Forest road repairs have not caught up with East County’s tourism boom

Forest road repairs have not caught up with East County’s tourism boom

At Isabel Vander Stoep / [email protected]

It’s a cool Thursday morning. Fog covers the windshields outside the Tall Timber Restaurant and Lounge in Randle.

Once a month, people gather here for breakfast to speak up for the area’s large veteran population.

As the last sips of coffee are taken and everyone leaves From the dimly lit back room, Lewis County Commissioner and Packwood resident Lee Grose has other plans for attendees Colin Swanson, a representative from the office of US Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, and Sarah Kohout, who is present on behalf of US Senator Maria Cantwell .

East Lewis County has an obvious problem: its infrastructure is not ready for the massive increase in tourism in recent years. By the end of his term in November, Grose has decided to make a fuss about the issue, with a particular focus on the work required to bring Forest Service Roads into shape.

It’s personal to him. Once a week he brings a Goebel Septic Port-a-Potty from High Rock Lookout at Forest Service Road 84 (FS-84), unloads it and makes his way back upstairs with an empty one. If he had his way, he wouldn’t be making this arduous journey every week. Driving down the dusty forest road with the brimming Port-a-Potty is a pain in the ass. However, according to his own statements, his wife is forcing him to continue the voluntary service.

“She doesn’t believe in divorce, but she believes in murder,” he says with a grin.

We load into his Audi SUV, me and Kohout in the back seat, Swanson and Grose in the front.

Grose has found that the best way to show these people what the roads need is to drive them. Traveling the long loop from Tall Timber down to Morton, up the River Elbe, east to Skate Creek Road and back to Packwood – with a stop on the FS-84 along the way – the Commissioner has a captive audience for his message.

He moved to Packwood in 1959, well before the decline of East Lewis County’s lumber industry. He watched it crumble and still remembers 1996 when the last mill was closed. He recalls being told the next big industry for Lewis County – its supposed economic savior – would be tourism.

Now the boom is here. In Packwood alone, tourism has quadrupled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Lewis County Senior Long-Range Planner Mindy Brooks, who also resides in Packwood.

People come from far and wide to relax in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but its roads are still better suited to logging trucks than anything else.

So far, the Forest Service’s response has been to discourage tourism. At a county meeting Monday, parks and recreation director Connie Riker told commissioners that rangers asked Discover Lewis County — the county’s tourism office — to stop advertising High Rock Lookout as a tourist destination over a year ago. This frustrated Grose watching the industry pull Packwood out of its own recession.

The Skate Creek Road, which runs from Packwood to Pierce County near Mount Rainier National Park, has recently received some patchwork thanks to Lewis County and the Forest Service.

“It’s the best in five years,” says Grose.

He tells stories. He addresses the spotted owl controversy and what it means today for the eastern end of western Washington’s largest county. He talks about the pre-cellular days when his then-fiancée was stationed at the Burley Mountain Fire Watchout planning her marriage to her mother over the radio. Grose even remembers growing up in Packwood when Skate Creek Road was still gravel, and he drove it to visit Eatonville and a girl he had dated there.

As he speaks, we passengers occasionally howl when the SUV hits holes in the road. The exact funding mechanism for the colossal task of repairing these roads is a mystery to him, but the commissioner hopes the action will spur his federal election to action.

When we arrive in Packwood, Brooks is waiting for us in front of the Packwood Brewery. She has yet another problem to solve with the same problem.

Brooks directs the district’s sub-area plan for Packwood, a community-led blueprint for the next two decades of planning.

“The most immediate issues of the sub-area plan are affordable housing… and transport. Pedestrian safety in particular,” Brooks tells Kohout and Swanson. “It’s frustrating to get fetched when we have so many cars and people[on US Highway 12]especially in the summer.”

Since I don’t see a solution, I’ll leave the four to their discussion. The issue is wrapped in a decades-long quest for prosperity in the Cascadia forests, conservation, recreation, access to nature and questions about who is in charge of the land. Residents have done their best to improve: the Gifford Pinchot Trash Force hosts task forces to clean up trash, non-profit organizations maintain trails, and a variety of stakeholders have joined the sub-area planning process to represent their community’s interests.

With Grose leaving his post, someone else will have to take charge of creating infrastructure for East County’s tourism. Meanwhile, he’ll keep bouncing up and down the FS-84 with a port-a-potty on a trailer behind him.

To learn more about the Packwood Plan, visit https://lewiscountywa.gov/departments/community-development/rezones/comprehensive-plan-and-development-regulation-amendments/packwood-subarea-plan/.

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