Suiattle River Road to be repaired; no date set

DARRINGTON — People who used to enjoy camping up the Suiattle River Road now can look forward to returning to some of their favorite places in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Federal Highway Administration officials decided earlier this month that repairs to the flood-damaged road, including reroutes through old trees, pose no significant impacts to the environment.

The head of the citizen committee Darrington Area Friends for Public Use was pleased when she heard the news.

“It’s a great road, with lots of trailheads out there and two big campgrounds,” said Martha Rasmussen. “Getting the road open to vehicles is going to be good for Darrington. Many of us remember the good old days when hikers and campers made a stop in town before heading out into the mountains.”

The Western Federal Lands Highway Division of the highway administration released its decision to reopen the road to its original endpoint following a lengthy environmental assessment and public review period this year.

Darrington Ranger District environmental coordinator Phyllis Reed said what happens next is up to the highway administration, which must prepare contracts and take bids for the work.

“We are very encouraged and eagerly awaiting construction on the road,” Reed said. “People keep asking when the work is going to start.”

No project calendar has been established, highway administration officials said. The proposed repair and rehabilitation of the road is expected to take two or three summers to complete, but it’s likely work will begin in 2013.

The road was damaged by river flooding and washouts in the mid-2000s, forcing Forest Service rangers to block it off to motor vehicles at milepost 12.

Road repairs were under way in 2011 when a lawsuit with concerns about wildlife and old trees prompted the federal government to back out of plans to fix the 23-mile-long road and begin another environmental assessment of its slated repairs.

Of the more than 400 people who commented on the proposed repairs, about 86 percent were in favor of the entire road being reopened to cars and trucks.

Lynnwood hiker Bill Lider was one of the parties that sued the Forest Service and now he is considering suing the Federal Highway Administration to stop the work because he believes the Forest Service and the Western Federal Lands Highway Division are violating the code of federal regulations by using emergency repair money for the project.

“And the project still routes the road through old-growth forest and will divert water flow from wetlands as well as fracturing and rendering useless many acres of spotted owl and marbled murrelet habitat,” Lider said. “Given the recent events with Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, it is shameful that the (Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration) are diverting federal funding for a road project that clearly does not qualify for using this funding source and diverts needed repair money from much more important projects.”

Emergency funding for the road was extended a year ago when U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen lobbied the Federal Highway Administration for the extension.

Suiattle River Road is the last of the western access points to Glacier Peak Wilderness. Having the road repaired means restoring easier access to the wild-and-scenic Suiattle River, seven backcountry hiking trails, the Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed Buck Creek Campground, as well as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

Copies of the highway administration’s Finding of No Significant Impact are available for review at the Darrington Ranger Station, 1405 Emens Ave. N., Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave., and Darrington Library, 1005 Cascade St.

More information is available at http://www.wfl.fhwa.dot.gov/projects/wa/suiattle/.

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

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