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Suiattle River Crossing Scoped for Repair

Posted by Jonathan Guzzo at May 07, 2009 09:00 AM |

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The floods of 2003 took out a number of Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) bridges in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which forced a reroute through the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.  The reroute has been less than ideal, as it adds a great deal of mileage and elevation gain to an already extraordinarily long and difficult hike.  Additionally, some of the trail grades on the reroute are difficult for horse-packers, who have been historic users of the PCT.

PCT White to Suiattle

WTA worked hard to procure funds to repair the PCT, and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie has done extensive planning on how best to reopen the washed out sections of trail.  In March, the Darrington Ranger District released an Environmental Assessment on repair of the Suiattle crossing that raises hopes that the PCT can be hiked on its old alignment within a few seasons.  It also raises some concerns.

The District proposes using chainsaws, a helicopter, motorized rock drills, explosives and a mini-excavator inside the Glacier Peak Wilderness in order to complete the project.  Any one of those methods would raise eyebrows.  Together, they raise worries about the meaning of Wilderness.

Our gravest concern has been with the mini-excavator.  The Forest argues, quite rightly, that using the excavator would mean that they would have to use around a ton less high explosives, since the excavator could clear trees and rocks that could only otherwise be removed by blasting.

But we think the District, in the interest of moving quickly on this project, is missing an important component--volunteers.  It's our contention that the District could work with large volunteer groups from many organizations statewide in order to stage the trail for blasting crews.  If crews made an initial pass on the trail, establishing tread, clearing trees that are within the capacity of volunteers and digging out rootwads that need blasting for removal, a contract crew could finish the job with minimal blasting and less disturbance of the Wilderness landscape.  This approach could make a mini-excavator unnecessary.  

This approach has the potential to cost significantly less than contracting for the entire project, as well.  We're eager to work with the District on getting the Suiattle Crossing project completed.  And we're very aware of the need to finish the project in a timely fashion and with no loss of appropriated revenues. The Darrington Ranger District has talented and dedicated staff.  They're a pleasure to work with, and we're sure we can engage with them constructively to complete this important project.




Timeline for volunteers

Does WTA have a plan to get volunteers back there? It's 12 miles to the bridge site (how far in is the camp?) if the road is repaired. If not, then it's an 11 mile bike ride, then 12 miles to the bridge site.

There’s no time to schedule WTA work parties back there this summer – even if there was time, the Suiattle Road isn’t slated for repair until next summer (barring environmental issues). Unless the road crew works with cartoonic speed, volunteers can’t possibly get to the end of the road until late summer, and perhaps not even then. So we’re losing this summer plus next summer on building the trail to the bridge.

The Suiattle River trail is often impassable to stock and is not passable to stock now. Unless the trail is brought up to stock standards, how will the work crew supplies be dropped off to the site? Will they be slated as week long backcountry response work parties where crew bring their own supplies and carry tools?

But the important thing is the bridge - it will eliminate the hazards that hikers face when attempting a ford of the river, though the probability of injuries to more experienced crew performing work beyond the scope of volunteers is heightened due to increased exposure due to the project being prolonged.

The Darrington District has been hammered since 2003 and I really do not want to see resistance putting more delays on work.

Posted by:

Kim Brown on May 08, 2009 02:01 PM

moot or not?

I forgot to ask.

The public comment period ended April 27th. I had talked to Peter Forbes, Darrington District Ranger, about the final decision, and he indicated that it could take up to 30 days. Do you know if the decision has been made?

Regardless of WTA's or anyone elses' thoughts - the public comment period is over with, and barring lawsuits, the decision should be forthcoming.

Will WTA bring suit if the Forest Service decides to go with their proposed alternative?

Posted by:

Kim Brown on May 08, 2009 02:26 PM

"Dig out rootwads that need blasting"?

Kim's questions are all important ones, and I hope are answered.

Those WTA volunteers interested in learning more about mini-excavators for trail building will find a wealth of information in the USFS Missoula Technology Center publications. I'd particularly like to recommend the narrative "Trails 2000: An Approach to Survival" beginning on page 72 of (if prompted for a username/password, enter "t-d" for both).

