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Schroder
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PostTue Jun 29, 2021 5:03 pm 
In the Herald:
At Monte Cristo ghost town, a big fight over a short road

Historic preservationists want to keep a new road to access the townsite. Environmentalists want it gone.

By Zachariah Bryan
Sunday, June 27, 2021 1:30am

MONTE CRISTO — One side wants to preserve history.

The other, nature.

Historic preservationists and environmentalists are locking horns over a mile or so of temporary access road leading to a ghost town well east of Granite Falls.

It’s called the CERCLA road, named for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. And it lies beyond a gate about a half-mile past the main trailhead for Monte Cristo.

The route was built so crews could access the mining sites near Monte Cristo, to clean up old and rather toxic tailings — the crud leftover after all the valuables have been sifted out. The tailings here had high concentrations of arsenic and lead, found naturally in the same rocks where miners once searched for gold and silver in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 2009, then (and now once again) U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approved the road as an exemption to the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a landmark environmental policy designed to protect swaths of land from logging, mining and other development. New roads can be exempted from the rule for special purposes, such as for cleanup, but should be decommissioned after its intended purpose is completed.

Looking at a map, the CERCLA route is on the outer edge of what is supposed to be a designated roadless area.

It’s not technically built up to road standards, said Joe Gibbens, the U.S. Forest Service site manager at the Monte Cristo cleanup site. It’s more like a pathway of gravel. The route is narrow, steep in some places, and weaves around large trees. There’s limited drainage. And it goes through habitat for the marbled murrelet and the spotted owl, birds protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. After about two miles or so, it connects with a former logging road. In another mile, it joins the main trail that leads to Monte Cristo.

The CERCLA road was designed to do as little harm as possible, Gibbens said. Originally, it was approved to be much bigger, not unlike the Mountain Loop Highway, he said. Crews would have cut down lots more trees and disrupted a lot more land. But, ultimately, the forest service decided against that, thanks in part to objections.

“We were after a smaller footprint route with less impact to the forest,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Herald.

The cleanup was done by 2016 and is currently undergoing monitoring. Now that the main part is over, everyone is trying to figure out what to do with the CERCLA route, and how it’s used.

In a June 3 letter, Darrington District Ranger Gretchen Smith pleaded with the Monte Cristo Historic Preservation Association, the North Cascades Conservation Council, and private land owners to find a “viable, collaborative solution.” She also named Bill Lider, a Lynnwood engineer and board member of the Sno-King Watershed Council, who has been a persistent critic of the cleanup effort.

“There is no simple solution for addressing access to the Monte Cristo area,” Smith wrote. “My desire is to focus on meaningful and collaborative dialogue.”

But compromise does not seem to be an option.

Either vehicular access is allowed, or it isn’t.

Should it even be a road?

Historic preservationists say having motor vehicle access is invaluable to providing maintenance on the handful of buildings left at the townsite.

To Fred Cruger, treasurer of the Granite Falls Historical Society, the answer seems obvious. The Monte Cristo Preservation Association wants some ability to drive up to the townsite to do upkeep. They would even dedicate volunteers to help clear the road, and have offered to pump the vault toilet themselves, if the forest service would allow it.

“They have no money,” Cruger said of the forest service. He explained the preservation association has been — and could continue to be — an important partner in maintaining the trails and townsite.

He sees keeping the CERCLA road open, for those with land or with something to contribute, as “a win for the property owners, a win for tourism, a win for the cities,” and, yes, “a win for the environment.” In his view, allowing access via the CERCLA route was better for the environment than trying to rehabilitate the old county road, which became inaccessible after floods washed out the bridges over the Sauk River.

The association has already used the road, thanks to a key loan program set up by the previous ranger for the Darrington District, allowing limited access through the gate. They’ve installed new signs and built new roofs and siding, for example.

Without vehicular access, volunteers have to factor in the time it takes to walk into the townsite and back out, said David Cameron, a founding member of the Monte Cristo Preservation Association.

