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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Suiattle field trip

As the comment deadline loomed, we took another close look at the sad old Suiattle road last Sunday. It further convinced us that ALTERNATIVE C is the way to go, with modifications...

The road is great fun on a mountain bike. Lots of quiet places to pause and contemplate the beautiful old forest and very active braided river channel along the way. There are a few long straight stretches where you can't help but wish the road planners had had a little more imagination than to just lay a ruler down and draw a line, but there are some more interesting stretches in the last 4 miles we recommend for permanent closure.

The slide at MP 12.6, a lot like one later at 20.8, is unstable. Unlike 20.8, though, this one is so far down-valley it does need to get rebuilt - closing it this far down would severely limit motorized access to the valley. But the original rebuild plan calls for a bypass that would mean a huge disturbance of the nearby forest. The bedrock exposed along the river bank, well above ordinary high water, would probably support some of those wire baskets full of rocks to build a bulwark against the river to stabilize the road, keep it where it is, and avoid a re-route.

The John Edwards Memorial Grove
The shocker was to traverse the grove of old trees through which the upper half of the bypass at MP 12.7-13.8 is proposed to be cut. Cut -- literally. After you go through the tree-farm that was planted in the old cut where the spur road goes, and enter the old forest beyond it you realize just how rare the old trees there are at such a low elevation. There's a mix of wetland and old forest there that's going to really be butchered by the chain saws and bulldozers. It seems absurd to cut a (up to) 60 ft. wide "clear zone" through this forest for the sake of a 14' road prism. That would really be a shame. Trees of this size at this low an elevation anywhere in a roaded valley on the west side is worth saving.

And there aren't a bunch of huge old stumps mixed in - this forest probably naturally regenerated after a mid-19th century burn. If the bypass must be build through here, we strongly recommend as narrow a clear zone as possible, building on models set by the National Parks.

In support of keeping this grove as intact as possible, we've unofficially named it the John Edwards memorial grove.
14.4 - Here's what the John Edwards Grove is in for under Alt B.

The ugly cut at MP 14.4 was a good, scary "preview" of what could easily become of The John Edwards grove. This is where "they," the Forest Service, started to cut the forest beside the road for a re-route, only ceasing when the suit was filed last summer. Some have criticized N3C for being party to that suit, but here's a sample of what would have been a much larger cut had we not:

At 20.8 we came to the sidehill cut that was expanded over the years until all work ceased last year when the gate was locked down below. This is a very unstable slope of fine-grained silts that will open up into a yawning gap if full-scale road rebuilding by further cut-and-fill is allowed to commence. As it is, with minimal work and use of properly-sized equipment, the causeway a short ways ahead across the mouth of Downey Creek can be extracted, then this section of road can be closed to vehicle traffic to avoid having to continue to cut and fill here to maintain a functioning roadway. The river channel runs right alongside this point now, guaranteed to ensure future washouts:
20.8, just before Downey Creek

And finally, the Downey Creek damage was before us. This spot will really benefit from having the causeway removed, and a foot/equestrian bridge to replace it will cost a tiny fraction of what it would cost to install a set of vehicle bridge spans. With a tiny fraction of the impact to the general area as well of course. This is where most of the threatened Chinook salmon spawn, since Downey runs clear while the main stem Suiattle, coming off the glaciers and volcanic ash-laden slopes of Glacier Peak and its "great fill" runs silty. The short foot/equestrian bridge installed here to cross the gap from causeway to bridge is a good example of what could be built to replace the entire causeway. The pier(s) required for a foot bridge would be a small fraction of the size of those required for a road bridge, and it's the piers that matter to the alluvial fan.

The bridge over Sulfur Creek has a big gap at the down-valley end, temporarily bridged for feet, bikes and horses. We made it to the old trailhead and a short ways beyond, and saw on the first mile of the Suiattle Trail what the current road beyond Green Mountain turnoff could look like with a few more decades behind it. That very pleasant and easy first mile would then be extended to an easy and pleasant 5 miles of former road, from Green Mtn to Milk Creek, narrowed down to trail. It just makes sense.
The first mile of the old Suiattle trail, once a road that went as far as Milk Creek. Envision this being the condition from Green Mountain turnoff on. Or at least from just before 20.8. This is such a pleasant trail for all ages, something we need more of. The easy way to get it is to close the road before Downey Creek, as per Alt C.
Finally, just a few yards from the gate I paused when I heard a familiar chirp. Up above me was a woodpecker, tapping away. I realized had I been in a car, there was no way I'd have heard or seen this guy. And had cars been roaring by, no way would this guy have hung around anyway. There are many subtle but significant benefits to road closures.


Anonymous said...

I am an avid hiker and backpacker. Regarding the Suiattle road EA, I support alternative C as opposed to rebuilding the road to its former end, or alternately, closing the road even further back, though I realize this is not going to happen. I am adamantly opposed to rebuilding the last 4 miles of the road, and would much prefer to see that stretch accessible only by non-motorized trail. -Hiker from Omak, WA

monorail said...

I have a question about the rebuild at around MP 13. The EA notes that at this point, the river channel is migrating northward at a very rapid rate (11 feet per year; the historic imagery in the EA presents a dramatic picture of this). It seems to me that the new roadway will soon be swallowed up by the river, perhaps within a decade. It also seems to me that it would be difficult or impossible to move the road any further away from the river, because the slope steepens considerably. Unfortunately, the EA does not address this in detail; it only notes that there is a moderate to high probability of future flood damage. It would be a real tragedy if they cut down all that forest and poured all this money into a rebuild, only to see it all permanently washed away (with no hope of rebuilding) a year or two later. Is anyone at NCCC familiar with this particular matter?

One more question: the EA notes trees over 6 feet in diameter will be cut. Wouldn't such trees be older than 19th century second-growth?

kevin said...


yes, you're right about the MP 13 re-route. We paced off the closest distance from the re-route spur to the current river bank. It's a little over a hundred feet of flat forested bench. And as you say, the river is migrating north there; in fact if you look at old aerial photos you will note that the road has been relocated at least twice before at that meander bend because the river continued to encroach. So it's reasonable to suppose that the river will keep moving all the way to the base of the hillslope, taking out the re-route. It could all go next winter, or it could be twenty-five years hence. These movements are very episodic. Then they will want to put the road up on the hillside, which will be a lot messier. The only real certainty is the road will wash out again. This is a dynamic floodplain and keeping a road open there is guaranteed to be costly.

Regarding the 6-foot trees, no I'm pretty sure they're mid-19th century fire regen. Somewhere between 140 and 170 years old. I have cored a few douglas-firs in the vicinity; the ages always come out about that. Two human lifetimes. On a good site you can grow a pretty nice tree in 150 years. One clue that the trees are not *really* old is their branch structure; crowns are still fairly small and regular, and they have not yet developed the big-irregular branches that one gets in really old trees.
If you have ever walked the huckleberry mtn trail, all the nice douglas-fir on the lower half of the route is of the same vintage.

There are older trees in the Suiattle--there are some along the road past Downey creek, and there are also older areas on the S side of the river; but there is definitely a whole lot of this 150-175 y/o "young old growth" in the Suiattle basin.