Environmental groups sue to keep road closed into forestlands east of Darrington

DARRINGTON — It’s been years since people have been able to drive the length of Suiattle River Road 26, a popular route east of Darrington that leads to trailheads, campgrounds and Sauk-Suiattle tribal cemeteries in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Now, the Federal Highway Adminis

tration and the U.S. Forest Service plan to spend $1.7 million this summer to fix 2 miles of the roadway, damaged by flooding in 2003 and 2006.

But Bill Lider of Lynnwood, along with the Pilchuck Audubon Society and North Cascades Conservation Council have filed a lawsuit in federal District Court to stop the project.

The proposed work would destroy ancient trees that are home to the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, the suit alleges. The project, which includes a realignment and some new culverts, could damage parts of the Suiattle River, which has a scenic river designation with protection for salmon, said Lider, who also is a member of the Pilchuck Audobon Society.

The project has not had a proper environmental assessment, Lider contends. He also said the repair project is being funded with emergency highway repair funds.

“How can a road washout in 2003 still be an emergency in 2011?” Lider said. “As a taxpayer, I want to see these funds used as Congress intended them to be used, for true emergencies. And because the Forest Service calls this a minor project, the public never had a chance to comment. This is not minor.”

Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said Forest Service employees have been told not to talk about the lawsuit.

Lider, a civil engineer, believes Suiattle River Road 26 can be left as is and still benefit the public.

“Without reconstructing the road, it could still support a lot of recreation in that area,” he said. “People can hike in or bicycle in.”

Lider’s is the second lawsuit involving the local Forest Service filed in the past six months.

A Montana-based group called Wilderness Watch alleges that officials violated the federal Wilderness Act and National Environmental Policy Act, which restricts motorized equipment and new construction in wilderness areas. The Green Mountain lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness was restored with the use of a helicopter. Wilderness Watch claims the lookout is a replica, rather than a restoration and wants it taken down. The lawsuit has angered regional hiking groups whose members help maintain mountain lookouts throughout northwest Washington.

The Wilderness Watch suit also seeks payment for its investigative costs and its attorney fees. Lookout volunteers claim that the suit is a way for the environmental group to raise money to support itself.

Lider’s lawsuit seeks attorney fees and that construction on Suiattle River Road 26 be halted pending an environmental review.

“We just want the government to slow down and do it right, starting with the cutting of old trees,” Lider said.

All groups suing the Forest Service are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center of Portland, Ore. Brian Kipnis in Seattle is the federal Department of Justice lawyer for both cases.

The Suiattle River Road was established in the early 1900s by miners headed out to work their claims, according to a timeline posted on the Darrington Ranger District website. By the 1930s, the road extended nearly 20 miles to the Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed Buck Creek Campground. In the big timber heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, the road was used heavily by logging trucks. From the mid-1970s through 2007, the road was damaged by flooding on more than a dozen occasions.

Several times, the Forest Service conducted environmental assessments for road repair. It wasn’t enough, Lider said.

“We’re talking about a lot of wildlife,” he said.

The Suiattle River Road 26 project is not the only road work planned for the summer. Road work along the Mountain Loop Highway, the Pacific Crest Trail bridge over the Suiattle and Whitechuck River Road has been scheduled. Lider’s suit does not aim to stop those projects.

Meanwhile, lots of people are jumping on the bandwagon in the fight against Wilderness Watch, said Darrington Historical Society president Leah Tyson.

The Darrington Town Council unanimously passed a resolution last month stating opposition to the demolition of the Green Mountain Lookout because of its historical importance and its continued use as a forest fire lookout.

Forrest Clark, a Cathcart resident and director of the Western Washington chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, is especially angry about the Wilderness Watch lawsuit.

The Forest Service and volunteers attempted to avoid using motorized transportation when repairing the lookout in 2009. A helicopter was used after two pack horses were injured and had to be shot. The helicopter was brought in for six brief flights to the summit, he said.

“There are a lot of lies in it, starting with the fact that they say the lookout is a replica. It has been repaired with more than half of its original material from the 1930s,” said Clark, who has volunteered for 22 years to help maintain Green Mountain and other lookouts in the state. “I was there when we fixed it.”

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

Learn more

Forest Service information about Suiattle River Road 26 is at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/mbs/projects.

Information about the Green Mountain Lookout is at www.fs.usda.gov.

Wilderness Watch: www.wildernesswatch.org.

Pilchuck Audubon Society: www.pilchuckaudubon.org.

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