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Originally published August 9, 2013 at 12:07 PM | Page modified August 13, 2013 at 10:59 AM

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Wilderness advocates battling over whether to save the ways in

Do conservationists have any right, let alone responsibility, to protect wilderness areas by working to keep people out of them? What place do roads have in or near designated wild areas? And which of those roads should be maintained, and who picks up the check?

Pacific NW staff writer

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NATURE DOES NOT dawdle. Neither does it rest.

If you doubt this, stand for a spell on the banks of the Suiattle River, its relentless whitewater torrent tossing smooth, hundred-pound boulders against one another with an authoritative thud that’s felt, through the ground, over and over again, 50 yards away.

Determined runoff from 10,541-foot Glacier Peak, a cone-shaped volcanic jewel in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, powers this rushing dynamo. The peak is also the centerpiece of a half-million-acre wilderness area described by people who would know as some of the most beautiful, unspoiled alpine terrain in America.

It has been even more unspoiled, some would argue, for the past decade, during which time the mighty Wild and Scenic River has kept visitors at a distance by washing out a half-dozen sections of the Suiattle River Road, aka Forest Road 26. That finally will begin to change soon as work crews begin putting the primary west-side access to the stunning Glacier Peak Wilderness back together again.

You’d think that would be cause for unanimous celebration among those who loved to embark from the old trailhead and hike — as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once did to protest a proposed copper mine — the steep Miner’s Ridge trail; or camp at majestic Image Lake; or join the Pacific Crest Trail along one of its most-scenic stretches.

Not exactly. Remarkably, repairs to the Darrington-area entrance to one of the country’s most remarkable wildernesses will begin despite the objections of some traditional wilderness advocates — some of whom sued to stop the repairs. Repairs that appear to be coming just in time.

BEYOND ITS current closure point, 12.5 miles upstream, and 14.5 miles from its former terminus, the mountain road already is being reclaimed, at a shocking pace, by nature. And not just the river. Without a steady flow of cars carrying campers, backpackers, climbers and rafters, the roadway — gravel after the first nine miles — looks more today like a broad path through alder trees, some already 12 feet tall.

It’s easy to envision the upper portions of the road, which accesses 27.5 miles of river valley, seven popular trailheads and two campgrounds, as a simple trail, which is essentially what it became when it washed out in numerous spots in 2003 and again in 2006. The closure added nearly 30 miles of round-trip foot or cycle travel to hikes into the spectacular Glacier Peak area, effectively shutting off access to all but the strongest, least-time-constrained backpackers from the west side.

As is typical these days, the bureaucratic process to establish when and how to repair the road, which followed an old path used by the Sauk-Suiattle people, included pleas from some harder-core conservation groups to simply leave it closed and let nature reclaim the valley. But in this case, two groups went beyond arguing, suing in 2011 to halt the long-awaited Suiattle repairs.

Conservation groups steeled in timber and mining battles have long wielded the loaded gun of legal action to shape decisions on public-land use. Twenty years ago, the suit wouldn’t have caused a ripple. But the choice of two prominent local old-guard groups, the North Cascades Conservation Council and Pilchuck Audubon Society, to pull the trigger on the suit created tectonic shifts in the landscape of allegiances among Northwest environmental and recreation groups.

A subsequent, equally controversial lawsuit — against the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest by a Missoula, Mont., group, Wilderness Watch, to force removal of a restored fire-lookout cabin on Green Mountain — felt like piling-on. Suddenly, what once were behind-the-scenes greenie squabbles were shoved into the public eye. In the argument that followed, and continues, the two actions illuminated critical questions about access to Northwest wilderness:

Do conservationists have any right, let alone responsibility, to protect wilderness areas by working to keep people out of them? What place do roads — anathema on their face to wilderness legislation, which forbids mechanized travel — have in or near designated wild areas? And with the federal Wilderness Act turning 50 next year, and the old “multiuse” (logging) road web crumbling, which of those roads should be maintained, and who picks up the check?

The same issues are at play in other road wars across Washington state, where convenient public access to wild places has steadily, and literally, eroded over the past two decades: the Upper Stehekin Valley Road in North Cascades National Park, the Carbon River Road at Mount Rainier, the Dosewallips road in Olympic National Park, and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Index-Galena roads in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

FOR MANY local greens, the Suiattle road fight proved to be a watershed moment — one that might have a bearing on all those debates, and those yet to arise.

“It’s the first time I remember where access — roaded, recreation-access maintenance and restoration — was seen as important enough that it led to a concerted effort on the part of a lot of recreation and conservation groups to sign on together,” says Allen Gibbs, a retired Forest Service official who now works on conservation issues as a private citizen.

In response to the lawsuit, 10 local groups, including hiking, mountain biking, climbing, rafting and horse advocates, along with Washington Wild, The Mountaineers and The Wilderness Society, cosigned an April 2012 letter supporting a full reopening of the Suiattle Road. The project ultimately got back on course after a two-year delay. (The suit was withdrawn after the federal government agreed to address environmental questions it raised.) This still-unnamed access coalition will, by necessity, stick together, says Tom Uniack, conservation director for Washington Wild. Beyond the practical reasons for maintaining access, the group hopes to “rewrite the narrative” that conservationists are radicals who want to “re-wild” the region’s wilderness landscape, one unrepaired washout at a time, Uniack says.

“The lawsuit was a turning point,” he says. “We need to keep access as a paramount concern, and we can’t afford to just sit back on the sidelines.”

