Lately it feels like Northwest wilderness protection can’t catch a break. Not only has it proved damnably difficult to pass even popular new wilderness designations, but much-loved trails and access roads are gettingpummeled by winter storms. Routinely it seems.
But maybe—just maybe — there’s a golden opportunity amidst the storm wreckage. Maybe we’ve been given a cheap and easy way to expand our wilderness areas. After all, a washed-out or heavily-damaged road means more than just frustrated hikers: it also means a lot more wild country.
That’s because some of the worst storm-related fury is actually the aftermath. Chronic underfunding, mismanagement, and heightened concern for the environment often makes rebuilding access roads to trails prohibitively expensive or extremely controversial. In fact, Washington is a good example. The mangled Dosewallips and the Stehekin River Roads have probably been the most contentious locations. But also the Cascade, Suiattle, and White Chuck River Roads, plus the Mountain Loop Highway near Barlow Pass. Oh, and the Queets, which has been out of commission for who knows how long. And I hear the the South Shore Quinault is out again. That’s just some of the major stuff: it doesn’t include the welter of smaller forest roads that provide valuable access to lesser known trails and peaks.
Trailheads are part of a large share of my weekends, so I certainly appreciate the ready access that we Cascadians are blessed with. But I’m conflicted too. Despite Washington’s comparative wealth of official wilderness areas—a greater share of our land than any state other than Alaska and California—I’ve long wish we had even more. But too much of our wilderness is barren rock and ice terrain; it’s lovely to look at, but it’s not habitat-rich like low elevation areas are. And that’s where the road-destroying storms may have a silver lining.
Exhibit A is the ever-controversial Dosewallips River Road.
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Nowadays, the Dose Road ends 5 miles short at a gigantic washout. Once you’re out of the car, you skirt the washout in a quarter mile or so of short switchbacks and then descend back to the road. From there it’s a lovely well-graded 5 mile walk (pictured above) to the campground at road’s end, which for the last couple of years has been a luxurious “backcountry” destination. It’s got picnic tables and fire rings nestled under big leaf maples beside the river. The trail proper then strikes out into the heart of Olympic National Park.
So, there’s an optimistic take on the Dose washout: we didn’t lose 5 miles of road so much as we gained 5 miles of trail. And the former road bed is a “trail” that mountain bikes can use too, which are rightly verboten on actual trails in national parks.
Maybe I’m being Pollyana. Some people complain — legitimately — that because of the Dose washout Lake Constance is no longer a dayhike for most folks. Similarly, Dose Meadows and Honeymoon Meadows are now multi-night excursions for all but the uber-fit. And climbing Mount Constance is now even more grueling. (On the other hand, some of these places were being loved to death. And like Glacier Basin above the now semi-closed road to Monte Cristo, these spots will gradually recover their health when spared from armies of tenderfeet.)
So here’s my modest proposal: since we don’t have the money to fix all the roads that keep getting washed out, let’s stop trying. But let’s also create a designation for these newly-roadless areas, a sort of Wilderness Lite.
Mountain bikes and horses would be welcome in Wilderness Lite. And campfire policy could be more liberal than it is in the backcountry. By providing a place for these heavier-impact uses, it might reduce the encroachment of them in true designated wilderness areas.
Wilderness Lite would have ecological benefits too. Roads spread invasive species and their erosion damages rivers. By allowing nature to selectively phase out certain roads, we could be helping to restore ecosystems. Even better, almost all of the frequently washed-out roads are in low-elevation river valleys, the kind of places with old growth forests and salmon streams—the very places that are under-represented inside current wilderness boundaries.
In truth, we may not have much of a choice. Many of the best climate models predict that the Northwest is going to see more floods of the kind that wreck havoc on forest roads. If the recent winter floods weren’t instances of climate disruption, then they were at least good previews of what we’re likely to see. It’s probably going to get even harder to keep up—and we’re already behind.
Deciding on a forest road triage approach—sweetened by a new Wilderness Lite designation—might free up resources to protect our highest priority roads and trails. In a way, Wilderness Lite honors the legacy of conservationists like Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who argued that a growing population would require more wild places. If we’re smart, future generations of Northwesterners may inherit a world with more deep wilderness—plus more Wilderness Lite — than we enjoy today.