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 wfl.suiattleriverroad@dot.gov or by mail to Federal Highway Administration,610 East Fifth Street, Vancouver, WA 98661-3893 by April 20, 2012.


Anonymous said...

You object to the following things about Alt 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." These things would be a tiny fraction of the $2 million (roughly half the Alt B project cost) cost to go beyond Green Mtn junction and rebuild all the way to the end of the old road. So I'm sure those things can be worked-out. Road-to-trail conversion is in large part nature's job and already well underway. Some hiker-equestrian spans to replace most of the Downey causeway would be all that was needed, a whole lot less expensive than the whole highway bridge system there in Alt B. And besides, the last 2-3 miles makes a nice, fairly level, trail alongside the river that would be very friendly to families and others who might not be able to walk all that far. I'm reminded of Olympic Hot Springs, and of the upper Carbon River. The Suiattle would be an ideal place for doing something similar, and saving the Federal budget a lot in the process. Not to mention that last couple of miles is right alongside the river and very likely to wash-out again in the not-too-distant future.

Anonymous said...

Kim Brown lets her enthusiasm get ahead of the facts. No where in the Environmental Assessment (EA) can I find Alternative B identified as the Preferred Alternative. At this point there isn't a Preferred Alternative, except by Kim.

Kim Brown said...

Page 7 of the EA describes the Proposed Action: “The Darrington District and Federal Highways Administration propose to restore vehicle access in the Suiattle drainage by repairing and/or rerouting the road at the eight flood-damaged sites along Road 26.”

The only alternative that repairs all 8 sites is Alternative B.

Alternative B is referred to as the Proposed Action throughout the document.