By Kathy Johnson
The Western Federal Highway Administration has issued its Decision Notice to reopen the Suiattle River Road to its former end — or I should say, to its 2003 end, when it was washed out by a massive region-wide flood event. Prior to the 1970s, the road ended a mile farther upriver. For all of my hiking lifetime, that part of the road has been a trail. Those who walk it today would have no idea that it was so recently traveled by motor vehicle, for the old roadbed has returned to forest — as could happen to additional road miles if they were not reopened.
In the early 1930s, the Suiattle River Road terminated at the Buck Creek campground, 19 miles from the Sauk River crossing. At the turn of the century and for millennia before that, the entire route was a foot or horse trail. This should be remembered by those who insist on the need for motorized travel here.
Many in the hiking community have mourned their “loss of access” since the road was closed by Mother Nature. Actually, the road closure has increased our recreation opportunities. Last June — when most of the trails in the district were still buried under snow, including the trails originating on the Suiattle Road, I bicycled the scenic and nearly level closed road. I encountered numerous dayhikers, backpackers, and bicyclists, including a family with young children returning from “bike-camping,” probably at the Buck Creek campground. I also noticed for the first time things that I hadn’t appreciated from a car — like the diversity of forest types along the road, the many bird species using that forest, and the distinctive odor that gave Sulphur Creek its name. On another trip, hikers were treated to the sight of a bobcat on the road.
Pilchuck Audubon Society was disappointed by the FHWA’s decision to rebuild the entire Suiattle Road, rather than adopting the compromise we had proposed that would have converted the last four miles of road to a trail. However, we were pleased to learn that the FHWA has narrowed the footprint of the road somewhat as we requested in our comments. This will result in fewer old growth trees being cut in designated Critical Habitat for the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl.
Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found it necessary to grant an “incidental take” permit for these birds, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, due to the noise that will be generated by the project. This means they have acknowledged that the species will be harmed by rebuilding the road.
The marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl aren’t the only populations affected by the logging that will happen here. A paper published in the Dec. 7 edition of Science magazine reported that the loss of big, old trees is a global phenomenon that impacts thousands of other species worldwide. It is unfortunate that we here in Snohomish County must contribute to the decline of old forests just so that people can drive a little closer to the wilderness.
Reopening the road for its full 23 miles will require the construction of a new and very expensive bridge over Downey Creek, as well as repair of the Sulphur Creek bridge a mere quarter-mile from the road’s end. It also necessitates road construction across an unstable slope that consulting engineers recommended against. This slope will doubtless fail sooner or later, resulting in degraded water quality in the Suiattle River and the need for more tax dollars to repair it.
In fact, the Suiattle Road is but one of hundreds of National Forest roads in our state that have washed out repeatedly and will certainly do so again. The very nature of our mountain roads, with abundant rainfall and snowmelt in the western Cascades, guarantees future road damage from floods and slides, damaging vitally important fish habitat and municipal water systems.
Quite simply, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest does not have the funds to maintain all of these roads. The Forest Service is mandated to evaluate its road system by 2016 in order to downsize it in coming years. Through decommissioning and the use of seasonal and long term closures, the roads needed for management and recreational purposes will be maintained, but many will be closed.
Pilchuck Audubon Society hopes that other conservation and outdoor recreation groups, as well as interested individuals, will join us as active participants in discussions with the Forest Service during this process. While the FHWA and U.S. Forest Service have chosen an ill-advised course with the Suiattle Road decision, we have chosen to focus our efforts on the larger context of road closures throughout the forest rather than pursuing litigation in this case.
Kathy Johnson of Marysville is the Pilchuck Audubon Society Forest Practices Chair.