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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Importance of Access to Wild Lands

By Tom Uniack, Conservation Director, Washington Wild

As Conservation Director for Washington Wild for the last nine years, I have been intimately involved in most wilderness and wild and scenic river proposals around the state. In many cases Washington Wild has played a leadership role in these efforts.

Recently, I have been increasingly confronted with the contention that environmental and conservation organizations are out to “lock up” land and prohibit any access to protected areas whether it be wilderness, a wild and scenic river, or just backcountry. As one local put it, environmental groups, “never saw a road they liked.” Let me set the record straight, in order for Washington Wild to accomplish our mission, we cannot, and are not, against access to the lands we protect. This requires supporting and enhancing compatible recreational access and reasonable means to get to these incredible places. It also means working in good faith with local stakeholders and user groups to craft wilderness and wild and scenic river proposals that address access concerns.

Campaigning for Access 

Access is a critical consideration in the wilderness and wild and scenic river campaigns of which Washington Wild is a part.

While advocating for the Wild Sky Wilderness which became law in 2008 protecting 106,000 acres of federal land near Stevens Pass as Wilderness, we took several steps to ensure recreational access. The Index-Galena Road, a prized access route for locals and backcountry enthusiasts, was excluded and sufficiently buffered from the wilderness boundary to ensure continued access and future road repairs. The Barclay Lake Trail, which is popular with boy scout troops and large church groups was ultimately setback 200 feet from the wilderness boundary to ensure that large-group recreation would be able to continue on this easy day hike.

During proposal development for additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and river protections for the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers (currently moving through Congress), similar accommodations were made early on in the name of access. The proposed Wilderness included no roads and made sure to draw boundaries that did not disrupt existing popular trailheads (like Granite Mountain, Denny Creek, Snow Lake and Talapus Lake) or the roads that access them. The13-mile Middle Fork Trail, which is a prized mountain bike ride every odd numbered day, was set back from the proposed wilderness boundary to ensure that this “mechanized” use could continue but was included in a wild and scenic river designation, which provided a compatible layer of protection for the scenic route. 

The Wild Olympics Campaign, of which Washington Wild is a member, has been working with local communities for the past two years on the Olympic Peninsula to build support, get feedback, and to address concerns for an ambitious wilderness and wild and scenic river proposal. The Campaign has collaborated again with mountain bikers to work toward gaining their support for the proposal as well as excluding five of the six motorized trails from the proposed wilderness. The Wild Olympics proposal does not include any Forest System roads in Proposed Wilderness to ensure that the designations will not conflict with the Forest Service’s travel management plans.

Preserving & Enhancing Recreational Access

Access to these areas sometimes means advocating for repairs to roads that have been washed out or damaged during storms. Washington Wild is currently advocating for the repair of two such roads, both of which are in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest: the Index-Galena Road, which provides access to Wild Sky Wilderness Area, and the Suiattle River Road, which provides access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area.

Sections of the Index-Galena Road were washed out during heavy flooding in the fall of 2006. Since then the road has been closed at mile post 6.4, which is about 5.5 miles east of the town of Index. This road is a critical access road to Troublesome Creek and San Juan campgrounds, popular with families and primary access to a half dozen beloved trails and routes for hikers, climbers, equestrians, and paddlers. The Index-Galena Road repair Environmental Assessment began in February of this year and Washington Wild was one of six groups that sent a letter to the Snohomish County Public Works office in support of the road repair efforts.

Click here to read our press release regarding the Index-Galena Road repair process.

The Suiattle River Road was washed out during late fall storms in 2003 and 2006. This road is a critical access road to the western side of Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, including access to trailheads, campgrounds, river access for kayakers and rafters, and popular hunting, fishing, and gathering areas, as well as access to tribal lands. The Western Federal Lands Highway Division had come up with a plan to repair the road; however, last year, two conservation organizations filed a lawsuit to stop the road repair citing concerns about environmental impacts. The road repair was put on hold in 2011, but now there is a new 2012 Environmental Assessment for the repair of the Suiattle River Road, which takes into consideration concerns raised in the lawsuit. Washington Wild also supports the repair of this critical access road and was one of 10 conservation and recreation groups who sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration in support of repairing the road.

Click here to read our press release regarding the recent Suiattle Road repair process.

Restoring Watersheds

On the flip-side of the road repair issue is the problem of legacy roads. Legacy roads are those left over from the heyday of logging and have since fallen into disrepair. Such roads can have significant negative impacts on forest watersheds by blocking fish migration patterns if inappropriate culverts are used or are blocked with debris. Unmaintained or blown-out culverts can damage already dwindling salmon runs, habitats, and spawning grounds, and sediment from legacy roads can smother fish eggs. Landslides from damaged roads also degrade drinking water supplies to communities in the watershed. Reclaiming these failing roads through decommissioning and maintaining other access routes for recreation are two of the best ways to restore healthy watersheds, maintain access to these lands and waters, and to create jobs in rural areas. Washington Wild is also a founding member of the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI), a coalition of environmental and outdoor recreation groups and state agencies with the goal of maintaining and reclaiming forest roads to reestablish healthy ecosystems.

Washington Wild has always been a strong advocate for maintaining access to wild lands and waters. We want people to be able to enjoy and experience these wild areas in all their natural beauty.

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