Volunteers with several groups recently installed a foot log near Gold Creek for hikers to better traverse the area. The U.S. Forest Service plans to consider options that change access points at several spots in the Olympic National Forest, including moving and expanding Gold Creek’s trailhead. Submitted photo

Volunteers with several groups recently installed a foot log near Gold Creek for hikers to better traverse the area. The U.S. Forest Service plans to consider options that change access points at several spots in the Olympic National Forest, including moving and expanding Gold Creek’s trailhead. Submitted photo

Road closures remain possible to vehicles in Olympic Forest

Less than two weeks remain for local hikers and riders to comment on the U.S. Forest Service’s proposal to decommission and/or close more than 30 miles of roads south of Sequim to vehicles.

Yewah Lau, district ranger for Hood Canal district, plans to weigh three options, including a no-action plan in the Olympic National Forest.

Lau said she wouldn’t comment on what plan she’s leaning towards on Aug. 15 at the Dungeness River Audubon Center where she and other Forest Service staffers met with the public about the proposal.

She extended the comment period on the proposal through Sept. 4, but no timeline was given when she will make a decision.

Comments can be submitted here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/olympic by clicking “projects” and “comment/object on project.”

“It’s a struggle for us,” Lau said. “We’re also taking into account (Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly), if we can maintain what we have, and what roads we can maintain.”

The push to decommission and/or close roads to vehicles stems from the 2016 Dungeness Watershed Roads Management project as a multi-part effort to save in maintenance, increase water quality and protect spawning fish and endangered butterflies in the Dungeness Watershed.

Lau said one misnomer about the project is that some trails could close.

“We’re not decommissioning or closing any trails,” she said. “We’re lengthening them.”

Between alternatives A and B there’s a difference of decommissioning 16 miles of road and closing 14 miles of road to public vehicles (option A) or closing about 27 miles of roadway to public vehicles and decommissioning about 5 miles of roads (option B).

Decommissioning partially includes removing aging culverts while closing off access entirely to vehicles.

Bill Shelmerdine, a U.S. Forest Service forest engineer, said decommissioning could cost at least $60,000 per road in Sequim.

According to the project’s assessment, Forest Service road budgets continue to decline after 20 years with road work in the Olympic National Forest costing $552,000 in 2015.

Forest staff estimate the annual maintenance budget to keep 1,413 miles of current roads open is about $3.4 million including administration costs.

The report states most of the forest’s roads are older than 30 years and deferred maintenance has increased the cost to repair them at an estimated cost of around $50 million.

Shelmerdine said a large portion of their annual roads budget goes to repairing roads from landslides in the West End.

“We’re trying to our belt and live within our means,” said Dana Butler, watershed program manager.

“The intent is to help reduce the maintenance burden 10-15 years from now.”

Butler said if alternative A or B was selected, funding would not likely be available until 2020 for work to close/decommission trails to vehicles to begin.

Trails, butterflies

Part of the proposals include moving the Gold Creek trailhead to make more room for stock trailers and vehicles due to suspected geologic instability issues in the area.

The Tubal Cain trailhead could also be expanded for stock trailers and vehicle parking, too.

Depending on what Lau selects, Forest Service Roads 2870000-2870270 of about 1.6 miles could close to vehicles permanently (plan A) or seasonally June 1-Aug. 31 (plan B) to create better habitat for the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly.

The butterfly was first seen here in 2007 and placed under the Endangered Species Act in 2013. The plan also mentions closing some roadways could help or preserve habitat for other animals, such as the northern spotted owl, Marbled Murrelet, Olympic marmot and more.

Various forest stands in age, type and size, could become inaccessible, too.

In proposal A, 1,542 acres of forest stands would become inaccessible by vehicle, or about 36 percent of growth in the watershed, and in proposal B, 522 acres of forest stands would be inaccessible, or about 30 percent of growth in the watershed.

Community input

Of those in attendance at the informational session on Aug. 15, and those who commented online, concerns vary but most hikers and visitors want to keep access open.

Judi Chapman of Sequim said she prefers no action plan.

She said with some of the changes, parking could be worse with some trail heads moved back and some day hikes would become longer and likely need to be extended out. She said more backpackers camping in the area could cause even more of an impact.

Neil and Lisa Turnberg said they aren’t in favor of any action plan either and a proposal to move the Maynard Burn trailhead would eliminate a loop day hike, too.

However, the couple said they feel some optimism with Lau following the public comments.

“We have a chance,” Neil said.

Tom Mix of Sequim said he feels the Forest Service is discouraging access to Silver Lake and that the road is stable enough.

He also finds it discouraging to see how long it takes for volunteer efforts to move forward.

Mix said a recent foot log project at Gold Creek was identified more than seven years ago and it wasn’t until recently when Lau, a recent hire, approved it.

As an effort between the Back Country Horsemen – Peninsula Chapter, Gray Wolves, Pacific Northwest Trails Association — Quilcene Ranger Corp and Klahhane hiking club, led to the installation of the foot log in July.

Mix said with the a grant, they’ll look to replace a bridge on Slab Camp about 3 miles and two bridges on the South Fork Skokomish River.

“We strive to keep trails open for all to enjoy,” Mix said of the Back Country Horsemen. “We have the heavy lift capability (pack stock) to move all the rigging equipment to the job site. We have the expertise to move large heavy objects as several of our members are current and former loggers.”

As for the roads, Shelmerdine said the Forest Service receives a lot of offers to help maintain them but there are a lot of factors, planning and funding that go into keeping them up to standards.

“It put a high liability on us,” he said.

According to the proposal’s assessment, the push to minimize road systems in the forest follows a 2005 national initiative. The Dungeness Watershed also was designated one of three “focus watersheds” to emphasize aquatic restoration to contribute to recovery of endangered species act fish species in 2010.

For more information on the project, email Dana Butler at danabutler@fs.fed.us or visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/olympic to sign up for email alerts on the project.

Reach Matthew Nash at mnash@sequimgazette.com.

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