Friday, April 13, 2012

Paving the Middle Fk Snoqualmie River Rd

Kim Brown, Public Lands Intern

A hiker sunbathes on shore of Mid Fk Snoqualmie River
Through Federal Highways, King County and the USFS have published an Environmental Assessment (EA) for proposed plans to upgrade and pave the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Road from milepost 2.4 to the new(ish) Middle Fork Campground, a short distance beyond the Middle Fork Trailhead at milepost 12.4.

There will be an Open House at the North Bend Ranger Station on Thursday, April 18th , from 5:00pm-7:30pm at the Snoqualmie Ranger Station in North Bend at 902 Southeast North Bend Way. Engineers and staff from FHWA, King County and the Forest Service will be present to answer questions and discuss the preferred alternative.

There are two alternatives in this EA – a No Action alternative, and the Preferred Alternative (to upgrade and pave). Upgrading the road will :

  • Provide better Aquatic Organism Passages (culverts)
  • Include better signage
  • Narrow those portions of the road where a wider corridor was created by drivers wishing to avoid potholes and washboarding.
  • Replace three bridges
  • Soften sharp curves
  • Lower maintenance costs (King County reports in the EA that the road maintenance costs an average of $8,000 per mile each year, and nearly $500,000 total for years with high flood damage).

During the Open House in June, 2011, I spoke to an engineer who advised a non-permeable surface will top a coarse material on top of “better-than-native” material (used when native soils aren’t suitable). The non-permeable surface will better direct water to road ditches, and not percolate underneath the pavement, which is a major factor in the deterioration of roads.

During the scoping (planning) phase, the public made it known to the agencies that aesthetics are important to drivers. As a result, the road design is much narrower than the 28 feet originally proposed. Rock faces blasted for construction will be resurfaced to ensure a natural look. Native plants will be planted and monitored afterwards to minimize mortality and the establishment of invasive vegetation.

It is projected that the paving will invite more recreation in the Middle Fork watershed, and that there will be some increase in traffic – up to 24 vehicles per day by 2031 – that will somewhat impact the solititude of some trails, but the Middle Fork Snoqualmie should be inviting to everyone - and the road condition has been a limitation toward attaining that goal.

During construction, hikers can expect periodic closures and limited access in some areas. It is hoped that the road will be open during weekends; however that is not guaranteed. Closures will be posted on Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest's  (MBS) website, or hikers can call the North Bend District of MBS at (425) 888-1421.

This will not impact recreation this summer, however! Construction is not expected to begin until sometime in 2013.

The paving of the Middle Fork, along with the reconstruction of the Mailbox Peak trail, the on-going planning of improvements to DNR’s Snoqualmie Corridor Recreation Plan, and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Natural Recreation Area, families and other recreationists in the Puget Sound area are guaranteed reliable recreation practically every day of the year!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Suiattle River Road Alternatives

Kim Brown, Public Lands Intern.

My buddy, Randy, atop Green Mountain
As a part of the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) process, the Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposal to repair the Suiattle River Road (has been prepared and is ready for public commenting. The public comment period ends April 20th

The proposed repairs will be funded by Federal Highway’s (FHWA) Emergency Repair for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO). The Western Federal Lands Highway Division of Federal Highways (WLFHD) is the lead agency for ERFO funded projects in Washington.The EA includes 3 alternatives; the No Action Alternative, Alternative B (Preferred Alternative), and Alternative C. 

In parenthesis within this blog are page numbers of the EA where information in this blog can be found. Bewarned! The EA is a page-turner! Have snacks handy.

The No Action Alternative leaves the Suiattle River Road “as is,” gated at milepost 12.5. If no action is taken on the damaged road, hikers, bikers, and equestrians will continue walk 12 miles to the Suiattle Trailhead. Due to lack of administrative access, the campgrounds and trails will receive less and less maintenance, and numbers of visitors to trailheads will diminish. According to trailhead registers, in the years 1998-2003, Downey Creek, Suiattle, and Green Mountain trailheads reflect an average of 374, 1650 and 1765 annual visitors respectively. After 2006, when more floods closed the road at milepost 12, annual visitation to these trailheads dropped to 60, 93, and 19 (EA page 63).

Issues common to Alternatives B and C 

The road repair proposal for Alt’s B and C are the same regarding washout sites #1 through #5. The road re-routes are outside of the river’s channel migration zone. All repairs comply with federal environmental regulations, the Wild & Scenic River designation of the Suiattle River, standards and guidelines of the Northwest Forest Plan, and recommendations by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (EA page 88).

Road repair at various sites for Alternatives B and C will impact wetlands. Providing habitat and food for wildlife, wetlands also benefit fish by reducing sediment deposition into rivers when watercourses entering them slow down and drop their sediment before discharging into the river. Because wetlands are important to our ecosystem, there is a federal no net loss policy on wetland mitigation. As a result, 0.66 acres of wetlands impacted by the road construction will be mitigated (EA page 105).

