Dosewallips Road Plan Threatens Ancient Trees and Critical Salmon Habitat: Road-to-Trail Option Not Considered
by Tim McNulty
In June 2008, Olympic National Forest and the Federal Highway Administration released their Dosewallips Road Washout Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). After years of study, two failed starts, and hundreds of pages of public comment, the agencies still refuse to consider the only sensible solution for the Dosewallips: convert the upper road to a recreational hiking, biking, and equestrian trail.
Instead, the DEIS offers three alternatives for rebuilding the washed-out road. Two (alternatives B and C) would construct a bypass road across a steep, wet, unstable hillside through a spectacular old-growth forest adjacent to the Buckhorn Wilderness. Road-building costs would range from $2.5 to $3.75 million. A third approach, a bridge across the 500-foot washout (alternative D) would cost a staggering $8 million. (Alternative A is the No Action alternative.) No preferred alternative was selected.
Olympic Park Associates, Olympic Forest Coalition (OFCO), Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, Conservation Northwest, and other conservation groups are protesting the action, charging that bypass road or bridge construction would be costly, environmentally destructive to critical salmon and wildlife habitat, and completely unnecessary.
The new, nearly mile-long road would cut a 6½-to-7-acre swath through an exquisite grove of ancient forest, destroying dozens of old-growth trees, some reaching six feet in diameter. The area is a late-successional reserve and critical habitat for federally threatened Northern Spotted Owls and Marbled Murrelets. It is in a riparian reserve and key watershed that provides habitat for federally listed fish.
According to the DEIS, all three road-building options would be in violation of the Northwest Forest Plan, the law that preserves old-growth forests and wildlife habitats in Northwest forests. The planned road construction would require up to five “amendments” to the plan.
For the public, a wonderful opportunity to restore the upper Dosewallips valley to a family-friendly recreation area for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and quiet camping in the absence of cars, pollution, and noise has been dismissed out of hand.
“Relocating the Dosewallips Road through some of the most spectacular old-growth forest in the east Olympics just doesn’t make sense,” says OPA president Donna Osseward. “Ensuring public access is a worthy goal, but destroying irreplaceable forest and putting federally threatened salmon and wildlife at risk to do it is unacceptable.”
OPA and OFCO plan to challenge the final decision. Connie Gallant, board chair of OFCO, faults the agencies for ignoring public support for converting the road beyond the washout to a year-round recreational trail. “Conversion of the upper road to a family-friendly hiking, biking and equestrian trail is the only sensible solution for the Dosewallips. But it’s a solution the Forest Service refuses to consider.”
The Wrong Road in the Wrong Place
Problems with the Dosewallips Road began in January 2002, when record floods swept away a 300-foot section of road 10 miles west of Highway 101 at Brinnon. Repeated floods since then have nearly doubled the size of the washout. Prior to 2002, the road accessed two primitive campgrounds (the Elkhorn Campground in Olympic National Forest and the Dosewallips Campground in Olympic National Park) as well as two park trailheads. The park campground and trailheads can now be reached by a scenic five-mile hike along the river. The Forest Service campground is less than a mile past the washout.
Two earlier Forest Service plans to rebuild the road were challenged by OPA and other conservation groups and individuals and were withdrawn. But in the six years since the washout, no effort has been made by the agencies to establish parking, horse unloading, or camping facilities downstream from the washout. OPA urged that the current plan consider such an approach, similar to the solution adopted for the frequently flooded Carbon River Road in Mount Rainier National Park. Instead, the Forest Service narrowly defined the “purpose and need” of the proposed action to rule out this common-sense approach.
Federally listed Puget Sound Chinook salmon are known to spawn in the area, and the cut slope exposed by the river has been identified as a significant source of spawning gravel for Chinook. Federally listed Puget Sound steelhead, and Hood Canal chum are also present in the Dosewallips. Bulldozing a new road across steep, unstable slopes poses a long-term threat to salmon habitat in the river. Frequent flooding in recent years compounds the threat.
“This road is an artifact of the 1930s,” says Gallant. “Climate change and continuing floods are facts of life now. Forest service officials have an opportunity to plan for meaningful, long-term recreational use for this spectacular valley. Instead, they remain stuck in the past.”
Nature has given us a wonderful opportunity on the Dosewallips to plan for low-elevation, non-motorized hiking and camping opportunities in a stunning wilderness setting, free of cars, noise and pollution.
A Short History of the Dosewallips Road
Much of today’s conflict over the Dosewallips Road stems from poor decisions in the distant past. In the decades before the creation of Olympic National Park, commercial interests pushed hard for a road across the Olympics. The Brinnon-to-Lake Quinault route was at the top of their list. The Forest Service was compliant, and photographer Asahel Curtis was conscripted into the promotional effort. By the 1930s CCC crews blasted a road up the steep grade of Dosewallips Falls to Muscott Flat. With the creation of Olympic National Park in 1938, road construction was thankfully halted.
This legacy of early road-building abounds in the Olympics. Hikers today seldom notice that stretches of scenic hiking trails at Staircase, the North and East Fork Quinault, West Elwha, Obstruction Point, Deer Park or Duckabush were at one time early roads. Trail conversions have lessened ecological impacts and created new recreational hiking opportunities that few regret. A Dosewallips River trail would provide nearly year-round hiking, biking, and equestrian access though a magnificent valley forest. It would access two quiet, streamside campgrounds and a spectacular falls. It is by far the best choice for the Dosewallips.