H.R. 2352 Parks and Lands Bills

STATEMENT OF DR. HERBERT C. FROST, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR FOR NATURAL RESOURCE STEWARDSHIP AND SCIENCE, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS AND PUBLIC LANDS OF THE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES CONCERNING H.R. 2352, A BILL TO authorize the Secretary to adjust the boundary of the Stephen Mather Wilderness and North Cascades National Park in order to allow the rebuilding of a road outside of the Floodplain while ensuring that there is no net loss of acreage to the park and wilderness and for other purposes.

SEPTEMBER 15, 2011

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to offer testimony on H.R. 2352, a bill authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to adjust the boundary of the Stephen Mather Wilderness and North Cascades National Park in order to allow the rebuilding of a road outside of the floodplain, while ensuring that there is no net loss of acreage to the park and wilderness, and for other purposes.

The Department opposes H.R. 2352 because of concerns about potential impacts to the environment, inconsistency with the intention of the Wilderness Act, and our position of not rebuilding roads in parks in the Cascades after natural disasters when there are no visitor facilities are found along or at the end of the road. With limited financial resources, the planning, construction and maintenance of a new road and annual operation of a shuttle system are not a priority for the National Park Service (NPS) and would take away funding from other higher priority needs of the NPS.

Stehekin, Washington, is a small community within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (NRA), which is part of the North Cascades National Park Complex. You cannot drive to Stehekin. The Stehekin Valley is only accessible by boat, float plane, or hiking. Visitors arrive to Stehekin primarily by boat. There are approximately 85-95 year-round residents and about one-third of the residents are NPS employees or their dependents.

The Stehekin Valley Road had run 23 miles north from the Stehekin Landing, the location of the docks, ending at Cottonwood Camp in North Cascades National Park. The first 11 miles, or the Lower Stehekin Valley Road, traveled through the Lake Chelan NRA and provided access to NPS trailheads, campgrounds, and administrative facilities, as well as access to private property and businesses. However, the next 12 miles of road into the Upper Stehekin Valley traveled through North Cascades National Park and were maintained at a more primitive level, as they only accessed NPS trails and campgrounds. No private property was accessed by this road. In addition, this section of road was in a narrow corridor within the Stephen Mather Wilderness.

The majority of visitors to the Upper Stehekin Valley used an NPS shuttle. The average ridership of the shuttle to the Upper Valley was 2,500 people per year. In addition, the NPS estimates that an additional 500 to 800 individuals used private vehicles to drive the road to the Upper Valley, for an estimated total visitation of approximately 3,000 to 3,300 people per year.

The Washington Park Wilderness Act of 1988 designated the Stephen Mather Wilderness within the North Cascades National Park Complex as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Upper Stehekin Valley Road, identified as a narrow corridor, 50 feet to each side of the center line of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road, was excluded from the boundary of this wilderness area.

In 1995, the first of several major floods occurred in the Stehekin Valley, with many sections of the Stehekin Valley Road being damaged or destroyed. While much of the road was repaired or rebuilt, the damage to the last 2 ½ miles of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road was too great and a new terminus was established. In 2003, another flood destroyed substantial portions of the entire Stehekin Valley Road. After the 2003 flood, over $1 million was spent to repair or rebuild portions of the 11 miles of the Lower Stehekin Valley Road to keep it open to the park boundary and to access private property. In 2006, another flood damaged the Lower Stehekin Valley Road and emergency funding was made available to make repairs. This road remains open today.

The Upper Stehekin Road was obliterated at Mile 12.9, a place known as Car Wash Falls, and substantial portions of the road were damaged or destroyed further up the valley, leaving the remaining eight miles of road unusable to vehicles. The NPS undertook an extensive planning and public review process to analyze alternatives for continuing the public access to the Upper Stehekin Valley when it prepared the 2006 Environmental Assessment (EA). Those alternatives included rebuilding the road within the existing 100-foot, non-wilderness corridor, relocating the road through a wilderness area on the present alignment of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, or closing the road and relying on the existing trails to provide access to the upper valley.

The analysis found that rebuilding the road along the existing corridor was infeasible and unsustainable given the impacts to the Stehekin River and other natural resources, the difficulty of crossing at least one large continually rapidly eroding slope, and the likelihood that the road would be destroyed again by flooding or slope erosion in the near future. The analysis also found that relocating and constructing the road in the Stephen Mather Wilderness was likely to have significant impacts on active Northern Spotted Owl habitat, old-growth forests, and wetlands. In addition, road construction is prohibited within wilderness areas. Both the rebuilding and the relocation alternatives also raised concerns about obtaining ongoing funding needed to maintain the road over the long term in such a demanding environment. Based on these findings set out in the 2006 EA the NPS made the decision to formally close the road and rely on access by trail to the Upper Stehekin Valley.

