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Suiattle Road Repairs Halted

Posted by Lauren Braden at Jun 02, 2011 09:45 AM |

Federal agencies have decided to end their plans to repair the Suiattle River Road in the face of a lawsuit from two organizations that challenged the project. The road, which provides west side access to the Glacier peak Wilderness, has been washed out in places since massive flooding damaged the road in 2003 and 2006.

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The Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration have ended their plans to repair the long-washed out Suiattle River Road (FR 26) this summer. According to a story in today's Everett Herald,the $1.7 million project, which was to use emergency highway funds for the repair, has been abandoned because Federal funding was withdrawn in light of a recent lawsuit.

Washington Trails Association reported a few weeks ago that the Suiattle Road project was recently challenged by a lawsuit seeking an injunction. Two organizations, the North Cascades Conservation Council and Pilchuck Audubon Society, and Lynnwood engineer and hiker Bill Lider sued to halt work on the road repair project, contending that repairs at mileposts 12.6 and 14.4 were not properly scoped for environmental impacts. The lawsuit also objected to the use of emergency highway repair funds for the project.

The Suiattle River Road, which provides west side access to the Glacier peak Wilderness, has been washed out in several places since massive flooding damaged the road in 2003 and 2006. The washouts have prevented hiker access to stunning day hikes like Green Mountain and backpacks like Vista Creek Loop.

This news is a blow to many west side hikers who love this area. The Suiattle River Road is a critically important access route into the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and we at WTA have long mourned the loss of this road. We know many of our members and readers of The Signpost Blog have eagerly awaited these repairs. We feel strongly that this route is worthy of being rebuilt.

As WTA's Jonathan Guzzo says in the Everett Herald article: "There is a new generation of hikers who have never even been up there."

The Federal Highway Administration has not taken future repairs off of the table. According to the Everett Herald, the agency said it will include additional environmental analysis the next time it considers making repairs to the Suiattle River Road.

Comments

so it's okay to violate environmental laws

Let me state the obvious here, the feds lost this lawsuit. The feds were breaking the law; they got caught. And the WTA is fine with this, and sees nothing wrong with the violation of bedrock environmental statues like NEPA and the northwest forest plan?

Anybody who has ever engaged in or witnessed a lawsuit with a federal land management agency will tell you that the deck is heavily stacked in favor of government agencies. All ambiguity is resolved in the agencies' favor. But it took less than a month start-to-finish for the FHWA to cave here, in a contest with a couple of small, weak, underfunded, almost entirely volunteer-driven groups. They must not have had a leg to stand on.

Posted by:


"Kevin Geraghty" on Jun 02, 2011 10:33 AM

Lawsuit

Kevin, it's obvious that you didn't read the story. The Feds did not lose the lawsuit, they pulled the funding after the threat of a lawsuit became real.

Posted by:


"Sawin' Ya" on Jun 02, 2011 11:29 AM

Not quite the same

Kevin, the prior article on this stated
"It's possible that one factor prompting this current lawsuit is that the project is now in the hands of the Federal Highways Administration, which is asking for an exemption from environmental review, known as a Categorical Exclusion."

In any case, 1.7 million is not a lot of money. It doesn't make sense to spend money defending it, when there are hundreds of miles of road that will gladly take those funds. Perhaps in a better time, when more funding becomes available, they'll be able to move forward with the repairs.

Posted by:


"JMilwaukee" on Jun 02, 2011 11:35 AM

not exactly

JMilwaukee:
you state:
"In any case, 1.7 million is not a lot of money. It doesn't make sense to spend money defending it, when there are hundreds of miles of road that will gladly take those funds."

The FHA will have to pay the contractor for the work stoppage; they will also have to pay for the further Environmental Analysis. The federal lawyers in the case work for the Department of Justice, not the FHA, and so far as I know the FHA does not pay them.

There is no doubt that this action will leave the FHA out of pocket. They would have saved themselves these expenses had they contested the suit and won. It wouldn't have taken that long to come before a federal judge, maybe a month, the contractor would have had time to get to work this season.

They didn't do that, because the DOJ knew they had a weak hand and were likely to lose.

I say this in the spirit of dispassionate discussion, not wrangling, and because I think it would be good if WTA members, officers, and employees grappled with these issues rather than denying them.

Oh, and a response to a different portion of your comment, you say $1.7 Million of ERFO money is not a large sum. Maybe it is not a lot in reference to the entire federal budget, but it is a very large sum relative to the regular annual roads maintenance budget of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, which is completely inadequate to keep the large road network in working order. This dependence on ERFO is like the unhealthy urban poor using hospital emergency rooms as primary care. It's expensive and the patients die young.

Posted by:


"Kevin Geraghty" on Jun 03, 2011 05:15 PM

Kevin's braggadocio

Kevin claims FHWA "lost" or "were likely to lose". This is completely unsubstantiated.

The FWHA is acting precisely as they must under 23 CFR 771.117(b)(2): the mere existence of "substantial controversy on environmental grounds", merited or not, automatically disqualifies an action from Categorical Exclusion, and requires further environmental studies (EA or EIS). Simply filing the lawsuit automatically stops the road repairs.

Kevin has stated "the suit would not have been brought had their on-the-ground proposal and actions at 14.4 not been so ugly." But he has declined to say what specific changes NCCC seeks at mp 14.4 (the re-route at Huckleberry Mountain trailhead).

So NCCC never intended to make its case in a court of law, and has refused to make its case in the court of public opinion. This is incredibly poor PR on NCCC's part!

Tell us specifically what change you want at mp 14.4, Kevin. Use the already-cleared re-route, abandon it for a shorter or longer re-route, rebuild the original route on the river, what???

