By Kim R. Brown
I hoped to read something in Kathy Johnson’s Jan. 6 guest commentary, “Downsizing Forest Service roads,” that would help me understand Pilchuck Audubon Society’s position on the Suiattle River Road, but it only causes concern that they hope to become involved in the Travel Analysis Project mandated by the Forest Service to reduce their road system.
I disagree that the damaged road has created more recreation opportunities. With the road closed, and unless campers are biking, have at least three days, and are above average fitness, opportunities to experience the watershed are limited to cursory exploration. Beyond the road corridor lie thousands of acres of uninterrupted old growth forest, high meadows, lakes, shimmering glaciers, colorful geology, canyons carved through a layer of volcanic ash over 1,000-feet thick, and a dizzying array of vegetation where east and west ecosystems blend. Before the washouts, a weekend was sufficient to inspire more purple prose than generated by the entire Romantic era.
Johnson’s failure to notice the charms of Sulphur Creek until recently has nothing to do with cars. When it was open to cars, and in fewer years than it took Johnson to appreciate birds as a bicyclist on the road, the Suiattle thoroughly charmed me. I hiked Sulphur Creek trail to the hot springs, photographed colorful stones and ripple patterns on the edge of the Suiattle. I once lay on the road to watch the Perseid meteors. I sunk to my knees in muck while photographing a wetland. I learned to identify red elderberry, Pacific western yew, Alaska yellow-cedar. I examined mosses, lichens, spodosols, and tiny benthic critters. I joined an eccentric old gent on a Downey Mountain Sasquatch quest. I saw hundreds of candy-stick saprophyte on Sulphur Mountain, and the gigantic trees of Milk Creek. I’ve enjoyed flower-laded meadows, colorful fall foliage, acres of blueberries, swirling fog, rocky summits, clucking ravens, eagles, bears and mountain goats — all this and more, when the road was open to motorized use.
Buck Creek campers can continue to camp there once the road is repaired; the difference being they’ll be hiking trails instead of road. According to the Alternative Environmental Assessment, trail-head registers show that from 1998-2003, annual visitation estimates for the Suiattle, Green Mountain, and Downey trails were 1,650, 1,765 and 374 respectively. After 2006 floods, visitation dropped to 93, 19, and 60. Buck Creek campground average visitor days numbered 4,800 before the floods. There are no statistics post-2006, but anyone who has been there can vouch for a significant drop in visitation. Sulphur Creek visitor days in 2003 were 1043.
Pilchuck Audubon’s compromise plan, a road-to-trail conversion, is discussed and eliminated from further consideration in the EA. Continued criticism of the agencies for not adopting Pilchuck’s plan is unreasonable — it does not meet current Forest Service policy, nor is road-to-trail conversion eligible under the rules of the project’s funding source, Emergency Repair for Federally Owned Roads. The plan did not offer a funding source.
Johnson lists concerns about birds and the Downey Creek bridge. Northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet are discussed in Section 3.11 and 3.11.2 of the EA. Though 8 acres of owl habitat will be impacted on some construction sites, surveys found no spotted owls, minimal marbled murrelet activity, and no nests for either bird in the entire project area. The tree canopy along the road corridor is insufficient for murrelet habitat. Construction noise, which may temporarily affect any murrelet resting in adjacent suitable habitat will be mitigated by working during a time-frame when the birds, if any, are less likely to be present.
The Downey Creek bridge upgrade is worth the investment by the tribes, the state, and Forest Service. The design has the approval of Skagit River Cooperative, the Salmon Recovery Fund, and scientists, hydrologists and engineers of all agencies involved.
Given Pilchuck Audubon’s hope to participate in the Travel Analysis Project, it is frustrating that Johnson feels it necessary to publicly insult other users and denounce the decision a mere seven days after their announcement to move on. It is troubling they still feel the project is unjustified after a Finding of No Significant Impact was signed, based on two EAs, an Alt-EA, studies by multiple federal agencies, Forest Service policy, and a landslide majority of over 410 comments in favor of full repair.
Decisions made by the Travel Analysis Project will forever impact forest users, whose interests are varied. Participation in the project requires objectivity, fairness, a true understanding of multiple-use, respect for other users of the forest, and for Forest Service policy.
This means all participants.
Kim R. Brown is an avid hiker from Seattle. Though her opinions are her own, she has written articles about environmental and agency policy for outdoors organizations in Western Washington.