio towers off the summit as well.
“They came out of that meeting without any doubt that there are a lot of people and organizations in Corvallis that care about what happens on Marys Peak,” said alliance member Phil Hays. “Basically, we told them: ‘It’s our mountain, not yours.’”
Rising to an altitude of 4,097 feet above sea level, Marys Peak stands head and shoulders above the surrounding ridgelines, providing views of the High Cascades to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Its summit meadows, dotted with subalpine wildflowers in the summer and covered with snow in the winter, are a popular outdoor recreation destination for mid-valley residents.
The mountain is managed for multiple uses by multiple owners. Private timber companies control much of the lower elevations except on the east slope, where the 10,000-acre Rock Creek watershed provides about 30 percent of the municipal water supply for the city of Corvallis.
Overlaying the area is a portion of the O&C lands, a checkerboard of federal real estate managed for timber production and wildlife habitat by the Bureau of Land Management.
Most of the mountain’s upper slopes lie within the Siuslaw National Forest, including the 924-acre Marys Peak Scenic-Botanical Special Interest Area, created to preserve the mountain’s sensitive plant communities and sweeping vistas.
“It really is special,” Hays said. “We have plants up there that exist in the Coast Range only on the top 200 feet of Marys Peak.”
There’s even an insect, the Marys Peak ice crawler, that is believed to be unique to the mountain’s upper slopes.
On the summit itself, in the middle of the special interest area, is the Marys Peak Communications Site, a half-acre enclave surrounded by a heavy-duty chain-link fence.
Inside the fence are a number of structures, including a 16-foot-by-20-foot concrete block building full of communications equipment owned by the BPA. The agency also has two radio towers that stand roughly 27 feet tall.
The Forest Service has a 14-by-40-foot concrete block communications building on the site, flanked by a 40-foot radio tower. Nearby is a 20-foot radio tower that belongs to the Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State Police.
There’s also a propane generator and two 1,000-gallon propane tanks to provide emergency power.
The BPA says it needs to replace one of its radio towers, a single wooden pole holding a UHF dish that gets blown around and misaligned during winter storms. Sensitive equipment in the concrete block building can be damaged by high summer temperatures, the agency says, and it also needs a more reliable backup power source.
One of the possible alternatives being promoted by the Marys Peak Alliance is to relocate the BPA equipment a half-mile down the slope to a secondary site called West Ridge, a quarter-acre cluster of radio towers serving the communications needs of various entities including the city of Corvallis, the Federal Aviation Administration, Consumers Power Inc. and the Union Pacific Railroad.
Ultimately, Hays said, the group would like to see all communications equipment moved off the summit and replaced with an observation deck. That would restore the 360-degree views from the top, provide an attractive destination for hikers and picnickers, and keep foot traffic off the sensitive wildflower meadows.
“All these agencies that have stuff up there probably have an alternative (communications option). All that’s stopping them is inertia and dollars,” he said. “There’s no other place I know of where the public can drive to the highest point around and have an unimpeded view.”