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More questions than answers at National Park Service meeting regarding Upper Stehekin Valley Road

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It was standing room only at the North Cascades National Park Service meeting regarding Stehekin Road on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Gleeson)

Community members and representatives of the North Cascades National Park Service filled the River Room at Campbell’s Resort on May 23, 2017, for an informational meeting arranged by the office of Congressman Dave Reichert, R-WA.

“The Congressman (Reichert) had a conversation with some constituents who expressed concerns about latest goings on about the Stehekin Road and the ability to speak with the national park about those concerns,” Tom Young, Deputy District Director for Congressman Reichert stated. “This is not an ‘official’ comment period. This is conversation between us (the community) and the congressman’s office and the national park. We want to hear your concerns, and we’ll be taking notes.”

Following introductions, Jack Oelfke, Chief of Natural cultural Resources for the National Park Service (NPS) employee gave a brief history of the Stehekin Road.

After a catastrophic 500-year flood in 2003, a section of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road washed out and forced the National Park Service to close the road, restricting access for recreationists looking to use the road to reach areas like the Cottonwood Camp and the Cascade Pass.

 

The road used to be the Old Wagon Road before the Washington Conservation Core moved a portion of it closer to the Stehekin River during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. It runs about 12-miles from High Bridge to Cottonwood Camp, passing through Car Wash Falls.

Oelfke explained, “In 2006, the decision that was arrived at was that the road between Car Wash Falls to Cotton Wood, which is almost 10 miles, was officially closed. The road between Car Wash Falls to Bridge Creek, which is about 2.5 miles, was decommissioned. And then the road from Bridge Creek to Cottonwood, which is about 7 miles, was maintained as the trail. If you know the upper valley, what happens now is that the trail passes through the Old Wagon Road or the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail).”

The mouth of the Stehekin River experienced extensive flooding in 2003, damaging cabins and trails, including the Upper Stehekin Valley Road. (Photo courtesy of the North Cascades National Park)

Oelfke explained many of the challenges of rebuilding the Upper Stehekin Valley Road. He described areas of debris flows, sections of flood plains, and a few avalanche chutes that present geological hazards. 

 

Oelfke presented data showing the rate of visitors to the area which he refers to as ‘back country’.

“In 2003, we were getting a little over 1,200 people staying overnight in the back country,” Oelfke said. “When the flood hit, it dropped to about 700 in 2004, but we are now getting about 2,400 people.”

He cited this increase in back country use after the flood which closed the road to vehicles. Oelfke attributed some of that increase to the popularity of the Cheryl Strayed novel, Wild which chronicles the author’s journey along the PCT.

“How do we know that’s not natural growth, or would the use have been even greater had the road been open?” asked one attendee. 

Manson resident Keith Carpenter stated that before the flood, “Many were day trip visitors, people who went up for a picnic or do a little fishing by private vehicle or by park service vehicle.” He didn’t feel the increase of overnight visitors shown by the national park was at all representative of the actual increase in visits of the valley. He stated that they had no accounting of the number of day trippers prior to the flood, because they didn’t stay overnight.

 

“The ease to get up there and day hike in the area,” Oelfke said. “That has been lost. There is no doubt.”

A map of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road from Carwash Falls to Cottonwood from 2006. The road was shut down after a catastrophic 500-year flood in 2003. (Map courtesy of the National Parks Service)

A Stehekin resident commented, “The shuttle bus served people who cannot hike.” He described former visitors who took the shuttle bus enjoying the beauty of the area. “I engaged with people from all over the country for many years on that shuttle bus. They were just blown away by the beauty and the majesty of [the park]. They can’t use this park anymore. They cannot see the park anymore.”

Other meeting attendees likewise commented that they would like to see the road reopened to accommodate greater public access. 

One attendee explained that he appreciated the road as it is currently. “It’s very pleasant to walk. There’s no dust, and you don’t have to get out of the way of cars. I support your (NPS) decision.”

Park representatives also pointed out that their base budget could not cover the costs of maintenance and that cuts to budgets and funding provides challenges for the entire North Cascades NPS. For special projects, funds must be requested, competing with other park special projects throughout the west.

In 2015, a law signed by then President Barack Obama stated that the Secretary of the Interior may adjust the boundaries of the North Cascades National Park in order to provide a 100-foot corridor along which the Stehekin Road may be rebuilt.

Since the passing of that law, no progress has yet been made towards reopening the road, which has left some community members frustrated.

“Most of us in this room are not going to be convinced of anything except that the park lacks the will to reopen the road,”Clint Campbell of Campbell’s Resort said. “This graph which was a complete red herring to suggest that the number of hikers would increase as a result of the road closure is insulting to our intelligence… The graph showed us that the road has been open almost continuously from the 40s until 2003, except for a few closures here and there. It’s a matter of will, and we’d like the road re-opened.”

It was standing room only at the North Cascades National Park Service meeting regarding Stehekin Road on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Gleeson)

“Can you not use the Americans with Disabilities Act as a window to submit to the Secretary (of the Interior) to redo the road so it can be opened up for everybody,” asked one attendee.

That is a great comment,”Karen Taylor-Goodrich, Superintendent of the North Cascades NPS said. “It would have to be something that we as a national park service would have to decide if it is something we would like to look into.”

“My understanding is that the ADA has no expectation when it comes to wilderness for that type of access, so it is worth asking,” Oelfke added.

Many commenters asked that the NPS at the very least, to request the relocation of wilderness boundary to secure the 100-foot easement needed for a future road, but wait to rebuild. The NPS had no response to these suggestions.

Stehekin resident Tom Courtney said, “You have to look at the Stehekin visitor experience as a whole thing and closing the Upper Valley Road was a major effect on visitor’s experience.”

Art Campbell, whose family owns Campbell’s Resort and is part owner of the Stehekin River Resort spoke to the representatives asking that the community’s voice be heard regarding the issue.

“We want to reopen the road to Cottonwood Camp,” Campbell stated. “We think that public access for all is very important. I think it does speak to the park service that it is out of compliance with the ADA, so we recommend it’s something you look into. We would like you to honor the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1988 Washington Wilderness Act.”

A debris flow at Carwash Falls damaged the Upper Stehekin Valley Road after a 500-year flood in 2003, where several of areas of the road experienced instability and debris, forcing the National Parks Service to close a portion of the road. (Photo courtesy of the North Cascades National Park)

“Greg Peterson mentioned public safety and wildfire management,” continued Campbell. ” We think that’s an important issue. I don’t think we heard a very satisfactory answer to that.”

Campbell added, “Please listen to your stakeholders and the citizens of the Stehekin community. Everyone from the community wants it reopened. Listen to us. Honor our request.”

Campbell’s comments were not addressed by the NPS representatives in attendance.

Former Washington State Senator Linda Evans-Parlette offered to help put Karen Taylor-Goodrich and the NPS in touch with former Governor Dan Evans who helped create the 1988 Washington Wilderness Act, who made it clear that it would not deny access to the North Cascades.

Read previous article published by GoLakeChelan.com on July 27, 2016 – A road less traveled: The fight to reopen the Upper Stehekin Valley Road

(By Jillian Foster)

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