With a move of political sleight of hand that remains to be explained, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee quickly saw Thursday that legislation authorizing the National Park Service to move wilderness boundaries in North Cascades National Park for a new road to the Upper Stehekin Valley was passed on to the full House of Representatives for consideration.
The actions by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, suggested that perhaps a backroom deal had been made, for he quickly called for a vote on the legislation, H.B. 2806, before the full committee had arrived for a morning of marking up pending legislation. Among those present for the vote was its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington.
Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington said to be in opposition to the legislation, arrived shortly after the vote was called and was said to be clearly upset with the chairman's actions, as was Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, who could be heard cursing in the hallway outside the committee room afterward.
The congressmen's offices were closed for the day before comment on what transpired could be obtained.
The route of the so-called Upper Stehekin Valley Road, which is prone to washouts, provides access to Stephen Mather Wilderness trailheads and North Cascades National Park from the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Back in 2003 there was a flood of historic proportions that washed out the road. While some portions were rebuilt, the section beyond Car Wash Falls has remained impassable. Some are fine with that, others are not.
Rep. Hastings back in June introduced legislation that, while not specifically ordering the National Park Service to rebuild the road, suggested it do just that. His measure gives the secretary of the Interior discretion to realign the wilderness area's boundaries in such a way that a better route for the road could be located while there would be no net loss in wilderness acreage. The National Park Service opposes the legislation "because of our concerns about potential impacts to the environment, inconsistency with the intention of the Wilderness Act, and our position of not rebuilding roads in parks in the Cascades after natural disasters where no visitor facilities are found along or at the end of the road," Dan Wenk, the agency's acting director, testified during a hearing on the measure back in July.
The vote Thursday was criticized by the National Parks Conservation Association, which supported the National Park Service in its opposition to the legislation.
“NPCA is extremely disappointed by the House Natural Resource Committee's passage of H.R. 2806, which will likely force the National Park Service to rebuild a low-priority storm-ravaged road in North Cascades National Park," said the NPCA's Sean Smith, a former ranger in the park. "Even if the road were rebuilt higher along the mountainside, it would still be prone to avalanches and be prohibitively expensive for the Park Service to build, repair, and maintain. The road, known as the Upper Stehekin Road, has been closed since 2003 due to devastating floods. Instead, a trail has served as a popular entry way for hikers and horseback riders into the upper Stehekin valley.
"In 2006, the Park Service completed an environmental review of the Upper Stehekin Road and concluded that the best way to preserve park resources, save taxpayer money and maintain public enjoyment was to retire the road," Mr. Smith added. "This decision was based upon the valley’s topography, the changing flood regime, the financial costs, and public demand. If H.R. 2806 were to come to the floor of the House, we strongly encourage members of Congress to support the National Park Service and vote ‘No’.”