DARRINGTON — In the face of a lawsuit by local environmentalists, the federal government has backed out of plans this summer to spend $1.7 million in emergency highway funds to repair to the once popular Suiattle River Road 26 in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Repairs to the was
hed-out road would have allowed access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, which has been virtually blocked from the west side of the mountains for more than seven years because of flood damage. The road, located east of Darrington, leads to popular trailheads, campgrounds and even Sauk-Suiattle tribal burial grounds.
The Pilchuck Audubon Society, the North Cascades Conservation Council and Lynnwood engineer and hiker Bill Lider brought the lawsuit, contending that the proposed repairs would destroy old trees that are home to the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, as well as damage parts of the Suiattle River, which has a scenic river designation with protection for salmon. Lider also objected to the use of emergency highway repair funds for the project, since the last damaging flood was in 2007.
In withdrawing plans to make the repairs now, the Federal Highway Administration also said that it will include additional environmental analysis the next time it considers making repairs to the Suiattle River Road, said Clara Conner, an engineer with the western lands division of the highway administration.
That’s what the plaintiffs wanted, Lider said.
“The lawsuit served its purpose. The withdrawal of their so-called emergency repair plans is tacit acknowledgement that wetlands and old forests along the Suiattle River are worthy of more environmental assessment,” Lider said. “The Forest Service and highway administration had done the lowest form of environmental review for this and they were playing fast and loose with the rules.”
Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said National Forest Service personnel have been asked not to talk about the lawsuit or respond to Lider’s comments. However, Forbes said that any action on federal lands is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental review before that action takes place.
Washington Trails Association advocacy director Jonathan Guzzo said he thought the environmental assessment for the road repair project was good — “a significant and sufficient assesssment.” He said he is sad that the lawsuit changed the plans for repairs to Suiattle River Road 26. If it isn’t fixed, Guzzo said, people will have to walk an extra 24 miles roundtrip on the damaged road to get to the trailheads.
“That takes any trip in the area out of the realm of a day hike. This is a major hardship for hikers who haven’t been able to access the Glacier Peak Wilderness for many years,” Guzzo said. “You can do it, but the easiest way up there includes a drive over the pass to the east side.”
Lider, however, thinks the river road in its current condition can still support plenty of recreation for people willing to bicycle or walk in.
“Our goal was never to shut down the Suiattle River Road,” Lider said.
Forbes said it’s possible that repairs to White Chuck River Road 23, located south of the Suiattle, are set to begin mid-month and could be completed near the end of summer. This might allow for a few weeks of hiking from trailheads on that road. Lider’s suit did not aim to stop repairs on the White Chuck River Road.
The Washington Trails Association wants make it clear that it doesn’t support the repair and restoration of every old logging road in the National Forest, Guzzo said.
“The Suiattle River Road, however, is clearly worthy of being rebuilt,” Guzzo said. “There is a new generation of hikers who have never even been up there.”
The Suiattle River Road was established in the early 1900s by miners heading out to work their claims. 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 1960s, 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, most severely in 2003 and 2007, Forbes said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
•Forest Service information about Suiattle River Road 26 is at http://tinyurl.com/srr26.
Pilchuck Audubon Society: www.pilchuckaudubon.org.
Washington Trails Association: www.wta.org.