Comments in on future of Suiattle River Road

DARRINGTON — Many people in Snohomish County remember driving up Suiattle River Road in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, also known as Forest Road 26, to popular trailheads, hunting and fishing spots and campgrounds.

For almost 10 years, however, relatively few have seen those uplands. River flooding and washouts in 2003-04 and 2006-07 forced forest officials to block off the road to motor vehicles at Milepost 6.

That access could be restored under proposals to repair and rebuild the road.

At the end of April, more than 400 groups and individuals submitted comments to the Federal Highway Administration and cast ballots for the future of the Suiattle River Road.

The Western Federal Lands Highway Division of the Federal Highway Administration is tallying their opinions. There are three options: One would leave the road closed to cars and trucks; another would repair the road only part way to the junction with the Green Mountain trailhead; the last would repair and reopen the road all the way to the end at Sulphur Creek.

Federal highway officials have not given a date for the release of the plan for the road.

Road repairs were under way in 2011 when a lawsuit prompted the federal government to back out of plans to fix the 23-mile road.

Among those who brought the lawsuit, Lynnwood hiker Bill Lider contended that the proposed repairs would destroy old trees and wildlife habitat. The federal district court in Seattle dismissed the lawsuit in July, but the Forest Service embarked on another environmental assessment of the repair plans.

Lider said he voted for the option that would let people drive the road up to the Green Mountain trailhead. But Lider said his comments include a request that only short routes around the washouts be built.

“The Federal Highway Administration likes to build roads like freeways,” Lider said. “I am still worried about damage to the forest.”

In the big timber heyday, loaded log trucks rumbled down the Suiattle River Road to Darrington and lumber mills throughout the county.

The road was once a path used by the people of what is now the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe and later by miners headed to their claims.

By the 1940s, a solid Forest Service road extended nearly 20 miles to the Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed Buck Creek Campground.

A reopening of the road would be great news to people such as former Darrington Mayor Joyce Jones. She said her little town flourished before the road was closed.

Along with the economic boost that logging brought, the Darrington Ranger District of the national forest maintained 17 campgrounds and the roads to get to them, Jones said.

“Every weekend, the campers came through town and life in this small community was good,” she said. “Now we’re down to fewer than five campgrounds and few ways to get to the places where people used to like to go.”

Jones, a retired Darrington Ranger District Forest Service employee, said she blames some in the environmental community.

“I wonder if these people would like it if I showed up in their neighborhoods and demanded changes that would upend their way of life,” Jones said.

Opening the road to its end is being supported by numerous groups including the American Alpine Club, Back Country Horsemen of Washington, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the Mountaineers, Washington Climbers Coalition, Washington Trails Association and the Wilderness Society.

On the Washington Trails Association’s online Signpost blog, Jonathan Guzzo, the association’s advocacy director, has made it clear that his group supports restoring the entire length of the Suiattle River Road.

The road is the last of the western access points to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Guzzo said. Having the road repaired would restore access to the wilderness back country, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and some magnificent hikes, he said.

If a repair alternative is chosen, construction on the road would not begin until 2013, Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for the Washington Trails Association’s Jonathan Guzzo. The title is now correct.

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