“Which means you aren’t getting very much work done,” Cameron said. And that’s not accounting for whether volunteers can carry all of the supplies.

Philip Fenner, president of the North Cascades Conservation Council, questioned whether the association really needed motor vehicle access to do that maintenance. Even if it does help, it’s not worth the sacrifice to the environment, he argued.

“Ancient forest is not a renewable resource,” he said.

For Fenner, constructing a road is only the beginning of long-lasting environmental harm. Roads lead to logging or mining or other forms of development that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, he said. The roads themselves, and the vehicles they bring, can be harmful to habitat, disrupting animals and plants and waterways, studies have shown.

“A road is a wound in the ground, in the forest, and it’s bleeding,” Fenner said. “You have to stanch the bleeding.”

If made permanent, Fenner argued Monte Cristo’s CERCLA route could become a rare and dangerous exception to the roadless rule. If one exemption is allowed, he wondered, what other reasons might be used to justify permanent roads in roadless areas?

Removing the road entirely isn’t currently on the table. No cost estimates have been done, but it would likely be an expensive endeavor, particularly with the three large log bridges that have been put in place.

Technically, the intended purpose for this particular road hasn’t been completed, Gibbens said. That’s because the mine waste was put in a nearby repository, about a half-mile south of the townsite, and up the hill from the Sauk River. Crews need to monitor the repository — essentially a landfill that can hold 23,000 cubic yards of waste — for any leaking.

Rather, Gibbens said, the plan is to keep the road, but more as a trail. If future work needs to be done in the area, or should something happen to the repository, then the forest service can act quickly.

In providing the exemption, Secretary Vilsack didn’t give a definite end date.

Fenner said the CERCLA route, even though it’s closed off by a gate, has already seen use beyond its intended purpose, because the ranger district for years loaned out keys to people who owned property beyond the gate, and for other purposes.

For example, in the summer of 2017, there were 58 gate key requests, according to an analysis of public records done by the conservation council. About three-quarters of those requests were not for the intended purpose of remediation work, they concluded.

That program has since been shut down, Gibbens said. The U.S. Forest Service was briefly going through a process under the National Environmental Policy Act to determine the future of how the route was used, but that was dropped a few years ago.

Gibbens said he feels a compromise on the CERCLA route already has been reached.

“My position is, we’re not going to use it unless we absolutely have to, but we’re going to keep the road there in case we do need to use it,” he said.

In addition to monitoring purposes, Gibbens also said it could become an important route for emergency responders, in case of wildfire, or if someone gets injured or lost.

What’s left?

Once, this place was expected to be the gateway to wealth. People thought they’d become as rich as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Like the book, the dreams were fiction.

No one who toiled in the mines became as rich as the count, though likely someone, somewhere, profited. People had overestimated the amount of valuable minerals that lay within the mountains.

By the winter of 1920, mining there had gradually sputtered to a close, according to HistoryLink.org.

What’s left is a handful of old buildings and some metal artifacts strewn about. A large rusty railroad turntable — which, astonishingly, can still be turned by hand, with a little sweat — acts as a kind of centerpiece relic.

The mines, once industrious with workers and the comings and goings of ore, have long become stagnant.

The aerial tramways are nowhere to be seen. The impressive five-story ore concentrator building is no more. And only remnants of the old railroad can be seen.

Donald Trump’s grandfather’s disreputable hotel is gone, as well.

The lodges built for tourism after the mining rush have also vanished, having been blocked off by a washout, then burned down, leaving a forlorn sink standing in the center of rusty bits and pieces.

The rivers and rains of Washington aren’t friends of ghost towns.

Still, the site remains popular with hikers and mountain bikers and campers. The old railroad grade serves as a gentle stroll through the woods. And though the bridges are out, crossing the river via log, while not technically advised by rangers, proves to be a minor challenge. A couple stretches of rocky terrain act as another slight obstacle: You can roll an ankle if you’re not careful.

