Mike Barnhart, lifelong Stehekin resident and historian, expresses the significant changes the Stehekin Road closure has made on his, and others, ability to reach the high country. The following writing was first published in the Wenatchee World, June 7, 2017.
At the head of Lake Chelan, Stehekin is the gateway to some of our country’s most spectacular mountain scenery. Glacier-covered peaks reaching elevations of 10,000 feet have attracted prospectors, tourists and photographers since the 1800s, including my great-grandparents. The only access to Stehekin is by daily passenger ferry service from Chelan at the lower end of the lake, by float plane, or by hiking in, but once you get here there is only one land-locked road.
The 23 mile-long Stehekin Valley Road has historically been the link from the boat landing at Stehekin to the heart of the high mountain peaks, terminating at Cottonwood Campground, where trailheads allow hikers to travel even further into what some have called America’s Alps. A 3.5-mile hike to Horseshoe Basin, a cirque of waterfalls, sometimes year-round snow, and an abandoned mine shaft allowed visitors one of the best day trips anywhere in the nation. We took our young children on Saturday hikes. The Stehekin School made field trips. Even the elderly, if they were in reasonably good shape, could handle a day trip to Horseshoe Basin.
Flooding closed sections of the upper road in recent years until 2003, when it was permanently closed by the National Park Service at mile post 13, leaving 10 miles of the most spectacular section of the road closed. The Stehekin community and many others who love this valley have lobbied congress and the NPS to re-open the road, and eventually congress signed off on the plan. We all thought this was a huge step, which it was until NPS stated they are simply not going to open it. Period.
I have been fortunate to experience the high country in our upper valley in several ways. The first I remember was with my grandfather in about 1952 when we drove his old 1939 Chrysler to Rouse’s Camp, (currently called Basin Creek) about one mile beyond Cottonwood Campground. I was eight years old and cherish an old black and white photo my dad snapped of us. When I was 14, I started working for my uncle on his horse packing outfit and we packed in Ansel Adams. The stunning scenery had attracted one our country’s most famous black and white photographers. Over the years I traveled many trails on foot and horseback. But as a disabled Vietnam veteran, I am no longer able to hike in to the places I love. Now I look at photos and listen to stories from my friends about the lands I once roamed.
My faith in our government sometimes wavers. I gave two years of my life in an unpopular war back in the ’60s, then watched the National Park Service take a solid stance on not re-opening the upper valley road, locking out the disabled and elderly from the most spectacular scenery in the world.
I see an unfinished job here in Stehekin. We have an expensive brand-new wheel chair-accessible dock, a lift to the deck where people can get a hamburger, and the wheel chair lifts on buses to take people up the valley, which is lovely, but does not represent the treasures North Cascades National Park has to offer.
The excuse we hear most often from NPS is lack of funding for such an expensive project, but they have not even requested funding. It is simply not their priority, but it’s not their park either. It belongs to all the people for the enjoyment of everyone. I take that to mean the disabled, elderly, children and people from all walks of life.
I hope to visit these places again and to see the wonder on the faces of people seeing them for the first time.
Mike Barnhart is a photographer and longtime Stehekin Valley resident who lives on the family homestead with his wife Nancy. His mother, June Courtney Barnhart, was born in a log cabin just down the road from his home. Mike wrote and published “At Home in The Woods, A Stehekin Family History – The Moores and Courtneys.”
It isn’t just Stehekin people who want the Stehekin Upper Valley Road open. Many supporters gathered in Chelan to express their heartfelt reasons to the NPS for re-gaining access to the beautiful heart of the North Cascades. Representatives from the state, County Commissioners, hikers, Chelan business owners, visitors and property owners had a strong, unified intent…Re-open the Stehekin Road, and give back “access to all.”
Promises: Legislation – public access for all – public safety – valley culture and heritage
“Because opening the Upper Stehekin Valley Road is in keeping with the intention of all legislation for the area… Because the opening of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road is necessary to provide public access for all and… Because opening the road is a necessity to provide for public health & safety.”… From the Stehekin Heritage Open the Upper Valley Road publication.