My gravest concern arises from the suggestion that volunteers should "dig out rootwads that need blasting for removal". Anyone who has worked beneath an old-growth rootwad 10 or 12 feet in diameter on a steep slope, cutting the stem or a root, knows precisely why. Anyone who has prayed he has judged it right, or prayed that a taut 1/4" steel cable and 2-ton come-along will hold a mass weighing many times that amount, has seriously entertained the wish that he had an auger in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other. So the job could be done safely. This is not a mere matter of expedience.

Many of the wilderness trails we are trying to maintain today were built in the 1930s with liberal use of powder and dynamite. And that is the only way to reopen them without undue risk of life and limb.

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on May 12, 2009 01:01 PM

Suiattle Road?

Kim raises another open question: what is WTA's position on reopening the Suiattle Road? Jonathan has stated that WTA opposes reopening the Dosewallips Road because it would require cutting old growth trees. However, reopening the Suiattle requires cutting even more old-growth larger than 36" in diameter, at Site #1, mp 14.4, the Huckleberry Trailhead. And all are within Late Successional Reserve and Riparian Reserve. Read the EAs. If his position is consistent, WTA must oppose reopening the Suiattle even more adamantly than reopening the Dosewallips.

One WTA Board member wrote "Certain hikers of a more utilitarian bent dislike the notion of a favored hike becoming more difficult to reach. But wild country isn't there simply for our casual entertainment... I experience nothing but sheer delight when forest roads wash out. And the harder time the Forest Service has rebuilding them, the better."

That is a perfectly respectable point of view. Is it WTA's? The Suiattle puts this abstract idealism to a concrete test. Are we willing to abandon the PCT and western access to Glacier Peak Wilderness to "make the wilderness deeper"? What do WTA members think?

If WTA can conduct polls of "favorite after-hike grub", it can certainly poll members on more important questions, such as the fate of the Suiattle.

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on May 12, 2009 01:04 PM

Darrington Open House

Howdy RodF - (awesome news about the Dose).

All - this afternoon I attended the Open House hosted by the Forest Service for Federal Highways regarding the Boundary Bridge repair, the Suiattle Road repair, and the Whitechuck EA. I also chatted with Darrington District folks about this new Skyline Bridge on the PCT, as well as a county sheriff about the speed limit of Hwy 530 near Cicero. Oops. (hint: it's not 68 mph).

The decision on the PCT bridge has not yet been made; they rec'd quite a few comments! A quick glance showed that very few opposed mechanization in general, and of those, only a couple opposed the mini excavator - but it's not a numbers game and so more "votes" does not equal the "winner." They look for unique issues/suggestions, such as WTA's suggestion of using volunteers rather than contract crew or Forest Service crew.

The Suiattle Rv Rd project is still under assessment - slight new damage from last fall needs to be examined, and the bridges at Downey Creek and Sulphur Creek may be delayed separately from the road project - the 2006 flood had altered the planned work, and new assessments may delay that portion of the repair.

I was told that the Suiattle Rv Trail still has some problematic spots for horses, and Darrington District continues to examine the best approach to repair it in those spots. I spoke to a Backcountry Horseman representative at the Open House who said they are extremely interested in getting this stunning portion of the PCT back in shape.

People love it back there.

Posted by:

Kim Brown on May 12, 2009 11:24 PM

Suiattle Crossing Comments

Thanks to Kim and Rod for well-considered comments. We appreciate the interest in getting the PCT reopened as soon as possible, and have worked hard to get money flowing for that project. And, we are more than willing to muster volunteer support to that end, as well—regardless of how the overall project is implemented.