It is folly to think that there will be no environmental affects when making repairs  the scale of the Suiattle project. However, the environmental regulations and their compliance mandates ensure that during the last decade, the roadbed (or what's left of it) has been bristling with environmental engineers and  regulatory agents and scientists in order to balance the solution that best addresses environmental impact while providing benefits to the greatest number of people, given the land agencies policies and budget.  It is important to look at these affects on a watershed and landscape scale and not solely on a site scale. The EA discusses both the local affects and large scale affects upon the watershed by the road construction.

Beginning on page 108 of the EA is a great overview of some techniques planned to mitigate environmental affects, such as construction taking place during “work windows” when soils are drier, and taking care to not work during the hours of the day marbled murrelets or other birds are likely to be feeding. The affect that construction and the road design will have on wildlife has been studied by FHWA and the Forest Service, and consultations with National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service have taken place frequently during the last 8 and a half years the road has been damaged, and any recommendations they have regarding construction will be followed. See the discussion regarding wildlife considerations beginning on page 124 of the EA.

Differences between Alternative B and C

Alternative C repairs the Suiattle Road to approximately milepost 20 where it would be gated just beyond the Green Mountain Road (Forest Road 2680). The Suiattle River trail is a nearly 5 mile road walk from there. (EA page 67). There are no plans for a reliable, sustained crossing of Downey Creek in Alternative C. There is no funding for a parking lot, road-to-trail conversion, and no plan to maintain at-capacity outhouses at Downey and Sulphur Creek campgrounds.

Alternative B (the Proposed Action), repairs the road beyond the Green Mountain Road, to its pre-2003 end, at the Suiattle trailhead. This alternative restores full access to the Sulphur Creek campground and the Downey Creek, Sulphur Creek, Sulphur Mountain, and Suiattle River trails.

Alternative B’s proposed repair at milepost 20.8 is likely to require routine maintenance to keep it in good working  order. Loose material from the steep slope above the cut bank will occasionally slide onto the road and will need to be removed (EA page 53).  If repaired, the Suiattle River Road in the future will receive as much attention as it has in the past due to its popularity - and because of federally mandated requirements for monitoring the work and its affects upon the environment, we can expect more USFS personnel on the Suiattle in the upcoming years.

Alternative B also includes an already-funded opportunity to build a Downey Creek crossing more suitable to natural watershed processes and fish habitat than the current bridge site. Old construction techniques installed fill that narrowed the creekbed at the bridge site (EA pages 91, 101), which causes sustained energy capable of carrying large woody debris. The new design excavates 3500 cubic yards of old fill material, and adds three 70 foot long spans to the existing 115 foot bridge, allowing Downey Creek to move around its alluvial plain once again and the water to flow under the bridge, rather than fight against the road as it finds its way to the Suiattle River (see drawings on pages 102 and 103 of the EA). Widening the mouth of Downey Creek will also diffuse the energy of the water large flood events, reducing the likelihood of woody debris slamming into bridge pilings and damaging them.


In making design decisions and the decision to go forward with the repair, a land manager weighs the impact of making the repair as well as the impact of not making the repair - "environment" includes the the impact upon the human environment - hikers, climbers, equestrians, fishermen, car campers, nature photographers. The No Action Alternative is discussed throughout the EA so that a reader can understand the implications of the land manager not taking any action.

How do you make a comment?  Whichever Alternative is your choice, just write a few lines and send it in to the address below. The NEPA process is for everyone; no one need be a literary or grammatical genius - heck - more than half the people who recreate from the Suiattle River Road don't even know how to pronounce it! (Soo AT tl).  But one thing is sure - if you don't make a comment, your voice will not be heard! 

The Environmental Assessment can be found here, and comments may be sent by email to or by mail to Federal Highway Administration,610 East Fifth Street, Vancouver, WA 98661-3893 by April 20, 2012.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Burning Question: Do you have fires in the backcountry?

By Sarah Gruen, Recreation Resources Intern

Campfires provide warmth, light, security and a somewhat effective way to cook food. But there is a dark side of fires; campfires can lead to degradation of the ecosystem and to future user’s experience. Blackened rocks and trashed fire pits are an eyesore, but a more significant consequence of campfires is the development of patches of barren ground. Repeated campfires in an area will remove organic matter and sterilize the soil. Compounding the problem is that the use of downed wood as fuel deprives the ecosystem of an important source of nutrients.

To help determine when it is appropriate and responsible to have a campfire, here is a list of questions you should ask yourself:

Are there any restrictions from the land manager? What is the fire danger for the time of year and the location you are in?

Many areas have regulations restricting the use of campfires. Pay attention to these! Restrictions are reactions to specific conditions such as massive forest fuel buildup coupled with unpredictable winds or to other scenarios that set the stage for out of control fires. During these periods, even if you follow the normal precautions like locating your campfire away from dry grasses, tree branches, and root systems, making a fire still presents a great risk.