The new CERCLA route, assuming it stays as a trail, makes the walk in even easier, though the views aren’t as grand. There are no river crossings, and not as many ankle-rolling rocks. It’s open to the public, even if it’s not listed as a route on the Washington Trails Association’s website. (The WTA, however, did speak out against keeping the CERCLA road open, even as a trail, saying it weakened the roadless rule and calling it a “low quality hiking experience.”)

The town is no longer bustling with all the cacophony that comes with the mining industry, but there is still a busyness to it. Different noises fill the space now: Of couples picnicking, of Boy Scouts swarming the turntable, of families going from building to building, relic to relic, sign to sign, learning about this place that once was.

And maybe, if you come on the right day, at the right time, or if you wait long enough, you’ll find the occasional embrace of near silence. It’ll be you, the sound of water, and a landscape framed by peaks.

This isn’t a place bound to slow down anytime soon, CERCLA road or no CERCLA road.

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Anne Elk
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PostTue Jun 29, 2021 6:08 pm 
Thanks for posting this, Schroder. The controversy will go on for some years, if other, more official road closures and repair projects are any indication.

I haven't been up to Monte Cristo since this road went in.  When I first read about it, I was glad that they were doing the mine tailings remediation. But what I find shocking is this:

Quote:
the mine waste was put in a nearby repository, about a half-mile south of the townsite, and up the hill from the Sauk River. Crews need to monitor the repository — essentially a landfill that can hold 23,000 cubic yards of waste — for any leaking.

How crazy is that?  It should have been carted away to wherever they take toxic substances ... far away from water sources.

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Chief Joseph
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PostTue Jun 29, 2021 7:35 pm 
I think it should stay for the following reasons among others...

"Historic preservationists say having motor vehicle access is invaluable to providing maintenance on the handful of buildings left at the town site."

"Gibbens said, the plan is to keep the road, but more as a trail. If future work needs to be done in the area, or should something happen to the repository, then the forest service can act quickly.".

“My position is, we’re not going to use it unless we absolutely have to, but we’re going to keep the road there in case we do need to use it,” he said.

Last year we were biking this road and met a couple of guys on dual sport motorcycles and shortly after met a group of FS Rangers. We asked them if motorbikes were allow and they gave me some PC answer which of course is no answer at all.

Anne Elk wrote:
Quote:
the mine waste was put in a nearby repository, about a half-mile south of the townsite, and up the hill from the Sauk River. Crews need to monitor the repository — essentially a landfill that can hold 23,000 cubic yards of waste — for any leaking.

How crazy is that?  It should have been carted away to wherever they take toxic substances ... far away from water sources.

I know right? I guess 500 million or whatever it was wasn't enough?

I was just up there last week and there are 2 monitoring wells up past the site of the old Weden house, one below and one above the mine waste dump which is in a gully about 500' from the river. We also noticed a sign at the junction of the old and new roads that read "Motor Vehicles, please yield to non motorized vehicles and those on foot".

I know some like the new road since they are afraid of the log crossing, especially in high water. The river has changed course, there is not much of a flow under the log now, the main channel now runs under the existing bridge.

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altasnob
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PostTue Jun 29, 2021 8:06 pm 
So you can hike and bike and ebike this road. Can you also dirt bike (motorcyle) and snowmobile the road, assuming you can get around the gate at the start?

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Chief Joseph
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PostTue Jun 29, 2021 8:26 pm 
Yes, from what I recall there is room to go around the gate with a dirt bike. I haven't been able to get to the new road yet because the gate is still closed at Barlow pass. I don't think there is room for a 4-wheeler to go around. I am surprised that motorized vehicles are allowed, but I am pretty sure the entire area of logging roads, etc allow only street legal vehicles. As far as snowmobiles, a Ranger told me last year that they are allowed only on the main road past the annual gate close just past Deer Creek road,  and not on any side roads. For instance a FB poster mentioned going up Pilchuck road, but that's not legal. There is a side road (snow park?) up near Darrington that is also open to sleds.

