At long last, the Mountain Loop Scenic Highway is reopening.
Four years ago, torrential rains washed out five sections of the picturesque 50-mile road that links Granite Falls and Darrington.
After many delays, the U.S. Forest Service today is scheduled to open the road that borders the South Fork Stillaguamish and Sauk rivers.
“It’s a great day,” said Lyle Romack, Granite Falls mayor. “It’s something that I’ve been waiting for, something I think our city has been waiting for and something the people who use that road for recreation have been waiting for.”
Reopening the road will give Darrington businesses a shot in the arm, too, predicted Darrington Mayor Joyce Jones.
“Since the logging industry is almost nonexistent in the area, we’ve been trying to pursue the recreation industry,” Jones said. “The closure of this road has delayed some of those things happening for us.”
She estimates businesses in her town have lost $500,000 to $700,000 in potential revenue because of the road’s four-year closure.
In an environmental assessment outlining its plan to repair the road, the Forest Service found the economic impact of the route’s closure was “very small,” suggesting that most people do their shopping before they head out for the forest.
Flooding in November 2003 caused more than $10 million damage to roads in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. It cost $800,000 to fix the Mountain Loop Highway, said Peter Forbes, district ranger for the Darrington Ranger Station. The Forest Service is still trying to repair many of the roads damaged in 2003, plus the $15 million worth of road damage that occurred during the 2007 Election Day Flood.
Reopening the Mountain Loop Highway was a priority because Darrington and Granite Falls depend on it, both to bring people to the cities and as a back-door, emergency exit route, Forbes said.
It’s also immensely popular with the public, he said.
“There’s just a lot of desire for folks to have an opportunity to drive in the woods,” Forbes said.
The road’s opening was delayed this year after a Lynnwood man raised concerns that the Forest Service’s construction crew appeared to be working too close to endangered salmon-spawning areas.
Federal and state wildlife officials forced the Forest Service to make sure fish weren’t harmed by the road work. That delayed the planned spring opening until now.
Bill Lider, a professional road engineer and member of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, said he found a road construction crew hired by the Forest Service working below the Sauk River’s high-water mark. That was just after the Election Day Flood. Experts feared there were active salmon-spawning beds nearby.
Lider believes the Forest Service should permanently close the Mountain Loop Highway where it has been subject to washout. The terrain is so rough and the roadway so badly built that it’s only a matter of time before high water tears it apart again, he said.
“If people want to drive on the roadway, they should do it soon, because I don’t think it’s going to last,” he said. “I think they got it constructed just in time for it to wash out again. It’s a catastrophic disaster waiting to happen.”
Forbes said there are weak spots on the road, but that he believes the two sites that suffered the most damage in 2003 have been sufficiently beefed up and moved back from the river to survive future flooding.
One thing is clear: the road won’t remain open for long.
The Mountain Loop Highway is not maintained during the winter and closes with the first hard snow. That usually happens in November.