Different destinations have burning regulations that take site-specific characteristics into consideration. For instance, in Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest, the general guidelines state that fires in the wilderness and backcountry are not allowed above 3,500 feet elevation. Within Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest your destination may have additional restrictions due to unique conditions. Take care to learn and respect the local regulations and prepare accordingly.

If you are unsure what restrictions are in place you can contact the land manager for the up to date information. That is what I did to learn about the nuanced set of restrictions in place in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Guidelines differ between land managers: if you are in the Wenatchee National Forest fires are not permitted above 5,000 feet elevation while if you are in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest fires are not permitted above 4,000 feet elevation.

Is there enough appropriate firewood to use as fuel?

Appropriate firewood is dry, found on the ground and small in diameter (this means one or two inches thick or about the size of your wrist). The reasoning is that small wood is more likely to burn to ash and that it is less critical to the ecosystem. “Less critical” is key: woody matter and downed wood is still important so make sure you leave some behind. Fallen trees and decaying wood serve many functions, including providing animals with food and shelter, recycling nutrients that increase site productivity, acting as germination sites for certain plants (have you ever seen a “nurse log”?), and increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil.

The areas immediately surrounding designated campsites are often stripped of downed wood and branches from trees. You may consider collecting firewood as you travel to your campsite.

Can the regeneration of wood sources keep up with the demand for firewood?

In certain environments, such as alpine and desert, harsh growing conditions mean it takes a long time for the trees and shrubs to regenerate. These environments cannot sustain high levels of firewood collection. Even if you are in a highly productive and resilient area, if the area is heavily frequented by campers the intensity of fuel collection may outstrip the ability of wood sources to regenerate.

Is there a fire ring or fire grate present?

It is best practice to concentrate use by building a fire in an existing fire ring or campfire scar. Repeated campfires can kill the microorganisms responsible for breaking down organic matter and sterilize the soil up to four inches deep. This results in barren dirt patches that remain without plant life for years.

Do I have enough time to properly clean up?

Low-impact techniques focus on maintaining the natural appearance of the site. Burning all wood completely to ash is recommended. Once the ash has been thoroughly saturated with water it should be scattered over a large area.

Is there a better option?

The low-impact camper or backpacker may choose to construct a pan or mound fire. Visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Education for more information about these options and for techniques to minimize the impacts of fires:

Or you could forgo a fire altogether. Instead opt for a stove for cooking and a lantern for ambiance. Rick Curtis, an experienced low-impact backpacker, offers some sage advice: “I always plan trips with a stove, and if I find the right conditions to build a fire, I’ll think about doing it” (123).

Sources Cited:
Curtis, Rick. The Backpackers Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills. 1st ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2005. Print.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Forest Service Volunteer of the Year Award

Dennis and volunteers on trail. Photo by Tom Davis, USFS
By Kim Brown, Public Lands Intern

Next Thursday evening, April 11th, at the Iron Goat Season Opener for Volunteers for Outdoor Washington event at The Mountaineers Program Centre, Mountaineers member Dennis Evans will receive a Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region Trails Volunteer of the Year Award for his work on the Iron Goat Trail, a rail-to-trail project at Steven Pass. Thanks to countless volunteer hours by Dennis and many others with Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, hikers can enjoy the rich history of the old rail, including tunnels, snowsheds, and Wellington the site of a famous avalanche incident, and poignant memories.
Dennis got his start by volunteering to work on the Iron Goat through an annual Mountaineer Presidents Day trail work party event on the Iron Goat trail, 20 years ago! “I am a bit of a history buff,” Dennis says. “It was the history of the Iron Goat that got me interested, rather than the other way around. It fascinates me to stand in an area that has been abandoned, particularly if there are still signs of whatever used to be there, and think about what it must have been like and why it was abandoned.”

Tom Davis, Skykomish Ranger District Trails Specialist with the Mt Baker Snoqualmie National Forest (MBS) writes of Evan and his dedication, “Initial thoughts that this would be an easy rails-to-trails project were soon dispelled when it was discovered the grade was covered with trees, brush, avalanche debris, and wetlands and crossed a myriad of flood prone streams and streamlets,” Davis writes. “Dennis’s contribution is staggering with 4,538 work party hours and leading 648 work parties since 1992, plus countless additional hours in administrative duties.” Evans also took courses in trail design and ADA accessibility (half the trail is built to American Disability Act [ADA] standards). Without Dennis Evans at the helm,” Davis added,”it’s hard to imagine the trail being built to such a high standard.”

Hiker reaction to coming upon a volunteer trail crew has been very positive. “Usually they just say thank you as they pass by,” Dennis says, “but the most bizarre thing that happened occurred several years ago to one of our regular volunteers. He was working and someone passed by. The person walked about a hundred yards, then turned around, came back and stuffed something in the worker’s shirt pocket, turned around and left again. When the worker took it out, it turned out to be a $100 bill.”

Thanks to Dennis for his dedication to providing a great place to visit history and nature!