Editorial: We were excited to receive news from the Department of Federal Lands about Suiattle River Road. Below is an eloquent summary of the technical document that outlines the future of the road.

It is official, the Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFL) of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has finally released its determination of what should be done about the future of the Suiattle River Road, a road that has taken quite a beating over the years, for which both dayhikers and backpackers have lamented its frequent closures and inaccessibily.  When the editor of SBM emailed me the notice she said “You speak government, right?  What does this mean?”  As I have worked on a number of these same impact statements over the last 12 years, I was able to sum it up for her as to what the 112 page document FHWA released actually meant.  And so she immediately asked “Could you do this for others?  I can’t be the only one who’s confused by the technical speak.”  And so here it is, the Suiattle River Road Finding of No Significant Impact, summarized.

To start this off, I will give you the results of the study first, and then summarize some of the highlights of the document, that way those of you who want to dig deeper can and those who simply want the bottom line can have it right off the bat.  FHWA approved and selected ALTERNATIVE B, which restores and rebuilds the Suiattle River Road (Road 26) to its full end at roughly milepost 23.  Selecting this alternative restores access to seven trailheads, two vehicle accessible campgrounds, a cabin rental, and access to the river for boating and fishing.  Trail access leading to the Pacific Crest Trail as well as access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness will be restored, which in recent years has become increasingly difficult to access as the Forest Service has decommissioned flood damaged roads (White Chuck River Road in particular) that access other trailheads in the area.

The Environment impact study that they analyzed had three main alternatives that were considered viable.  A no-action alternative where the road would be left as is, Alternative B which would restore the road to its end point, and Alternative C, which would have restored access only to the Green Mountain Trailhead at milepost 19.  In the end, FHWA determined that neither the “no action” alternative, nor Alternative C (partial restore) met all the purposes and needs of the forest service, the local tribes, and the entire recreation community at large.  In particular Alternative C would have restricted recreational use to only a certain type of user (backpackers) while denying access to dayhikers, the elderly, and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, who have cemeteries, tribal lands and traditional gathering areas that have been inaccessible since the flood damage.

The next part of the document addresses all the various concerns that the impact of a fully restored Suiattle River Road would bring.  Everything from increased river sediment flow and Northern Spotted Owl nesting sites were considered when determining which alternative should be selected.  In the end FHWA determined the following effects to each concern:

-Increased River Sedimentation during construction:  Would be minimal and would not impact local fish species or spawning any more than the natural increased sediment levels brought on by natural processes (flooding, snowmelt, etc).

-Adverse effects on the Suiattle River (which has protected Wild and Scenic River status) and floodplain: The repairs to Suiattle River Road would actually improve river condition by moving the road further away from the river, and by restoring the old road portions that are abandoned to a natural condition and reconnecting bisected wetlands the old road cuts through.  Repairs to the Sulpher Creek and Downey Creek bridges would also widen the creek channels underneath the bridges, thereby restoring a more natural flow to these two creeks.

-Wildlife (Chinook Salmon and Bull Trout):  The analysis determined that there would be no significant impact to these species due to the road being relocated further away from the river.

-Wildlife (Northern Spotted Owl):  The study determined that the impacts to old growth forest would be of minimal consequence to Spotted Owl nesting sites in the area (due to the small size of the forest changes), and that the increased noise of an active roadway would not have a significant effect on Spotted Owl behavior or reproduction.

-Road Repairs may be damaged by future flooding and thus not cost effective:  The proposed relocation of the roadway away from the river in 2 locations and the addition of retaining walls at the two bridges would limit future damage to the road from flooding at these locations.

So finally, after eight years of study, the Suiattle River Road will finally become available for hikers once again.  As a hiker and occasional backpacker I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was that the decision was finally made to restore the road into this beautiful area, an area that I have yet to see from anywhere but a distance, due to its remoteness and continued limited access. The whole document is available here.

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