There are some roads in the National Park System that just shouldn't be maintained. The "road to nowhere" in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one. The current path of the Carbon River Road in Mount Rainier National Park is another.
But what about the Upper Stehekin Valley Road in North Cascades National Park? At least one congressman believes wilderness boundaries should be bent to reroute this deadend route out of the existing floodplain of the Stehekin River. With the full House Natural Resources Committee set to consider this bill Thursday, let's take a look at what's at stake.
The route, 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.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, 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, H.B. 2806, 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. If he didn't want the road rebuilt, why introduce this measure?
During a hearing July 30 on the legislation, Washington state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette testified that the continued closure of the upper stretch of the road creates both an economic hardship for the Stehekin community and a visitation hardship for folks who don't have the ability to backpack in to the trailheads that once could be reached by vehicle.
"The closure of the Upper Valley Stehekin Road has had a negative effect on the economic viability of the Stehekin Community by limiting access to trailheads and rustic park facilities. It has also created a safety concern for valley residents and visitors," the state senator testified to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. "With an impassible road above Car Wash Falls, vehicular access to multiple trailheads for recreational purposes, as well as fire and safety purposes, is impossible.
"In addition to trail access being diminished, there are a significant number of visitor facilities at Bridge Creek that used to be accessible by vehicle," added state Sen. Parlette. "These facilities include: a campground, corral, Ranger Patrol Cabin, National Register listed historic public shelter, pit toilets, and an emergency cabin maintained by Chelan County Public Utility District. There is also a six site campground and pit toilets at Cottonwood Camp that use to be accessible by vehicle."
But not everyone agrees the wilderness boundary should be moved to allow the road to be rebuilt. One of those is acting-National Park Service Director Dan Wenk. During his appearance before the subcommittee he pointed to issues with The Wilderness Act, the lack of visitor facilities at the end of the road, and, of course, the cost of rebuilding the road.
"The department opposes H.R. 2806 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," Mr. Wenk testified. "In addition, with limited financial resources, the planning, design, construction and maintenance of a new road are lower in priority than other needs of the National Park Service. Stehekin, Washington, is a small community within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is part of the North Cascades National Park Complex. The Stehekin Valley is only accessible by boat, float plane or hiking. Visitors arrive to Stehekin by means of one of these conveyances and do not typically bring cars. Cars generally are limited to those who live in or own property in Stehekin. There are approximately 85-95 year-round residents and about one-third are NPS employees or their dependents.
Following the 2003 flood, the Park Service prepared an environmental assessment looking at the issues involved with both rebuilding or rerouting the road. According to Mr. Wenk, that analysis "found that relocating and constructing the road in the Stephen Mather Wilderness could have significant impacts on active Northern Spotted Owl habitat, old-growth forests and wetlands. In addition, road construction is prohibited within wilderness areas. Both the rebuilding and the relocation alternatives also raised concerns about obtaining the funding needed to maintain the road in such a demanding environment. As a result of these findings, the NPS made the decision to formally close the road and rely on access by trail to the Upper Stehekin Valley."
Throwing its support behind the Park Service is the National Parks Conservation Association, which in late August wrote Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, to solicit his opposition to Rep. Hasting's bill.
"You cannot reach Stehekin by car; the Stehekin Road is not connected to any road network. You can only get there by boat, plane or hiking. Vehicles can only reach this road by special shipment on a barge. One section of this road, leading into North Cascades National Park, has repeatedly been washed out by floods," pointed out the NPCA's Sean Smith. "Adequate access to the park is available on the remaining road network and by hiking and with stock.
"... Like many others, I too have a personal connection to the Stehekin road. As a former North Cascades’ ranger I was responsible for leading hikes, presenting evening programs and even shuttling visitors in the park van up and down the Stehekin Valley," added Mr. Smith. "What I found during my interaction with countless visitors is that they are deeply focused on their park experience. Put another way, retiring the Upper Stehekin Road may impact how people come to the park, but it’s unlikely to affect why they come. By focusing on the ultimate purpose of a park trip, the NPS better fulfills the real intent of the park visitor."
Stay tuned to the outcome of Thursday's committee meeting. Among those on the committee is U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who takes pride in pointing out congressional earmarks that he considers to be pure pork. In recent weeks he has ridiculed a $143,000 earmark to the American Ballet Theater in New York City intended for educational activities, saying, “Congress continues to spend way tutu much," and a $100,000 earmark to Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky for training programs in healthcare management.
“More is less,” Congressman Flake said.