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Published: August 25, 2011
Methow Valley News, Aug. 24, 2011
By Ann McCreary
People want roads and trails in the Chewuch River watershed that continue to provide access to the wide variety of recreation that is an essential part of the Methow Valley economy.
That message came through loud and clear during several months of public comment that will be used by the Methow Ranger District as it prepares a plan for the future of Forest Service roads in the Chewuch watershed.
Without adequate funds to maintain more than 600 miles of roads on Forest Service land in the Chewuch drainage, the agency needs to make choices about which roads to close, which to keep open, and how to maintain the roads that are open.
A key to solving the dilemma lies in working in partnership with organizations that have an interest in using roads and trails in the Chewuch area, according to a report released this week by the Wilderness Society.
The Wilderness Society of Washington collaborated with the Methow Valley Ranger district during the past eight months to gather public opinion about how roads on Forest Service lands should be managed in the future. The ranger district is required to periodically update its road management plans, and will use the information gathered during recent months to develop its recommendations for the future of roads along the Chewuch River.
“The report confirmed our sense of the multiple needs and uses of the watershed and the roads system,” said Cynthia Wilkerson of the Washington chapter of the Wilderness Society. “We heard pretty clearly that people expect the watershed to be managed in an ecologically and fiscally sound way.”
Public opinion was gathered through individual meetings with knowledgeable local residents, two public meetings in Winthrop, two field trips and an on-line public survey. About 400 comments were gathered in the process and incorporated into the study, Wilkerson said.
“Recreation is widely considered to be the primary use of the Chewuch road system by the public. Recreation and tourism are an economic mainstay of the Methow Valley, and the Chewuch watershed is an integral part of the recreational amenities that attract thousands of visitors and millions of dollars in business to the valley each year,” the Wilderness Society report said.
“As Winthrop Mountain Sports store owner Rita Kenny eloquently described … recreation is a diverse, four-season industry in the valley, with cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking in the spring and summer, and hunting in the fall,” the report said.
Comments gathered from the public through meetings and the survey reflect the range of opinions that people hold about how roads on the federal forest lands should be used.
“Please reopen all closed roads to motorized use,” one person said, while another wrote, “I am all about hiking so any road closed I would like a trail.” Another resident wrote, “I would like to see many Forest Service roads closed. Good candidates would be areas where road densities are high, where there are parallel roads, roads with high erosion levels, and roads in bad locations (for fish and floodplain).”
The public also weighed in with opinions about how closed roads should be treated, with several comments opposing the practice of scarifying the surface of roads that have been decommissioned. “They felt that using heavy equipment to scarify roads is a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on road maintenance an other purposes. However, some people would like to see more roads thoroughly decommissioned to make them impassable for off-road vehicles.”
In some cases, the Wilderness Society reported, conflicts arise between the use of roads for active forest management and recreation. During a July field trip, participants learned that an old, closed logging road that is part of the popular Buck Mountain bike trail system would soon be re-opened for commercial thinning and log truck access.
“Some participants were upset that the re-opened road would become temporarily unusable for mountain biking. This was one of the most controversial issues that arose during the two field trips and illustrated that the function of many roads in the watershed has changed or is changing and those functions need to be taken into account as the Forest Service plans for the future structure of the roads network,” according to the report.
The Wilderness Society cited general support for managing roads to maintain and restore the ecological health of the watershed, but noted “strongly divergent viewpoints about the relationship between roads and salmon in the Chewuch watershed.” Some local residents, the report stated, “are skeptical about closing roads for the purpose of restoring salmon habitat and populations … (and) consider degradation of spawning habitat to be of minuscule significance to salmon recovery relative to the impact of Columbia River hydropower dams and other factors.”
On the other hand, the report said, numerous agencies and organizations are working to restore salmon and other endangered fish in the Chewuch and Methow Rivers, guided by recovery plans that identify reducing impacts of Forest Service roads as an essential part of the overall salmon recovery effort.
Whatever actions the Forest Service proposes with regard to the future of roads in the watershed, creating partnerships with recreational and environmental groups is going to be essential, both economically and politically, the Wilderness Society concluded.
For example, “During the July field trip, there was considerable discussion about opportunities for Methow Valley Sport Trails Association to assume trail maintenance responsibilities for certain roads in the Cub Creek area that are not needed by the Forest Service,” the report said.
In addition to MVSTA, potential partners in maintaining roads and trails include Backcountry Horsemen, Methow Valley Snowmobile Association, and Methow Cycle (a mountain biking organization). Salmon recovery partners could include the Yakama Tribe, Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, Trout Unlimited, and other groups in the Methow Restoration Council.
“By transferring some of the maintenance responsibility and costs for relatively un-used roads to partnering entities, the Forest Service would be better able to target its available maintenance dollars to improve some of the higher-use roads, such as Boulder Creek,” the Wilderness Society report said.
The report suggested that interested organizations work closely with the Forest Service to develop and implement a road plan that meets the variety of interests. “For example, when a road is being considered for closure or reduced maintenance, the partnering groups could be consulted on the methods – e.g. gates, drivable dips, tank traps, scarification, obliteration or benign neglect – that are most appropriate for that road.”
The Methow Ranger District will develop its “proposed action” for Chewuch watershed roads and present it for formal public comment this fall in a National Environmental Policy Act process. A decision on the final Chewuch watershed road management plan is expected next spring.