By Kathy Johnson and Rebecca Wolfe
The impressive peaks, lush forests, and wild rivers of Snohomish County make this a land of natural wonders, drawing visitors from near and far. Standing out among its attractions is Wallace Falls, the scenic climax of the Skykomish valley near Gold Bar. The falls dominate the view from a long stretch of Highway 2. Framed in unbroken forest with peaks of the Wild Sky Wilderness above, that view is now threatened by proposed clear-cutting on state Department of Natural Resources lands just east of Wallace Falls State Park.
More than a spectacular sight, the great white cataract of Wallace Falls is also a tremendous recreational draw. The low-elevation trails of the state park offer appealing, snow-free hiking throughout the year. About 160,000 people visit each year, overwhelming the small trailhead parking area. Cars often park along the approach road for nearly a mile back toward Gold Bar, causing problems for neighbors. The need for more facilities is urgent.
Snohomish County has taken steps to relieve the crowding by purchasing land for a new trailhead. This will provide access for new multi-use trails to the falls on state DNR lands of Reiter Forest across the Wallace River from the state park. Funding has been secured to build new trails, including a bridge across the Wallace River above the falls. These new trails will mean more and better recreational opportunities.
Unfortunately, DNR has proposed the “Singletary” timber sale to clear-cut 200 acres of mature forest directly bordering the state park for over 4,000 feet. The cutting units would be located immediately above the new trailhead, right on the new trails. Instead of going through the cool, tall forest now growing there, the new trails would climb through clear cuts. Forestry and recreation are quite compatible in many places, but not on new trails at Wallace Falls, one of the premier year-round hiking destinations in all of Snohomish County. This special place — and the people who visit it — deserve better.
Conservation groups are asking DNR to delay the timber sale, to provide time to find a solution. Mechanisms exist to conserve state trust lands with high ecological and recreational values, such as those near Wallace Falls. Land exchanges, conservation purchases, and trust land transfers have all been used in the past to protect special places on DNR-managed lands. DNR itself has been a conservation leader, with its Natural Resource Conservation Areas (NRCAs) protecting important lands in many parts of the state. The portion of Reiter Forest adjacent to Wallace Falls State Park is an ideal candidate for permanent protection.
Protecting the “Wild Wallace” area would not only protect scenic views and recreational trails. It also represents the last chance to protect a significant acreage of lowland “virgin second growth” forest in Snohomish County. The forests near Wallace Falls were railroad logged in the 1920s, and were never artificially replanted. They have now grown back with a diverse, natural mix of species, with many trees now approaching three feet in diameter and over 150 feet tall, well on their way to becoming old growth once again. A Wild Wallace NRCA or state park addition would protect these forests and form a bridge to connect Wallace Falls State Park and the Wild Sky Wilderness, allowing the three areas together to function as one ecologic unit, more than the sum of their parts. Such habitat corridors are critical to wildlife and should be maintained wherever possible.
One has only to look south to see what can happen when determined efforts are made and creative solutions are found to conserve scenic natural areas and develop new recreational opportunities. Along the Interstate 90 corridor, hundreds of thousands of acres have been conserved in the “Mountains to Sound Greenway.” Views have been protected and dozens of miles of new trails have been built in a nearly continuous chain of lands from Tiger Mountain near Issaquah, through Mt. Si at North Bend and stretching all the way to Snoqualmie Pass. NRCAs, Scenic Areas, State Parks and National Forest Wilderness are all part of the mix, which has been a tremendous success.
Here in Snohomish County and along Highway 2, the mountain landscapes are even more dramatic than along I-90. A Stevens Pass Greenway could become a reality. At present it consists of little more than a couple of signs along the highway, but the raw materials are all there in abundance. Isn’t it time that Snohomish County and Highway 2 enjoyed some of the success we’ve seen along I-90? What better place to start than at Wallace Falls?
Our groups hope that the DNR will agree to at least postpone logging the area near Wallace Falls, and help us all to find a solution to keep the forests there intact. The view of Wallace Falls from Highway 2 is iconic. It could be — and should be — a foundation of the Stevens Pass Greenway. It’s not the place for clear cuts. Snohomish County, the Stevens Pass Greenway and Wallace Falls all deserve better.
Kathy Johnson is Forest Practices chair for Pilchuck Audubon Society. Rebecca Wolfe is co-chair for Sierra Club Snohomish Group.