In a sign of bipartisan meddling when it comes to how the national parks should be managed, the House of Representatives has passed legislation that could force the National Park Service to tweak wilderness boundaries and rebuild a road in North Cascades National Park. The chamber's majority was evidently unmoved by a Park Service analysis that best interests of taxpayers and the park would be served by not rebuilding the Upper Stehekin Road.
In a simple voice vote Tuesday the chamber approved H.R. 2806, which amends the Washington Park Wilderness Act of 1988 and authorizes the Interior secretary to "adjust the boundaries of the North Cascades National Park and the Stephen Mather Wilderness in Washington state in order to provide a 100-foot wide corridor along which the Stehekin Valley Road may be rebuilt: (1) outside the floodplain between mileposts 12.9 and 22.8; (2) within the boundaries of the Park; and (3) outside of the boundaries of the Wilderness."
If you recall, this Republican-sponsored measure reached the floor of the House only after the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee -- Rep. Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia, a Democrat -- quickly ushered it through his committee before it could be fully debated.
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. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, back in June introduced legislation that, while not specifically ordering the Park Service to rebuild the road, suggested it do just that. His measure gives Interior Secretary Ken Salazar 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 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, then the agency's acting director, testified during a hearing on the measure back in July.
Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Washington) and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) were among those who had opposed the measure this week.
"We strongly support protecting and maximizing access of national parks and publicly protected land. When access points are damaged, NPS uses criteria based on usage, topography, and cost to decide how to proceed with maintenance needs. While we wholeheartedly believe we should try and preserve past points of access, we must also recognize changes to the terrain and look at the use of a park system as a whole when determining how to spend limited NPS funds," the two said in a prepared statement.
"The passage of H.R. 2806 should not change the priority list for the National Park Service, putting a road used by less than 3,000 visitors annually above other projects in the North Cascades National Park and neighboring parks that may have maintenance needs for roads used by more than 150,000 visitors each year. NPS has a limited budget and must prioritize projects based on a variety of factors. At an estimated cost of $1.5 million, rebuilding the upper Stehekin could pull funds away from projects that provide access points for tens of thousands. Public access to our wild lands is a cornerstone of conservation efforts so it is vitally important that available NPS dollars go towards high priority projects, including those that provide access to the highest number of people. We strongly believe that NPS should not adjust their priority list of the road maintenance as a result of the passage of this legislation."
Sean Smith, a spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, on Tuesday also criticized the House vote.
"In 2006, the Park Service completed an environmental review of the Upper Stehekin Road and concluded the best way to preserve park resources, save taxpayer money and maintain public enjoyment was to retire the road. Even if the road was rebuilt higher along the mountainside, the safety of visitors would be at risk from an area that is prone to avalanches and it would be prohibitively expensive for the Park Service to build, repair, and maintain," said Mr. Smith. "The road has been closed since 2003 due to devastating floods and a trail has served as a popular entry way for hikers and horseback riders into the upper Stehekin valley. In fact, last year backcountry visitation in Stehekin was the highest it has been in eight years.
"The Lower Stehekin Road already provides tremendous hiking opportunities for families. In fact, there are more than nine trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail, which reach deep into the Stephen Mather Wilderness, the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness that surround Stehekin.
"Utilized by roughly 1,400 recreationists per year, rebuilding and maintaining the Upper Stehekin Road along unstable mountain slopes should not be a priority, especially when the National Park Service is already struggling to keep more popular park roads open from storm damage. We strongly encourage Senators (Maria) Cantwell and (Patty) Murray to oppose any similar efforts in the Senate."