House Passes Legislation That Could Lead the National Park Service to Rebuild Road at North Cascades National Park

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation that could wind up forcing the National Park Service to move a wilderness boundary line to rebuild a flood-prone road. NPS photo.

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."

Comments

It's always embarrasing when politics trumps science & the public's best interest. How do these guys sleep @ night?

I was a bit surprised to read former Acting Director Wenk's testimony that the Park Service opposes the legislation, in part "because of...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,"

He also mentions "inconsistency", which would also seem to exist in the case of the Westside road at Mount Rainier. This unpaved spur is a remnant of a never-completed attempt to build a road around the mountain in the 1930's. It is also subject to frequent flood damage and for the past couple decades, it has been closed to public vehicles at about Mile 3 from the Nisqually road. This policy turned some of the best former day hikes in the park into multi-day expeditions.

It doesn't necessarily require Congressional meddling to produce inconsistency, since the Westside road has been repaired almost every year for "administrative use", despite the lack of visitor facilities, except trailheads. The presence of a historic fire lookout with radio repeater and four backcountry ranger cabins suggests to me that NPS management convenience sometimes trumps public access.

While I agree with many of your original comments here, you are wrong that Congressman Inslee is opposed to the bill. In fact he spoke in support of it on the House floor during debate. From his comments, it sounds like many of the problems you have had with the bill were addressed in negotiations between Congressman Inslee and Congressman Hastings. Whatever they did to it meant that Congressman Inslee was able to publicly support the legisaltion in the House.

Anonymous,

Rep. Inslee's comments seem to speak to his opposition, and on the thomas.gov page they're clearly labeled as "dissent." Can you point to a different sentiment from the congressman?

STEPHEN MATHER WILDERNESS AND NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK BOUNDARY ADJUSTMENT -- (House of Representatives - October 26, 2009)

Mr. INSLEE. I am not the author of the bill, but I have worked with Mr. Hastings. Thank you for that compliment.

Mr. Speaker, I want to speak in favor of this bill, and I thank Mr. Hastings for his working with us to perfect this bill in a couple of ways.

We have made the bill clear that we have constrained the Park Service's definition of where a potential road could be built. Mr. Hastings and I both felt that it was important for Congress to retain some authority over where the wilderness boundaries are so that we would not give unfettered control to the Executive branch. We also make clear in the bill that the passage of this bill is not intended, in any way shape or form, to instruct the Park Service to change their prioritization on what roads to build or not to build in the Park Service.

There are many needs in the Park Service. We know there is a constrained budget situation. We know there are many roads that have been washed out and that there are trails that have been washed out, and we do not intend in this bill to change any priority array as to what could be done to the Park Service.

Thanks Anonymous. Again, politics makes strange bedfellows. What's interesting, of course, is that on one hand he supports the bill, but on the other he doesn't want to tell the Park Service what to do. Can he have it both ways?

Only in the crazy political world does 3,000 override 150,000 ! Forget the needs of the many as a politician has a need, might as well be another "road to nowhere'.

You report Sean Smith, NPCA, as commenting "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."

The NPS Environmental Impact Statement totally contradicts this. It says ""the road reroute would be more stable, and would need less routine maintenance and reconstruction than the former road it replaces... Routine road maintenance would average approximately $14,007 per year.
"The road reroute between MP 12.7 and 15.3 would not directly influence the river or its floodplain; would be more stable and less prone to flood damage; and would require less routine maintenance and emergency repairs than the former road... The new ½-mile long road reroute between MP 20.3 and MP 20.8 would be built above the 100-year floodplain, so there would be less flood damage, routine road maintenance, and emergency road reconstruction than there was prior to 1995... Alternative D (Road Reroute) would not impair the following Park resources and values within the project area: soils, water quality, hydrology, channel morphology, floodplains, fisheries, aquatic habitat, vegetation, wetlands, terrestrial and amphibious wildlife, visitor experience and access, socio-economics, Wilderness, PCT, and air quality."
http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=327&projectId=15383&documentID=14545

Construction costs are not paid by NPS, but entirely by the FHWA ERFO program, which is adequated funded.

This legislation does not force the NPS to do anything, it simply removes a legal barrier the NPS cited, enabling it to reconsider the road reroute option.

RodF and Anonymous, thank you for your input on this article. This is a reminder to me that a lot of things I read on the internet must be verified and scrutinized for accuracy. I am not at all surprised to see Kurt has an obvious preference toward having this road closed. I fully support moving the boundary lines and opening this road. As I understand, this road was improved originally as a "mine to market" road by the early settlers over 100 years ago. The road is part of the history of the Cascades and was originally a trail. Stehekin, "The Way Through" was the way through the mountains. I reference the link below for information from the NPS pertaining to the Stehekin Road. http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/noca/hbd/forms6.htm
The National Park Service needs to remember they need the support of the public. The best way to acheive this support is to engage park visitors in the wilderness experience. Some people in our population don't have the physical ability to hike this route. It is the direct observation and participation in these park lands that enhance the support of our National Parks. If you examine a map of this Park you will see very little area that has access by road throughout the Park. In the early history of the National Park system Theodore Roosevelt knew the value of providing access to the Parks would generate support for preserving these areas. In the Act to establish a National Park Service in 1916 it is written, "The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The Stehekin road, in existence for over a century, has provided for this mandate to be effective. The Park Service has a tough job to not only conserve but also to provide for the enjoyment of these jewels. I support the NPS and having spent a few summers in the Stehekin area realize the importance of this road to the residents and Park visitors. The enhanced experience this road access provides meets the requirement for the Park Service to provide for the enjoyment of this segment of the Park and leave it unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations as has been the case these past 41 years.

Anonymous on Jan. 15: your comments echo those of Senator Dan Evans, sponsor of the bill which created NCNP's Steven Mather Wilderness. In his testimony before Congress last July:

"I believe very strongly that continued protection of our wilderness National Parks depends on the active support of visitors, hikers, and climbers who act as champions for our National Parks. If we make access substantially more difficult we reduce the number of visitors and ultimately the numbers of citizens and taxpayers who know enough about these parks to want to protect them."

"It was my intent when I sponsored the Park Wilderness Bill of 1988 to protect the unique features of these splendid Parks but not to make access more difficult for those seeking the unusual experience of a wilderness Park. I believe that in this instance an alternative route along the Old Wagon Road would maintain the appropriate access, and that portions of the current road could revert to wilderness category with no net loss of wilderness area."

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/?&dbname=cp111&sid=cp111IqD41&refer=&r_n=hr293.111&item=&sel=TOC_15565&