A 30-year old battle is returning to Enumclaw as the U.S. Forest Service is once again planning on closing its local office.
According to former staff members and the Snoqualmie Fire Lookouts Association, a nonprofit that supports Forest Service operations in this area, such a move would have “major ramifications for safety, public presence, and the health of the… southern portion of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest,” an Oct. 10 letter to the Forest Service reads.
The Courier-Herald has reached out to the Forest Service for comment, but did not receive a response by print deadline.
It doesn’t appear that this change will be immediate, as the agency is reportedly running the clock out on its lease for the current office building. According to the Lookouts Association, the lease expires in 2024.
But if the office does eventually close, Enumclaw Forest Service staff would be moved to the North Bend Ranger Station, about 45 minutes away, so long as Highway 18 is clear, said Mary Coghlin, a former program manager at the local Forest Service office until she retired in 2020, and now a member of the Lookouts Association
Coughlin said she was informed of the decision to close the office, sent down by the regional Pacific Northwest office, in 2019.
The office is closing because of budgeting issues, she continued; “Other facilities or district offices… are government-owned facilities. In Enumclaw, we have a lease.”
The Lookouts Association said the lease is about $140,000 a year.
According to the nonprofit, the Snoqualmie Ranger District (of which the Enumclaw Forest Service office is a part of) is the second-busiest district in the U.S. Forest Service system. With that in mind, Coughlin and the Lookouts Association are worried about how well Forest Service staff will be able to maintain the district and discourage illegal activities when about a quarter of their work day would be spent just getting to the office, plus additional travel time to reach a campsite or trailhead.
“All of the recreation infrastructure the Forest Service has up highway 410 would now be much more difficult, logistically, to manage out of the North Bend Office,” Coughlin said. “You’re not going to be getting near as much done. You’re probably not going to make that trip with regularly frequency, so things will start becoming more neglected.”
This includes maintaining outhouses and emptying garbage cans, updating bulletin boards with important information, preserving trailheads, and cleaning up trash across “thousands of dispersed campsites” and other areas, like the Evans Creek offroad vehicle area, the Greenwater Lake Trailhead, the Skookum Flats trailhead, and the Buck Creek air strip and group camping area.
The trash in particular has been an increasing problem, Coughlin said, because many first-time campers “who don’t have a ‘leave no trace’ ethic” flocked to local primitive campsites when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, and the numbers have not let up.
“The amount of garbage left behind… we’re impacted by that, huge,” she continued.
Then there’s all the illegal activities that the Forest Service tries to deter, like dumping, target shooting, and general vandalism.
Emergency response to injured or missing hikers could be hindered, as Forest Service staff are occasionally first responders when they come across campers needing initial assistance in the field. More commonly, though, Forest Staff coordinates with rescue teams, helping them locate access points and providing geographical information necessary for a search or retrieval — services that could be slowed when provided out of the North Bend office, rather than Enumclaw.
And finally, volunteer coordination will also be impacted. The Enumclaw Forest Service office relies on various groups that utilize the nearby federal lands — mountain biking groups, 4-wheel drive clubs, snowmobile operator associations, etc. — for maintenance, especially when seasonal staff members, hired only for the warmer months, depart in the fall. The Lookouts Association recorded nearly 3,300 volunteer hours were donated to the Enumclaw Forest Service office in 2021, even with COVID-19 policies in place.
“Loss of a volunteer operation center in the southern portions of the district would almost certainly reduce volunteer assistance – many volunteers would be highly unlikely to drive over 30 miles to collect radios or other volunteer equipment only to have to turn around and drive back 30 miles to the Enumclaw area in order to start their duties,” the nonprofit wrote in an Oct. 10 document, adding that these volunteer hours have served as a match portion to “millions” in state grants. “These grants have been critical in funding an adequate Public Service staff of seasonal employees to keep up with the ever-increasing recreation demands and impacts. So it is highly likely that a large amount of this volunteer match would be lost.”
All together, the increased fuel usage, the loss of field hours, and the expected decrease in volunteer efforts would end up costing the Forest Service more than just paying the current office lease, the Lookouts Association alleges.
THREE DECADES AGO…
This is not the first time the Forest Service has tried to close the Enumclaw office.
The Courier-Herald reported the agency announced the office closure on April 28, 1993; the Forest Service cited lack of timber sales as why the move was necessary.
It was also reported that the lease at the time, in a different location in town (but still on Roosevelt Avenue), was in excess of $200,000 annually.
The Courier-Herald reported on Aug. 11, 1993 that the Forest Service announced, after a cost analysis study, that office would remain open, though with a reduced workforce, a change in work duties, and possibly the office to a different location (which eventually occurred).