If H.R. 2352 passes, the NPS would be required to complete additional planning and a National Environmental Policy Act review for the wilderness boundary change and the road construction. The 2006 EA does not include design concepts, address site-specific resource impacts, or account for road damage that has occurred since completion of the EA. Additionally, the EA indicated impacts of road re-routing would involve significant impacts to wetland, and possibly other resources, so additional planning, environmental compliance, and an environmental impact statement (EIS) would be necessary to proceed.

This planning process would consume substantial staff time and cost more than $500,000. At least an additional $1.3 million would be needed to construct the re-routed road , based on a 2004 estimate. Additional funds would also be needed to restore the remaining road bed to service, since it has been maintained as a trail for the last seven years. No estimate exists for this work.

If a new road were built in the Upper Stehekin Valley, likely there would be a need for the NPS to reestablish shuttle bus service for visitors. This summer, the NPS Alternative Transportation Program and consultants completed a financial analysis of costs to reestablish this shuttle system. Their analysis determined it would cost approximately $120,000 per year or $48 per passenger (based on previous ridership) to operate in the first year and costs would grow as labor, equipment rental, and fuel costs increase. This would add significant operational costs to the park's budget.

Due to threats from flooding, we remain concerned about maintaining access along the road in the Lower Stehekin Valley where the vast majority of visitors spend their time and the road serves private property. Over the last fifteen years, sections of the road in the Lower Stehekin Valley have also been damaged and destroyed by repeated floods and several emergency reroutes have had to be constructed. Maintaining this road access is a priority for the NPS and consequently, we are in the process of evaluating alternative solutions for a sustainable road and completing the planning and environmental review process that includes preparing an EIS. Construction costs, according to the Federal Highway Administration, range from $6 million to almost $9 million.

We know our decision involving the Upper Stehekin Valley Road is controversial to those that have fond memories of visiting the Upper Valley. We want people to visit the park and Stehekin. In fact, people continue to come and visit the Upper Stehekin Valley. The number of overnight campers in the Upper Stehekin Valley has actually increased since the road was destroyed and access was converted to a trail. Just before the flood event in 2003, 1,210 backcountry campers visited the Upper Stehekin Valley Road. There was a dip in visitation immediately after the flood destroyed the road, but since then, visitation has steadily climbed and surpassed pre-flood numbers, with 1,641 backcountry camp visitors in 2010.

We recognize that not everyone can or wants to do an overnight backpacking trip and so we have worked with a local business to provide stock-supported, tent-to-tent camping in the Upper Stehekin Valley. Approximately 110 people visited the Upper Valley this way last year.

Additionally, to support visitation to Stehekin, the NPS has completed over $1.2 million worth of repairs from storm damage to roads and trails in the Stehekin Valley and has made over $3 million in improvements to concession facilities. We recently completed construction of a $1 million handicapped-accessible dock to support the commercial ferry service. We are in the final stages of awarding a long-term concession contract that will provide lodging, food service, and tours for the next ten years.

Since alternate access to the Upper Stehekin Valley exists and people continue to visit, rebuilding the road is not a priority, considering our limited capital and operational funds. Rather, it is a priority to fund other road projects that provide critical access for substantially larger number of visitors. For example, the NPS has identified approximately $140 million worth of needed road projects in NPS units within the State of Washington over the next five years. These projects ensure sustainable access to places like Paradise and Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park; Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent, Quinault and the Hoh in Olympic National Park; and Spring Canyon Road in Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, as well as the Lower Stehekin Valley. The NPS places a higher priority on maintaining and rehabilitating these roads, as each serves hundreds of thousands of visitors, over rebuilding a road that would serve between two and three thousand visitors.

Our decision about the road is consistent with decisions we have made regarding the tradeoff between access, fiscal responsibility, and environmental impact. In February 2011, the NPS determined that it was infeasible, for many of the same reasons as here, to reestablish the Carbon River Road in Mount Rainier National Park and as a result closed that road and converted access to a trail. This is an area that supported approximately 57,000 visitors per year, or roughly 15 times the number of people that visited the Upper Stehekin Valley each year.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for your time and this concludes my testimony. I will be pleased to answer questions.

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