Posted by:


"Rod Farlee" on Jun 03, 2011 05:15 PM

Suiattle Road Lawsuit

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.

Kevin, as a North Cascades Conservation Council board member, you know this story. The feds did not lose this lawsuit. They rendered the suit moot by not defending against it. The reasons are hard to confirm, since defendants cannot speak for the record. The fact is that a lawsuit, regardless of the outcome, would likely drag on for months if not years. That was likely part of the analysis leading up to their decision. The fact that federal highways money to repair the road would dry up in the meantime was probably another part of their decision. I have not heard anyone from either FHWA or USFS say that they agree that the litigants' arguments had merit.

As followers of this issue well know, the project was the subject of a 2006 Environmental Assessment under NEPA, and is being analyzed as part of the 2008 Suiattle Access and Travel Management Plan, and was scoped for environmental impacts leading up to the justification for the Categorical Exclusion. This all calls into serious question the argument that insufficient environmental analysis was conducted. We can't know for sure, since agency staff cannot comment on legal actions and their attorneys can say very little, since they're bound by attorney-client privilege. The litigants are under no such restriction, and they have rushed to fill the gap with one side of this story. Perhaps in time, we will hear the other side.

Posted by:


"Jonathan Guzzo" on Jun 02, 2011 08:31 PM

response to Jonathan Guzzo

Jonathan: The forest Service issued an EA (environmental Assessment) in early 2006 analyzing what do do about
the road washouts which occurred in the 2003 flood. It did not address the affects of the winter 2006 flood, which had not occurred yet. The 2006 flood intervened before any of the decisions could be implemented. The effects of the 2006 flood were equally severe, and raise new issues not addressed in the .original EA. Of the four washouts covered by the Federal Highways CE (categorical exclusion) which were the subject of the recent suit, three date to 2006 and have never been formally analyzed. The fourth, the MP 14.4 washout at the Huckleberry Mtn trailhead, was analyzed in the original EA; however FHA actions at this washout site (which in fact commenced last fall) considerably exceeded the impacts described in the original EA. The footprint of the road clear zone is more than four times as large as that anticipated by the Forest Service EA. Federal Highways is in no way bound by the decisions and safeguards described earlier in that EA, and the evidence so far is that they do not seem to care about minimizing road impacts in a sensitive and unique area, and have given themselves care blanche to construct something far more highway-like than we believe appropriate.
  
The appropriate fate of the main trunk suiattle road is in fact *not* being analyzed in the ongoing Suiattle basin Access and Travel Management plan (ATM), unless you count as analysis a one-sentence assertion that it is not going to be analyzed. This is and was in fact one of our principal complaints about this process.

So, to tweak your phrase, Jonathan, this "calls into serious question the argument that sufficient environmental analysis was conducted" It is admittedly a complex landscape and a complex story, and hard to get right; but all the more reason not to jump in with both feet into a stance of committed opposition.

Posted by:


"Kevin Geraghty" on Jun 02, 2011 11:16 PM

Suiattle

The entire Middle and Lower Suiattle watershed was analyzed in the Travel Access Management Plan.

The EA in 2006 analyzed watershed affects, addressed the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. WDFW and NMFS have been involved in several aspects of the planning of the repair.

Because the Suiattle is part of the Skagit Wild & Scenic River system, the road must be taken out of the W&S corridor, so of course it had to be rerouted farther away from the river edge, and this was mentioned in the Preferred Alternative in the EA.

I'm punting with this next paragraph- Jonathan, please correct me if I'm wrong. To declare a Categorical Exclusion, the EA was likely consulted and many other studies were available as well (there are studies on the Finney Block, the Whitechuck, and the Illabot watersheds, for instance, as well as the Skagit). DNR likely has detailed studies of certain areas in the watershed as well - it's required of them as part of their logging operations. So there is a lot of science to drawn on for the decision of CE. I don't know what the CE says exactly, but it would have determined that the additional washouts for 2006 would not have cumulative affects on the health of the watershed. There is nothing in the NEPA that says each individual project must be examined.

If PAS and NCCC and Lider are indeed sincere and aren't against the road repair - that all they want is another NEPA, then the next time it should go OK (unless they don't like the Alternatives presented, but that's a separate issue).

I love lowland hikes like Downey Creek, Suiattle Trail, Milk Creek and Sulphur Springs (talk about old growth!), and can't wait to get back there (bummed that Milk Creek isn't accessible even if the road were fixed). It was fun to camp and hike a couple of different trails on weekends in summer.

I'm hoping that this is just a delay, and the road will be repaired.

Posted by:


"Kim Brown" on Jun 02, 2011 11:16 PM

Suiattle Road Repairs Halted

Buck Creek Campground used to be one of the coolest campgrounds in the area. As a child, I spent countless nights in the campground, and sometimes under the shelter! Now the fact that seniors (who loved the area) cannot get there saddens me. If I wouldn't be arrested (and/or sued by some conservation group *cough cough*), I would rebuild it MYSELF. A group of about 50 people, a bulldozer, and a few other items would do the job JUST FINE. I was so tempted to walk the three miles on the road to BCC two weeks ago, but an injury my father recieved on the Circle Peak trail halted that idea. Anyhow, people should also check out the other side of the river. My Subaru (an old, little GL) made it past the road closure on 2703 just fine. If people hiked on that trail a bit more, then it wouldn't be as overgrown as it is now. We frequently lost the trail, and snow and the injury stopped us at the first meadow.

BTW, what happened to Road 25? Why is it closed 4 miles past the Rat Trap Pass Road? Just wondering.

Posted by:


forresthicks4x4 on Aug 14, 2011 05:46 PM