Washed-out access road to backcountry may yet be repaired

Oct 24, 2011

Everett Herald

By Gale Fiege

October 24, 2011

DARRINGTON -- The once-popular Suiattle River Road could be open again by the fall of 2013.

Federal funding to fix the road has been extended while the Forest Service completes an environmental assessment of the planned repairs.

Money from the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads program now is available until September 2013, said U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who lobbied the Federal Highway Administration for the funding extension.

"The Suiattle River Road provides access into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest for many people," Larsen said. "And it's important for the town of Darrington."

River flooding and resulting road washouts in 2003-'04 and 2006-'07 qualified the road for emergency repair funding but a variety of delays slowed the process, Larsen said.

In the face of a lawsuit filed in April, the federal government backed out of plans to repair the road this past summer. The Pilchuck Audubon Society, the North Cascades Conservation Council and Lynnwood hiker Bill Lider brought the lawsuit, contending 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.

The Darrington District of the National Forest hosted an open house in September asking for people to comment on the proposed repairs to Suiattle River Road. When the next environmental assessment is complete and available at the Darrington Ranger Station, the Western Federal Lands Highway Division and the Forest Service plan a 30-day public comment period, said district ranger Peter Forbes. If all goes well, most of the repairs would be done during the summer of 2013, he said.

"The assistant director of the Federal Highway Administration was here earlier this month to look specifically at Suiattle River Road," Forbes said. "The funding extension is good news."

Lider disagrees.

"This funding extension is a violation of the emergency rules, which require that the project be underway (two years) after the disaster occurred," Lider said. "I'm not too happy. It's a bad move."

The 23-mile-long Suiattle River Road runs from north of Darrington and east along the north side of the Suiattle River. The eastern end of the forest road has been closed to vehicles for more than seven years.

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.