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A river runs through it; a road, not so much
Special to The Times
The Stehekin Valley, at the head of Lake Chelan, is one of the wildest places in the lower 48 states, if not North America. Congress designated the area as part of the National Park System because of the impressive local relief — many peaks that define the valley rise more than a vertical mile above the floor.
The Stehekin River is prone to seasonal flooding from fall rainstorms and spring snowmelt, and is constantly shifting its course.
To maintain a road in close proximity to such a dynamic river is an expensive and never-ending task. The uppermost three miles of the 23-mile long Stehekin Valley Road were destroyed by floods more than a decade ago. As a result of a 1995 flood, the former road alignment is now beneath the river.
At issue now is the more recent flood of October 2003, which cut the remaining 20 miles of the Stehekin Valley Road in no fewer than six places.
Public access to this spectacular, unspoiled valley is obviously very important, but there must be a common-sense balance, and a recognition of the tremendous natural forces at work. The National Park Service has already committed, with little controversy, to retain and repair the lower 12 miles of this road for motorized use. The broad floodplain of the lower valley has made it possible to rebuild and reroute washed-out stretches of road well away from the river, and hopefully out of harm's way, promising not only much-lower repair costs, but also less interference with the river's natural migrations within its floodplain.
The National Park Service should be commended for its work on the lower road, and for thoroughly exploring options to address challenges along the upper road. It has determined that road repairs and rerouting from the 2003 storm will cost millions of dollars, regardless of how or where it's rebuilt. Construction materials would need to be barged uplake and transported to the site. In this rugged gorge, repaired or surviving sections of the upper road will likely be wiped out within a decade or two, given the history and environmental circumstances.
It makes little sense to spend millions of our tax dollars to keep a few miles of this road usable for perhaps 30 cars and a small shuttle bus for about six snow-free months out of the year — especially when the National Park Service is already suffering huge budget cuts.
The North Cascades Conservation Council, whose members include Stehekin residents and property owners, recognizes the proposed closure of the upper road not only reduces costs, but also removes the adverse impacts of vehicles: noise, dust, pollution, erosion and disturbance to wildlife, as well as humans.
If the preferred approach suggested by the Park Service is followed, most of the road above Lake Chelan will remain open and visitors still will enjoy exceptional scenery and viewpoints. Most trailheads, waterfalls, big trees, historic sites, all lodging and other destinations will remain easily accessible by vehicle.
The upper section of the valley will remain accessible as a trail, providing even more easy, scenic day-hiking and equestrian opportunities with increased sightseeing, wildlife sightings and peaceful encounters with wilderness.
The council supports the Park Service's preferred alternative to close the road at (or below) Carwash Falls, where it is severely washed out. We also support continued maintenance of the lower road that serves residents and visitors to the Stehekin Valley, and where the Stehekin River can essentially run its course.
Tom Hammond, a scientist and network engineer from Seattle, Carolyn McConnell, a third-generation Stehekin property owner, and Ken Wilcox, a Bellingham environmental planner and author, are members of the North Cascades Conservation Council's board of directors, www.northcascades.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company