Reopen Suiattle Road

Wilderness becomes an abstraction if it’s only accessible in coffee-table books and PBS documentaries. For more than a generation beginning in the late 1940s, Northwesterners threw elbows, scribbled letters, and lobbied members of Congress to preserve an extraordinary gem, the Glacier Peak National Wilderness Area. Since its inception nearly a half-century ago, the wilderness has drawn hikers, families, and adventurers, all of whom cultivate a visceral connection to one of the West’s most sublime natural places.

Suiattle Road, the major Western portal into Glacier Peak Wilderness, is the indispensable road in, offering access to seven trailheads, 27 miles of the wild-and-scenic Suiattle River, two campgrounds, and more than 120 miles of trails (including the iconic Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.) After several washouts, Suiattle Road needs to be rebuilt, but litigation has put the kibosh on construction (not to mention innumerable summer camping trips, evidence that common sense and public policy don’t always align.)

Efforts to stymie the Suiattle rebuild don’t emanate from Ron Paul-style Libertarians but from a segment of the conservation community fearful that the new road will have an unacceptable environmental impact. In response, the U.S. Forest Service is strictly adhering to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and taking public comments. The alternative is simply to let it be, so that only the most robust and ambulatory souls (literally) labor in to a wilderness area that belongs to all Americans.

Since the era of David Brower’s leadership of the Sierra Club in the 1950s, conservationists have been pigeonholed as elitists, disconnected from the interests of the hoi polloi. The stereotype is just that, a broadside sadly given renewed vigor whenever greenie pressure groups lobby against access. We don’t want to love a place to death, goes the argument. That’s not a salient objection in this case, however. With the remote Glacier Peak Wilderness, emblematic of what Yeats would call a “terrible beauty,” the road in is a blessing, the backdrop that will shape and inform future generations of conservationists. Take heed, wilderness lovers: An alpine classroom beats coffee-table books and PBS documentaries.

Thankfully, there has always been a sensible center to the Northwest environmental movement, private citizens and nonprofits that recast politics and conservation into the art of the possible. The Wilderness Society, Washington Wild, Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, American Whitewater and many others are pushing for a full re-opening of Suiattle Road. Local economies in Darrington and Arlington will also experience the tourist windfall.

The public has until Monday, Sept. 10 to express concerns and ideas to the U.S. Forest Service. Abstraction is not an option.