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Go placidly amid the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
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kitya
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 11:32 am 
Barlow pass gate opened last week.

Chief Joseph
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Kim Brown
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 11:42 am 
It's in a Roadless Area, so no motorbikes by the public (remediation allowed motorized use for that purpose only). It should be signed, but that doesn't mean it is.

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Schroder
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 11:48 am 
I have a hard time with the concept of a Roadless Area referring to "side roads". I thought the roadless area boundaries were used to define the Wilderness Area boundaries back in the 80's.

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Chief Joseph
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 12:03 pm 
Kim Brown wrote:
It's in a Roadless Area, so no motorbikes by the public (remediation allowed motorized use for that purpose only). It should be signed, but that doesn't mean it is.

Well then what of the sign on the road junction past the Weden house that reads..."Motorized vehicles yield to non motorized vehicles and pedestrians"? Plus as I said last year there were 2 guys on licensed motor bikes and the rangers did not say they weren't allowed.

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Go placidly amid the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 12:21 pm 
Can't say; no idea. Monitoring is still being done, so trucks will be there for a decade after the project was completed; and inholders can drive that road - I don't know why the sign is there if not solely for those reasons. But is in a Roadless Area. What's enforced or not - I can't control. Folks can give it a shot and see if it goes for them.

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Randito
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 12:56 pm 
Given that Monte Cristo was once a boom town with a Trump owned hotel and restaurant, I find the "wilderness preservation" pitch a little overheated.

Perhaps this will play out with similar themes to the Green Mountain Lookout fiasco which also had historic preservation advocates and wilderness advocates battling and will only be resolved by any act of congress.

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Kim Brown
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 1:32 pm 
I may have misread the article (as it is, I originally missed that in-holders DO have access to the road), so pardon if I'm wrong - but I don't see anything about wilderness preservation in this article.

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Schroder
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 1:58 pm 
Kim Brown wrote:
But is in a Roadless Area

I think that could be argued and the Forest Service decided not to push the point in order to keep the cleanup project moving. There was a road on the North side of the river for many years and a sign at the Mountain Loop Highway at the intersection explaining it's history. After the railroad was abandoned, the road was moved to that route. I have the maps from the Roadless Area survey in the 1970's and this entire valley bottom was excluded.

Here's the original road:


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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 2:29 pm 
The Spring/Summer edition of NCCC's Wild Cascades magazine has an article about the road. That issue isn't on their website yet but will be in a while. Obviously they don't like the existence of the road at all, but are pleased that inholders are not allowed to loan out their keys anymore.

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Kim Brown
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PostWed Jun 30, 2021 3:00 pm 
Schroder wrote:
Kim Brown wrote:
But is in a Roadless Area

I think that could be argued and the Forest Service decided not to push the point in order to keep the cleanup project moving.

They didn't have a choice. A CERCLA project trumps every law, rule, and regulation. The issue now is that  while motorized use was allowed in a Roadless Area because it was a CERCLA project, now, other than monitoring, it no longer is a CERCLA project. So....it's still Roadless. Should the public be allowed to drive on it?

It wasn't built to any current USFS standard; too steep, insufficient culverts, and it drops into a wetland, which are federally protected. And it was heartbreaking to see the old road puncheon and bridge pilings torn out. But it's CERCLA, so....there was no defense.

If it's to remain a road open to the public, it would have to be re-designated, and re-built.

It's easier to leave it as a trail. Regarding history; those structures aren't worth it. there aren't any left that warrant an entire road be built. They've never been cared for very well; mice-ridden and dirty; no one could go inside other than the hosts, and at that, only one building had a host. i dunno; maybe I'm crabby today? But I never was impressed with the structures as historical.

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