In considering this proposal, our trail maintenance and advocacy staff focused on the difficult balance that must be struck in projects like this between efficiency and Wilderness values. Our concern is that the EA comes down on hard on the side of efficiency and gives shorter shrift to Wilderness values. It’s important to finish this project. But we need to be thinking out generations ahead. For Wilderness to mean something, we have to draw lines that articulate the values presented in the Wilderness Act. Our comments to the Darrington District were an attempt to articulate another way of completing this project—a way that would likely take more time to complete than using contract labor and a mini-excavator, but a way that honors two very important values. One of those values is the Wilderness Act itself, which was designed to respect the integrity of the landscapes that are protected as Wilderness and to recognize the values of slowness, challenge and unmediated contact with nature. The other is the connection of people to the landscape and the investment that they feel when they work on public lands—whether as an all-volunteer contingent, or an element of a larger project that includes contract and Forest Service staff labor. However the project happens, it’s my sense, based on conversations with staff at the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, that this project will take at least two seasons to complete.

Our intent was to ask the Forest Service, when it considers projects in designated wilderness, to explore all its options. We realize that the Forest Service may have to occasionally rely on helicopter transport and blasting when working in wilderness. We ask, however that they not so quickly default to mechanized solutions when perhaps a combination of volunteer and contract labor could be used. We look forward to the day when the PCT is reopened on its original alignment, but we ask the District to carefully consider all its options in future projects.

Posted by:

Jonathan Guzzo on May 13, 2009 04:10 PM

Suiattle Crossing Comments

In addition to all of Kim's practical questions (none of which were answered), let's reflect further on what Jonathan is proposing. The Forest Service estimates the additional manpower required if mini-excavator is not used at 546 person-days of professional trail crew workers (Alternative 3 vs 2, pages 20-28, Suiattle Crossing EA). If done by WTA volunteers, we should at least double that estimate. That would be roughly 1/6 of WTA's total annual trail maintenance effort, or comparable to WTA's total annual backcountry response team effort, all focussed on a single remote site. And that site is a 12 mile road hike plus a 10.8 mile trail hike from the current trailhead, call it 1-1/2 days hike in or out.

Is that realistic?

How would all these volunteers be supplied? Haul everything 23 miles in on their backs, or by weekly helicopter flights for two summers? Would this actually have lower impact on wilderness values than the use of one mini-excavator?

The EA addresses this at length, and concludes "no".

Isn't it unlikely that WTA could rally a couple hundred volunteers to show up week after week over two summers if these practical questions are never addressed?

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on May 16, 2009 01:57 PM

extended BCRTs

I've since discussed this with other WTA volunteers. The consensus is that it's really 2 days travel in, and 2 days out, with driving. There's no pack support (due to the Downey Creek Bridge obstacle and Suiattle Trail conditions), so helicopter support would likely be necessary. Once on site, the shortest worthwhile work period would be 3 days on, 1 off, 2 on, like an extended BCRT. So the shortest realistic work party would be 9 days. (Professional trail crews work 10 on, 4 off in a 2 week cycle - with 1 travel day on each end, that's typically 8 days onsite work per cycle, not the 5 we're proposing here.)

The problem is that that this shortest reasonable 9 day BCRT restricts volunteer participation to primarily retired volunteers; few who work for a living can afford the time. It is not clear to us that WTA could muster a couple hundred volunteers for such extended BCRTs to this one site over two summers.

It would be a great challenge, but is it realistic?

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on May 19, 2009 10:06 AM

Extended BCRTs

Oops, 2+3+1+2+2 = 10 days minimum (not 9). 12 days would be more reasonable, given 4 days are hiking.

How many WTA volunteers can do this?

Or have Kim and I made a mistake in taking Jonathan's proposal too literally? Has he thought it through?

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on May 19, 2009 10:24 AM

Timeline and Wilderness values

I very much appreciate WTA’s position to allow other mechanized equipment for this project, and appreciate that they offered the consideration of volunteers to help in the project. I understand WTA will stand behind the project however it’s done, and that’s what is important to hikers who would otherwise stand perched and perplexed on the banks of the Suiattle River. WTA’s offer of volunteers was not meant to prohibit the project using mechanized use, even if a mini- excavator is used.

I do wish to defend the Forest Service’s Wilderness values and the perceived hurry to get this particular project completed. On-going since 2003 (almost six years), the Forest Service has exhausted many hours and bootsoles to determine the best way to get hikers safely across the Suiattle River while retaining the integrity of Wilderness, the difficult site, and the anticipation of future flood events. If Wilderness was not an issue, a ready-made bridge could have been plunked down the summer of 2004.