The Stehekin River Road is Critical to visitors and valley residents for these reasons…
It provides access for recreational activities for all, and fulfills the commitment stated in the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1988 Washington Wilderness Act.
* It is an important part of Stehekin’s history… It is vital to the culture, heritage and economy of Stehekin.
* “This road provides access for fire suppression and is, therefore, critical to the health and safety of residents of our small community…”
Below is a quote from David Brower of the Sierra Club when petitioning the NPS and general public concerning access to the North Cascades. He and his sons traveled up the Upper Stehekin Valley Road to make the movie, “The Wilderness Alps of Stehekin.”
“…The road treads softly… it starts at a handsome lakeshore and dead-ends in paradise… You have a right to discover it… and your children and theirs too just as we did. They can discover but only if we keep some wilderness in between the shining seas…”
~ David R. Brower ~ From the Sierra Club’s movie, “The Wilderness Alps of Stehekin”
The Sierra Club and the National Park Service sold the idea of the North Cascades National Park promising accessibility.
The 1995 General Management Plan for the North Cascade National Park Complex: The significance of maintaining the Upper Valley Road was recognized as having significant value in the 1995 General Management Plan (GMP). The EIS performed for the valley’s GMP included alternatives that would have closed to the road to alternatives that would keep the road open. In response to the Wilderness Law and public input, the EIS for the GMP confirmed the road should be kept open.
Until the flood of 2003, the NPS operated the Upper Valley Road as follows: “Public shuttle bus service would be provided from the landing to Cottonwood. Only the public shuttle service, hikers, horses, and bicycles would be allowed to use the road from Bridge creek to Cottonwood. The National Park Service would seek a concessionaire to replace the National Park Service operated public shuttle service. Frequency of shuttle service would increase the current rate. Fare structures would provide discounts for frequent and local public shuttle users.”
The management plan further stated the reasoning for keeping the road open:
A wide spectrum of visitors would have diverse means of access to prime natural, cultural, scenic and recreational resources without significantly affecting park resources or degrading the experience of other visitors.”
Even with the General Management Plan directive to maintain vehicular access into the park, it appears that the National Park Service used the 2003 flood event as a way close the road rather than provide public access as required by Congress and supported in General Management Plans.
Additionally: The legislative history of the Wilderness Act speaks specifically to maintaining an essential recreational corridor in the Stephen Mather Wilderness. Visitor access by vehicular transport was codified in the WSWA of 1988. Americans were promised that a primitive road corridor would be maintained to provide visitor access from the Stehekin into the heart of the Cascades.
Accessibility – Stehekin Heritage believes citizens of all ages and physical ability should have the opportunity to access the Upper Stehekin Valley and be inspired by the grandeur of this magnificent setting. In the challenging era we live, the opportunity to refresh the body and inspire the soul is as essential in 2008 as it was in 1958.
An NPS letter sent by Victor Knox demeans the limited number of visitors previously served through the NPS shuttle bus system. He says 2,500 is not a large number. Two thousand five hundred people a year for twelve years equals thirty thousand visitors. At the same time he heralds the rise in hikers along the trail. No wonder! To get to Cottonwood, Horseshoe Basin and Cascade Pass from the south, you HAVE TO HIKE! Data below:
Between 1999 & 2003 an average of 2,500 visitors each year accessed the Upper Stehekin Valley Road via the shuttle bus … Over four years previous to the flooding, the total average number of shuttle visitors accessing the Upper Stehekin Valley Road
Extrapolated over fourteen years, 2,500 average shuttle riders per year would equal 35,000 visitors who were not able to access the Upper Valley Road on NPS shuttle buses.
Visitors, young & old, have the right to reasonable access to these public lands…
Public Safety: Mr. Knox provides no thoughts concerning the importance of the road and public safety: Below is a letter written by the Stehekin Fire District and submitted to the NPS.
Chelan County Fire District #10 has made it through our first season with a couple of close fires. Our cadre of active volunteers and wide community support have been wonderful. Organized efforts towards reducing fuel loading around private structures have augmented the National Park Service’s on-going fuel reduction work.
