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Forest Service Scheme On The Rocks Congressman Blasts Highway ‘Colorization’

The U.S. Forest Service has been giving Mother Nature a hand - painting rock faces newly exposed by construction or landslides along scenic highways to make them look older.

“I said it can’t be true. Nobody is that stupid,” said Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., who persuaded the agency to postpone some rock-painting plans on a highway through the Cascade Mountains.

“The only people who paint rocks are high school kids when they win a football game or graduate,” he said in an interview Thursday.

But it turns out the “rock colorization” projects have become fairly common along national scenic highways throughout the country, including the Mount St. Helens Highway in Washington state, Metcalf said.

Rocks newly exposed along the highways, due to construction or landslides, sometimes are painted because of concerns it takes too long for them to weather naturally, he said.

“This is a prime example of government run amok,” the conservative freshman lawmaker said.

The Forest Service and Washington state Department of Transportation planned to spend as much as $18,000 to dye rocks gray and brown along a section of U.S. Highway 2 crossing the Cascades at Stevens Pass near Skykomish, Wash.

Metcalf said the costs could have risen to $37,000 because bids on the project accepted earlier this month were twice as high as expected.

Officials for both agencies said in a letter to Metcalf on Wednesday the project would be put on hold to assess how the rocks were doing on their own in 12 to 18 months.

“This agreement does not in any way imply that WSDOT or the USFS no longer supports this continued commitment to and concern for the visual quality of our National Scenic Highway System and National Forests as part of these projects,” said the letter from Dennis Bachor, supervisor of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and A.W. Carter, the Transportation Department’s assistant regional administrator for development.

Sandy Berger, a spokesman for the Forest Service regional office in Portland, said Thursday the agency had no immediate additional comment. She said the Mount St. Helens Highway was the only other place she knew of where rocks were painted.

Transportation officials said in a fact sheet on the project, “The U.S. Forest Service requested that we colorize the exposed rock faces because U.S. 2 is designated as a National Scenic and Recreational Highway and it could take up to five years for the rock to weather naturally.”

A state Transportation Department memo on “Rock Painting,” dated July 8, suggested the Forest Service had pressured the transportation officials into going along with the idea.

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