Re-Wilding the Cascades
an NCCC vision
By Rick McGuire
NCCC has spent 50 years protecting the Cascades, and although there are now big areas of dark green on the map, the job is far from done. NCCC would like to re-wild some of the areas that suffered cutting during the great logging binge of 1950 - 1990, when roads were punched deep into then-wild valleys. Some of these roads provide valuable recreational access, but many others are nothing more than crumbling corridors of destruction intruding into once wild places. The majority of these roads were built on the cheap, and receive little or no maintenance today. For the most part they are decaying slowly, with periodic culvert failures causing sometimes spectacular blowouts and debris flows, harming rivers and fish. NCCC would like to see many of them decommissioned, un-doing mistakes of the past, removing the "fingers" which jut into otherwise wild places, places that could be wild again.
The map of the North Cascades has been shaped by the decisions of the past, in the days when the Forest Service was determined to push roads deep into the heart of the then-wild Cascades. Timber was king in the Forest Service, and the plan for the trees was to cut them down. Before World War II, most logging was done via railroads, in low valleys such as the Sauk, Skykomish and Snoqualmie. After the war came the truck logging era, and the Forest Service started pushing roads into areas which until then had been pristine wilderness. Up and down the range, valley after valley was roaded. This was the era of "Wilderness preventative logging." A roaded valley was essentially taken off the table for consideration as Wilderness or any other kind of protection. Once the timber beasts had it, it was theirs. The Forest Service road budget ran into hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Many roads were built for miles through old growth forests to access a small area near the head of the valley, after which the rest of the valley could be logged at leisure.
Between 1945 and 1985, the map of the North Cascades changed from big expenses of green to a spaghetti bowl of roads in many places. Large core areas were protected in the North Cascades National Park and in various Wilderness areas, but most of that acreage was high country, and (with some notable exceptions,) contained very little in the way of lowland "big tree" forests. Many Wilderness areas looked, and still look, like a starfish on the maps, with protection extending outwards along high ridges, with the valleys in between roaded and excluded from Wilderness. The politics of the day prevented conservationists from protecting many of the valleys which fell into the hands of the timber industry.
It's the valleys that are the biologically rich part of the Cascades. NCCC rejects the notion that once a valley is roaded, it must stay roaded. NCCC believes the time has come to "take back" some of the low elevation valleys of the Cascades and let them be wild again.
Trees grow quickly in the Cascades, and forests often recover fairly well if logged only once. Most of the railroad logged areas were never replanted, and have grown back into naturally regenerated, mature second growth forests, some now with trees 150 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter. Places which could once be appreciated only by connoisseurs of ugliness are now beautiful again, and these forests are well on their way to becoming old growth. Valleys such as the Middle Fork Snoqualmie, the North Fork Skykomish and parts of the Sauk, once vast clearcuts, are now carpeted in green. Most of the postwar truck logging occurred at higher elevations, and will take longer to recover than the RR logged valleys. But even those forests are slowly regreening, and many valleys which were horribly pockmarked 20 or 30 years ago are looking much better than they did. It's time to leave them alone and let them heal.
Some of the valley roads which penetrate deeply into the Cascades have already been decommissioned, or will likely soon be. The Middle Fork Snoqualmie road above Dingford Creek is being converted into a multi-use trail for hikers, mountain bikes and horses, turning a miserable road into an attractive lowland trail. After numerous washouts and tenuous repairs, the Park Service has finally realized that keeping the upper Stehekin River road open is a losing battle, and is proposing to decommission the upper _ miles of it. If enacted, the Wild Sky Wilderness proposal will close the upper 1.3 miles of the North Fork Skykomish road, creating an opportunity for several loop hikes. It would also protect several other places where old roads have crumbled away and closed themselves.
NCCC is proposing that the Whitechuck River road, obliterated in several places by a severe flood in October 2003, be decommissioned and turned into a multi-use trail along the lines of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie. There are a number of other valleys and other areas which NCCC believes should be considered for re-wilding. Each one needs to be looked at individually, and pros and cons weighed, but the list of candidates is long. On the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, the list might include, from south to north
NCCC is not calling for all the above roads to be closed, but believes they should be considered for decommissioning, along with hundreds of lesser spur roads. Of the thousands of miles of roads carved throughout the Cascades, very few serve any real need. The time has come to re-wild substantial parts of the Cascades.
North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980