This positive first year of work has also served to remind and further educate us locals about the seriousness of the threat from wildfires we live with here. As we look to the challenges this valley presents to surviving re-occurring wildfires, access is at the top of our list of “Critical Needs”.
It is critical for the Park Service and the Fire District to have access up and down the valley to respond quickly to the summer high-risk fires, as well as being able to economically address various on-going fire prevention programs.
The road closure above Car Wash falls is a very real reduction in safety for visitors and residents alike. It is agreed that the forest up valley and up wind from us is in prime shape for a stand replacing catastrophic fire. Having a road to quickly respond to small fires before they get big, and access to systematically work at creating key fire breaks, is of utmost importance.
This summer, the Tolo Fire demonstrated how expensive fire fighting can be when helicopters are relied on for most of the logistics surrounding hauling supplies up and down valley. Having our road back would simplify stocking supplies at base and spike fire camps, and most importantly, would free up valuable helicopter time for actual fire fighting.
For these reason I urge you to support legislation allowing for re-opening the Stehekin Valley Road above Car Wash Falls, either along the most recent route near the river, or with no net loss to wilderness along the older Wagon Road route. CCFD#10 Fire Chief
Robert C Nielsen
Senators Dan Evans and Brock Adams introduced the Washington State Wilderness Act of 1988. They were clear concerning the intention of this act. Even though they were recommending a vast wilderness complex be created in Washington State, Senators Evans and Adams spoke to the importance of maintaining public access into the heart of these wilderness areas. How do we know Senators Evans and Adams valued continued access into the wilderness? Introducing the bill, Senator Evans testified before Congress stating:
“What the bill would not do is to keep the park visitor shut out of the park. All the existing transportation and development corridors would be excluded from wilderness designation… I believe the parks are there to provide recreation, as well as the preservation of the natural ecosystem.” ~Senator Dan Evans~
Congress listened to Senators Evans and Adams and included provisions for maintaining the Stehekin Valley Road in the Act. The Washington State Wilderness Act was (and still is) unambiguous concerning the importance of public access along the 23 mile Stehekin Valley Road.
In response to the flood of 2003, the National Park Service conducted an Environmental Assessment (EA) to decide whether or not to repair or close the Upper Stehekin Valley Road. There are multiple levels of questionable management revealed when the National Park Service chose to use an EA rather than and EIS (Environmental Impact Statement).
Public responses to closure of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road…
“No alternative to the Stehekin valley issue should be considered that does not provide access to all by road to the historic end of the road at Cottonwood. Any other alternative is a form of discrimination and denial of historic access.”
“It means too much to Stehekin’s cultural heritage, economic viability, and recreational opportunities to refuse to repair the road.”
Since the floods of recent years I have continued to attempt to hike and fish this area. Each year the area is less accessible to people. … In the past two years I have walked between Car Wash Falls and the old Shady Campground and fished this area. In over twenty trips I have observed a total of less than twenty other people. Thirteen were seen in one trip over a major holiday weekend. I have never seen a young person under about age eighteen, an elderly person over sixty or a handicapped person. I’m sure it was not the intent to have a National Park which was inaccessible to people, was it?
“For the benefit of others like myself, the elderly, disabled and children there must be another option that will allow access and still be financially and environmentally acceptable to all parties.”
“I think with the millions of acres of park land, this small miniscule road will have next to zero impact on wildlife and the
physical nature of the valley.”
“It is my belief that NPS has an ethical and moral obligation to maintain “Upper Stehekin Road” in a condition as stated in the 1988 document, which states: The 23-mile Stehekin Valley road will be maintained at its current length, width, and character.”
“Unfortunately, the NCNP was shown to be the 5th LEAST used Park in the system mainly due to access issues for the public.”
~James T & Deborah A Gianulis~
Stehekin Heritage is dedicated to perpetuating and protecting a viable community presence in the Stehekin Valley, as well as, sharing and enhancing public recreation throughout the North Cascades.
Address: PO Box 1, Stehekin, WA 98852