Audubon ends river road challenge; focus shifts to other forest roads

DARRINGTON — The Pilchuck Audubon Society plans no more litigation to oppose repairs to the flood-damaged Suiattle River Road. However, the environmental group hopes to influence which other logging roads continue to stay open in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Repairs to the once-popular Suiattle River Road were under way in 2011 when a lawsuit by Pilchuck Audubon and other parties prompted the federal government to defer plans to fix the 23-mile-long road and to begin another environmental assessment of slated repairs. In the lawsuit, Pilchuck Audubon expressed concern about wildlife habitat and old trees that would be removed for the repair project.

In November, the Western Federal Lands Division of the Federal Highway Administration decided that the repairs to the road, including reroutes through stands of old trees, posed no significant impacts to the environment. Repairs are likely to begin in summer, Forest Service officials said.

“We are pleased that the size of the road footprint has been reduced” under the new repair plan, said Kathleen Snyder, president of Pilchuck Audubon Society. “Old-growth trees will still be cut, but now fewer of them in the critical habitat.”

Instead of continuing to challenge the Suiattle River Road repair, the organization will examine the entire road system.

“Hundreds of miles of a road system built years ago, to feed the nation’s appetite for wood products, are now sliding off the mountainsides in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest watersheds, degrading fish habitat and high-quality water for drinking and industrial purposes,” Snyder said.

Many of the old roads need to be closed, she said.

“Congress has asked the Forest Service to come up with a plan by 2016 for these old logging roads. They need to identify a minimum-size road system needed locally for safe, efficient travel, for the protection and management of national forest lands,” Snyder said. “They need to be looked at for closure because culverts are crumbling away and other problems are occurring that would cost the federal government too much money to repair. This is not just Pilchuck Audubon’s opinion, but we would like to help move that process along.”

Snyder said her organization hopes to organize a summit next summer regarding the future of roads in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

“We anticipate they will work with area stakeholders to include conservation and outdoor recreation groups, commercial natural resource interests, tribes, local businesses and other resource agencies,” Snyder said.

Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes could not be reached to comment on Snyder’s statement.

Martha Rasmussen, who heads the Darrington Area Friends for Public Use, said her group is taking care of roads in the Darrington District of the forest. Her group had advocated keeping the Suiattle River Road open.

“There have been no reports of forest road damage this year because we are out there, on our own dime, patrolling the roads on a regular basis,” Rasmussen said. “We have reopened ditches, made sure that water is going through culverts and we have removed decades worth of garbage.”

The Forest Stewardship Club at Darrington High School also has worked to keeping forest roads clean and accessible, Rasmussen said.

“We have saved Congress a ton of money already. That’s how passionate we are about access to the forest,” Rasmussen said. “We invite the Audubon Society to join us. We want the roads to stay open not just for recreation but for tribal members so they can gather berries, bark and herbs. We all need access.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Pilchuck Audubon Society: pilchuckaudubon.org

Darrington Area Friends for Public Use: ffpu.org

Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest: www.fs.usda.gov/mbs

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