OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Restoring long-term vehicle access to Olympic National Park’s Elwha Valley likely will mean multiple several-month-long closures to foot and bicycle traffic to the site of historic Elwha dam removal project over the next few years.
Those who attended a public meeting Wednesday evening, hosted by Olympic National Park and the Federal Highway Administration, learned that construction on Olympic Hot Springs Road — which would include an upland reroute out of the floodplain — could begin in July 2021 and be completed by October 2023.
Kirk Loftsgaarden, project manager for the Federal Highway Administration, said that a Finding of No Significant Impact is expected in March, but stressed that the timeline for the project largely depends on the permitting process.
To complete the project by October 2023 requires the park to follow this “aggressive” timeline, he said, adding that another similar project he worked on took nearly two years to secure a permit after a Finding of No Significant Impact.
“I think this is going to be faster than that, but in the back of our minds we’re well aware that the timeline can go from three months to you name it,” he said.
He said construction would likely last about six months at a time, starting in the spring and ending in the fall. During that time there would not be access from the park entrance.
“Right now we are looking at not having access during construction,” Loftsgaarden said. “That is our thought right now.”
The preferred alternative listed in the Environmental Assessment for the project, which Loftsgaarden said would cost about $8.3 million, calls for rerouting the one-mile section of road afflicted by frequent washouts since the Elwha River was freed from two dams.
The EA is available online at parkplanning.nps.gov/OHSREA. Comments can be submitted online, or mailed or hand-delivered to Olympic National Park, Attn: Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum, Olympic Hot Springs Road Long-Term Access EA, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362.
The park is continuing to accept comments through Dec. 18.
The park has struggled to maintain access to the Elwha Valley via Olympic Hot Springs Road since the completion of the dam removal project in 2014.
The purpose of the project is to rehabilitate the 8.2 mile Olympic Hot Springs Road within Olympic National Park — a project the park has eyed for several years — to ensure public and administrative access to visitor use areas within the Elwha Valley.
The rehabilitated roadway would provide year-round road access to the Elwha Ranger Station and Glines Canyon Spillway Overlook, and seasonal access to Whiskey Bend Road and the upper portion of Olympic Hot Springs Road to Boulder Creek Trailhead.
Once built, the existing 1-mile portion of the roadway, which passes by the former Elwha Campground, would be removed and the area restored.
This option would require cutting trees and adding fill over the length of the reroute, creating risk for increased rock fall and landslides.
Loftsgaarden said the reroute will require adding filling along the slope and, in spots, adding retaining walls. In some areas the walls would cause less disturbance than adding fill.
“Fill is always easier, but it is not always better because it takes up more space,” he said. “It adds more space for things like non-native plants to come in.”
The reroute would also require removal of about 42 to 52 Douglas fir, big leaf maple, western hemlock and western red cedar trees measuring more than 12 inches in diameter. Of those, Loftsgaarden said two to three up to 84 inches in diameter would need to be removed.
Utility poles that line the road to the ranger station would be removed and the utilities would be run underground, he said.
When the park removes the road, it will need to add natural debris in that area, which Loftsgaarden said would allow the river to find a more natural route. Without the debris, the river would likely reroute to the existing route of the road.
“We’ve had a road out there so long and the vegetation is small and maintained, as soon as we remove the road and let the river do its thing, it’s going to go right to where we’ve been driving the past 100 years,” he said. “The idea is to put things out there to discourage that from happening and let it figure out where it wants to go.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].