The twin lawsuits were especially damaging, in a political sense, because they came in the midst of ongoing, delicate efforts to expand wilderness areas in the North Cascades, the Olympics and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River. Each campaign included negotiations to alleviate fears about road and trail closures by user groups wary of wilderness designations. Similar sensitive negotiations are playing out now over a sweeping conservation pact, the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, which, through a series of controversial trade-offs, secures better access to both irrigation water and desirable Cascades backcountry in the heart of the state’s most popular recreation corridor.

The Suiattle and Green Mountain suits, many local greens lament, were a spear thrust through some of those fragile truces, threatening hard-won trusts.

Beyond that, local activists winced at the way the legal action played directly into an old stereotype, painting greens as Audi-driving elitists who want to preserve the nation’s choice backcountry haunts, all right — for themselves.

That is exactly how the lawsuit proponents were portrayed by longtime local columnist (and unabashed wilderness-access advocate) Joel Connelly of Seattlepi.com, who branded the litigious conservationists (some of whom he called friends) as radical, “keep-everybody-out-but-us environmentalists.”

That doesn’t make the work of public-trust-building any easier, notes Peter Dykstra, a former land-use expert for The Wilderness Society who is working on the Yakima project as a private attorney.

“My own experience in the conservation community,” he says, “was that, at times, we were a bit of a circular firing squad.”

PART OF the disarray within the local green movement might be a sort of lapsed-Cold-War phenomenon: The near-demise of a former common foe, big timber, has left enviros with few people to fight against. And a lot of wilderness has been secured, leaving, literally, only the margins to quibble over.

But another part is a generational shift in approaches, Dykstra and others believe.

The old, confrontational style — sue first, ask questions later — has given way to a more measured, collaborative approach, one that already has produced successes, such as the recent landmark wildlife/land-use accord between user groups in Washington’s Okanogan Highlands. That pact has become a national model. Dykstra and others have similar hopes for the Yakima plan, which involves some of the same groups.

The downside of the passing of the torch: Most of the aging, green lions who sprung from their cages as eager youths in the 1960s and ’70s are now in their golden years. And they remain, by far, the largest constituency for wilderness.

That still-active coalition of green baby boomers — many of whom, ironically, find environmental restrictions they championed as youngsters indirectly keeping them out of wilderness areas as knee-replacement oldsters — won’t last long.

“It also doesn’t represent the diversity of the voters who we need to inspire to be the next generation of folks to protect wilderness,” Dykstra says.

That makes maintaining road access even more critical. Conservation groups are just waking up to the fact, Dykstra says, that they need to join forces with recreation groups they might have once been at odds with.

HOW ALL of this will play out is anyone’s guess, as federal land-management budgets are dismantled, demands on wilderness access increase with rising population, and climate change brings about 100-year storms as often as twice in the same decade, further threatening forest roads and bridges.

The U.S. Forest Service has launched its own “Sustainable Roads” analysis of the 400,000 miles of decaying roads the agency manages (context: it’s about 240,000 miles to the moon). Many local enviros hope the new access coalition forged by the Suiattle action will take an active role in highlighting select roads worth keeping — and paying for — and saying a fond goodbye to the vast majority of other “legacy” roads.

The new coalition builders are aware that the green-community transformation is not only far from complete, but far from certain. Some people on the margins, such as Gibbs, acknowledge that “re-wilding” advocates remain a strong minority voice in the local green community.

The stated reason for the Suiattle suit was that federal agencies failed to follow the letter of the law in planning road repairs, posing unnecessary destruction of old-growth forest. The real reason?

“Some people did not want the road to reopen to reduce access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness,” Gibbs says flatly. “But you won’t find that in writing anywhere.”

Nor will many greens confess it, especially in the wake of the backlash.

Rick McGuire, a longtime conservationist active in both groups behind the action, says he agrees with the need to get people into federal wilderness — and has worked for a lifetime to ensure just that, including his ongoing efforts to establish new trails in more-accessible areas, such as the Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass corridors.

In the Northwest, readily accessible wilderness is “part of our culture,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons a lot of people choose to live here.”

But McGuire still questions the logic of spending millions to maintain roads, such as the Suiattle, that stretch far into the backcountry, just to ensure easy passage for visitors.

When such a road closes, “My personal feeling is that the wilderness just gets bigger, not smaller,” he says.

The lawsuit achieved its intended goal to “reduce the footprint” of the rebuilt Suiattle Road, McGuire says. And he is not displeased that it will reopen.

Still, he emphasizes that wilderness experiences can be more readily had, closer to urban populations, at far less cost.

In a larger sense, McGuire says, “whether we want them to or not, the roads are going to continue to go out. We have to create more opportunities closer in.”

He does lament the tempest over the Suiattle matter, he says, confessing: “I suppose we could have thought it through a little better.”

EVEN IF local groups all joined hands over access, other activists with a broader focus stand ready to defend the letter of wilderness law — regardless of whether that means suing to tear down a reconstructed lookout or block reconstruction of a road.

Nothing in the Wilderness Act says getting there should be easy, notes George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch of Missoula, the group that initiated the Green Mountain Lookout suit.

“I think you have to preserve the wilderness in order for people to enjoy it,” he says, adding that vigilance is critical, because what might seem a minor matter locally can become a precedent for the nation’s 750 other wilderness areas.

He understands the argument of people who say they deserve the same access to the wilderness they fought to preserve as youngsters.

“It’s a legitimate point of view. I don’t share it.” An area such as the Upper Stehekin “will be a better wilderness for future generations” if that road remains closed, he insists.

Bottom line: Wilderness advocates had no problem asking mining and timber companies, climbers, cyclists, horsemen and others to make sacrifices to create wilderness, Nickas says. And they will need to practice some of their own preaching to pass on wilderness to future generations.

“We users have to practice some restraint,” he says. “That’s a hard thing for humans. We’re not very good at it.”

Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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