Rep. Rick Larsen tours Suiattle River Road, which may reopen in 2013

Nov 26, 2011

Everett Herald

By Gale Fiege

November 26, 2011

DARRINGTON -- Earlier this month, Rick Larsen took a ride up Suiattle River Road into an area of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest that relatively few people have seen since the summer of 2003.

The 2nd District congressman asked Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes to point out where the road needs to be repaired as well as some of the proposed solutions.

They looked at eight spots that have to be fixed before people can safely drive the road again. In a few places, the road will have to be rerouted through some stands of old trees, which has caused concern among environmental groups.

Earlier this fall, Larsen, an Arlington native, successfully lobbied the Federal Highway Administration to extend the deadline to receive emergency funding that could get the road open again by the fall of 2013.

His primary concern is for the economy of Darrington, which in the past has depended on the help that tourist traffic brings, Larsen has said.

"The scenery is beautiful up here," said Larsen on the day of his trip. "You can see why people want to have the road open again. It's an issue that the Darrington community has rallied around and to which the Forest Service has been responsive."

The budget for federal road repair is declining rapidly, Larsen said, and Suiattle River Road is one of the most important ways into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

"It is the U.S. Forest Service's obligation to allow for recreational use in the forest, especially since the decline of logging," Larsen said.

River flooding and resulting road washouts in 2003-04 and 2006-07 forced the Forest Service to block off Suiattle River Road to motor vehicles at milepost 6. The once-popular Forest Service road is located off Highway 531 northeast of Darrington. It heads east along the north side of the Suiattle River to the Glacier Peak Wilderness boundary and provides access to hiking trails, tribal lands, campgrounds, hunting and fishing.

The funding -- about $4 million -- to fix eight spots on the 23-mile-long road was extended while the Forest Service completes another environmental assessment of the planned repairs. Money from the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads program now is available until September 2013.

Road repairs were under way earlier this year when a lawsuit filed in April forced the federal government to back out of plans to repair the road this past summer. Among those who brought the lawsuit, Lynnwood hiker Bill Lider contended that the proposed repairs would destroy old trees and wildlife habitat. Lider also objected to the use of emergency highway repair funds for the project, since the last damaging flood was in 2007. Federal district court in Seattle dismissed the lawsuit in July.

When the environmental assessment is complete and available in December at the Darrington Ranger Station, the Western Federal Lands Highway Division and the Forest Service plan a 30-day public comment period. If all goes well, most of the repairs would be done during the summer of 2013, Forbes said.

The Suiattle River Road was established in the early 1900s by miners packing 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. Just off Suiattle River Road are seven popular trailheads, two campgrounds, a rental cabin, hunting, fishing and gathering spots and access to private, state and tribal lands.