The Forest Service has replaced all other bridges on the 2003 damaged portion of the PCT, and it’s highly likely more hikers will be on this section of the trail than since 2003, so a higher number of hikers attempting this dangerous ford is expected. Hikers who are unaware the bridge is gone or underestimate the riverflow or gamble on a good, non-scary footlog are more often than not faced with a decision to either hike back 20+ miles, or ford it. Most choose to attempt a ford, and there have been some near disasters as a result. I realize the inherent risk of traveling in the backcountry, but because the Forest Service is interested in installing a bridge, has funding in place, and it’s reasonable to assume higher usage since 2003, it’s in the best interest for hikers to have this bridge and access to it as soon as possible. I feel that hiker safety is driving the project, not a general hurry-up attitude.

There is a good checks & balance process in place within the Forest Service concerning mechanized use in Wilderness, a concept that originated within the Forest Service. A waiver is necessary to use a chainsaw. I have often pulled a crosscut saw for Darrington District for large logout projects where chainsaw use had not even been considered. I know from personal knowledge that waivers have been denied in some cases where chainsaw use was considered – when 300+ mainly old growth logs were down on a 4 mile portion of the Suiattle trail as a result of the 2006 storms. When a massive project like that is denied a waiver, you can bet the Forest Service takes Wilderness seriously. Furhter, I understand the FS has an even more stringent waiver processes for the use of a mini excavator and is quite cumbersome.

Besides the checks and balances already in place within the Forest Service regarding motorized use in Wilderness, there are at least 2 other local organizations who monitor the Forest Plan to ensure Wilderness is considered. Hikers need advocates for a safe crossing of the Suiattle River, and WTA’s position agreeing with most of the mechanized methods is very much appreciated.

Posted by:

Kim Brown on May 18, 2009 11:28 AM

checks and balances

Except in emergencies, a Forest Supervisor can't approve helicopter or chainsaw use in a National Forest; that can only be approved by the Northwest Regional Forester (FSM 2326.04b). Mini-excavator use can only be approved by the national Chief of the Forest Service (FSM 2426.04a), who would probably require detailed justification similar to that in this Environmental Assessment. (Those interested will find more in under Tools > Agency Specific > FS > Regs.) FS wilderness regs are far more restrictive than NPS.

I agree with Kim that the USFS does not deserve a "gravest concern" lecture on wilderness values from WTA. If WTA is really means what it says, that volunteers could "make mini-excavator use unnecessary", it should have some realistic plan to make that possible. If WTA really means the upper Dosewallips Road should be decommissioned, it should have a realistic way of removing the FS2610-040 concrete bridge without first reopening the road.

Unrealistic criticism of the Forest Service only serves to compromise WTA's credibility, both with the Forest Service and with WTA volunteers.

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on May 19, 2009 09:35 AM

Good news

The decision has been made, Alternative 2 was signed. The mini excavator was nixed because of the administrative headache (I was told at the Open House last week that this might be the case).

Hopefully there will be no appeals. I doubt there will be; very few opposed the mechanization, but of course it only takes one person to appeal....

Things are beginning to move on the National Forest, repair-wise. It's been since 2003.

I encourage anyone who gives a rip to check their favorite forest website for scoping letters and SOPA lists, new each quarter (next one will be out the end of June). This is the "wish" list of your forest district. From there, pick up the phone and call the person in charge - they WILL speak to you.[…]/index.shtml

Posted by:

Kim Brown on May 19, 2009 10:47 AM

Good news

Kim, thanks for keeping a close eye on developments on this. That's good news indeed. I know that Diane Bedell, our trail maintenance director, and WTA's TM staff have been discussing ways in which our volunteers could support this project.
It seems like the forest is taking a balanced and thoughtful approach to getting this crossing fixed as soon as possible, while also protecting wilderness values.

Posted by:

Andrew Engelson on May 20, 2009 03:43 PM