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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rain costs forest millions

Last week’s downpours caused $2 million in damage to roads in the national forest near Sandpoint, according to a preliminary estimate released Wednesday by the U.S. Forest Service.

The total bill could be much higher, but the damaged roads and weather conditions are making it nearly impossible to access certain areas, according to Forest Service officials.

The agency is now planning to seek emergency federal funding to pay for the extensive repair work needed, said Gail West, spokeswoman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

Although backcountry roads across North Idaho were left impassable by downfalls and washouts, the brunt of the washouts took place in the Cabinet Mountains northeast of Lake Pend Oreille.

“Some of these areas have snow on them already so there’s going to be difficulty getting into there to check on the damage,” West said.

Floodwaters last week tore apart roads, changed the course of stream channels and scattered huge boulders across roads, said Larry Elliot, road manager for the Sandpoint Ranger District. The hardest hit areas, including the Lightning Creek drainage, where washouts are up to 700 feet long and 15 feet deep, are inaccessible even to all-terrain vehicles.

“We had to use a mountain bike to get in,” Elliot said, adding that the road will remain completely impassable to snowmobiles this winter.

Lightning Creek Road, which serves as one of the most heavily used entry points to the national forest east of Sandpoint, likely will not reopen for another year or longer, Elliot said. The damages are “just too extensive,” he said.

Although the Lightning Creek drainage is known as one of the wettest valleys in the wettest part of Idaho, last week’s storm was one for the record books. More than 20 inches of rain was recorded in the mountains that feed the creek, according to a remote weather monitoring gauge atop Bear Mountain.

The road network in the Lighting Creek Valley has a history of washing out, said District Ranger Dick Kramer. “The last big flood was after the 1996 winter, but the damage from this flood pales that one,” he said in a written statement. “We may have to rethink how we manage our roads in Lightning Creek.”

On Wednesday, the agency issued emergency closures for the following roads: Gold Ridge Road No. 2236 in the Grouse Creek drainage, Pack River Road No. 231 to 13 Mile Bridge, Rattle Creek Road No. 473 and Lightning Creek Road No. 419.

Pack River Road’s 13 Mile Bridge is expected to reopen to snowmobile and ATV traffic this weekend, but most of the rest of the roads will not be repaired until next spring or summer.

Grouse Creek Road reopened for travel Wednesday, but further repairs will be needed, Elliot said. Emergency repairs have also been completed on portions of the Pack River Road, where three families had been stranded.

The situation could worsen over winter and spring as more snow and rain fall, Elliot said.