An estimated 5 million people visit Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest each year, making use of the 2,500 miles of Forest Service roads to see the beauty of the forest and get to the trails that take them deeper into it.
As part of cost-cutting in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service must pare down the number of roads it maintains. In Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, which stretches from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier, officials are under the gun to end spending for maintenance of about 75 percent of the Forest Service roads.
Ongoing now are public meetings at which the Forest Service is trying to find out which roads are most important to people who use them. Among the next meetings is one scheduled for Wednesday in Darrington.
Some people at previous meetings have shown support for closure of the roads, and not just as a cost-saving measure. Two lawsuits in recent years against Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest -- one that sought to shut down repairs to the Suiattle River Road and another that accused the Forest Service of violating the Wilderness Act by refurbishing the historic Green Mountain forest fire lookout -- make clear that some would rather see the wilderness left alone.
People in Darrington, however, plan to fight closures. They have alternative ideas to back up their arguments against decommissioning forest roads. And it isn't all about recreation or sightseeing.
A logging town, Darrington has suffered as timber sales in the national forest have declined.
Notable locals spent Saturday driving people around the forest to talk about their concerns and ideas. They were Mayor Dan Rankin, who owns a small mill; Paul Wagner, a member of the Society of American Foresters; and Martha Rasmussen, who leads a Darrington volunteer forest-roads maintenance group.
Rasmussen said her group has cleaned and performed maintenance work on nearly all of the Forest Service roads in the Darrington District of the forest. In 2012, Friends for Public Use put in more than 1,000 hours of volunteer work, cleaning culverts and ditches and cutting back brush along nearly 500 miles of forest roads. They also removed 14.5 cubic yards of garbage.
"Despite what some people say, these roads are not crumbling away," Rasmussen said. "We know because we take care of them."
Historically, the Forest Service goal has been to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and that has meant supporting rural economies and enabling access to recreation. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has said that another goal is to get children into the forests.
"Forest Service conservation education programs inspire young people to start exploring the natural world around them, which develops a life-long appreciation for the environment," Tidwell said in May.
Rasmussen wonders, however, how young people will see the forest if the roads are gone. Many day hikes already have been eliminated because of previous road closures, she said.
"The people who can visit all of the forest are those who are in great physical shape and who have lots of time to hike the many miles on closed roads to get to trailheads," Rasmussen said.
The national forest road system also is necessary for timber harvesting, which means jobs in towns such as Darrington, said Wagner, the forester.
Wagner contends that it's going to cost more to decommission roads in the forest than it would to maintain them for future logging and recreation. Decommissioning involves culverts being pulled out, roadways loosened, fill material trucked out and native shrubs planted.
"Decommissioning is destruction of public property," Wagner said. "Much of the existing roads system has endured 20 years of minimal maintenance. It's a testament to good design and the logging companies that built them."
More than 100 years ago, Congress established a self-supporting system that dedicated 10 percent of timber sales revenue to construction and maintenance of roads and trails, Wagner said. "Now the federal budget sends these funds to the treasury," he said.
As he drove the woods Saturday, Wagner pointed to places in the forest where its health is threatened by lack of active management. Thinning, prescribed burning and timber harvesting are essential for the health of a working forest, he said.
Forest Supervisor Jennifer Eberlien and Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes won't argue with Wagner. His ideas are reasonable, but the Forest Service is dealing with limited personnel and budgets, Forbes said.
Rankin, Darrington's mayor, believes that many roads could be maintained by timber companies that want to harvest the valuable alder that has grown up alongside the roads. Alder veneer is a valuable product that can be stained to resemble other woods, he said.
By cutting the alder and allowing more daylight onto wet, leaf-covered roads, maintenance becomes easier, Rasmussen said.
Eberlien said she hopes many people show up to the remaining public hearings on Forest Service road closures.
"We need these conversations. The Forest Service is not going to solve this problem by ourselves," she said. "We're in this thing together."
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
People who want to comment on the future of Forest Service roads in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest are encouraged to attend one of the following meetings:
•4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Darrington Community Center, 570 Sauk Ave.
5:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave.
1 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Monroe Library, 1070 Village Way
5:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave.
To reserve a seat, email email@example.com. More information is at www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/home.
To comment online, go to mbssustainableroads.wordpress.com.
Correction: The U.S. Forest Service plans to maintain only 25 percent of the roads in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest because of budget cuts. The Forest Service will decommission some remaining roads while trying to keep as many open as possible. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the federal agency would close all the roads it cannot maintain.
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