At Isabel Vander Stoep / [email protected]
Thursday morning is chilly. Fog covers the windshields outside the Tall Timber Restaurant and Lounge in Randall.
Once a month, people gather here for breakfast to advocate for the area’s large veteran population.
By the time the last sips of coffee have been taken and everyone is leaving from a dimly lit back room, Lewis County Commissioner and Packwood resident Lee Grose had other plans for attendees Colin Swanson, a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, and Sarah Kohout, who was there on behalf of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
East Lewis County has a problem that is now impossible to ignore: its infrastructure is not ready for the huge increase in tourism of the past few years. By the time his term expires in November, Grose decided to make noise about the issue, with a special emphasis on the work needed to shut down Forest Service Roads.
It’s personal for him. Once a week, he picks up the Goebel Septic port-a-potty from High Rock Lookout on Forest Service Road 84 (FS-84), unloads it, and returns with an empty one. If it were up to him, I wouldn’t be making this arduous journey every week. Taking the pot full to the brim down the dusty logging road is a smooth ride. But according to him, his wife is pushing him to continue volunteering.
“She doesn’t believe in divorce, but she does believe in murder,” he says with a smile.
We get into his Audi SUV, Kohout and I in the back seat, with Swanson and Grose in the front.
Grose determined the best way to show these people what the roads needed was to drive them. On the long trip from Tall Timber, down to Morton, up to Elbe, east to Skate Creek Road and back to Packwood—with a stop on FS-84 along the way—the commissioner has a captive audience for his message.
He moved to Packwood in 1959, long before the decline of East Lewis County’s lumber industry. He was there to watch it crumble, and he vividly remembers 1996, when the last mill closed. He remembers being told that the next big industry for Lewis County — the 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 Mindy Brooks, senior planner for Lewis County, who is also a Packwood resident.
People come from far and wide to recreate the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but its roads are still better suited for 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 bureau — to stop promoting High Rock Lookout as a destination more than a year ago. That disappointed Grose, who was there to see the industry pull Packwood out of its own recession.
Skate Creek Road, which runs from Packwood to Pierce County near the start of Mount Rainier National Park, recently received some mosaics thanks to Lewis County and the Forest Service.
“It’s the best it’s been in five years,” says Grose.
Along the way he tells stories. It touches on the spotted owl controversy and what it means today for the eastern edge of Western Washington’s largest county. He talked about the days before mobile phones, when his then-fiancée was stationed at the Mount Burleigh Fire Service, as he planned his wedding to his mother on the radio. Grose even remembers his youth in Packwood when Skate Creek Road was still gravel and he drove it to visit Eatonville and a girl he was dating there.
As he talks, we passengers occasionally scream as the Jeep hits potholes in the road. The exact funding mechanism for the mammoth task of fixing those roads is beyond him, but the commissioner hopes the push will encourage his federal constituents to act.
When we arrive in Packwood, Brooks is waiting for us outside the Packwood Brewery. She has another bone to pick on the same issue.
Brooks spearheads the county’s plan for Packwood, a community-led project for the next two decades of planning.
“The most immediate issues from the subzoning plan are affordable housing … and traffic. Specifically, pedestrian safety,” Brooks tells Kohout and Swanson. “It’s frustrating to push back when we have so many cars and people (on U.S. Highway 12), especially in the summer.”
Seeing no solution, I leave the four to their deliberations. The issue is wrapped up in a decades-long quest for prosperity in Cascadia’s forests, conservation, recreation, access to nature and questions about who is responsible for the land. Residents did their best to get active: The Gifford Pinchot Trash Force organized trash cleanup work parties, nonprofits maintained trails, and various stakeholders joined the subdistrict planning process to represent their community’s interests .
Once Grose leaves office, someone else will have to champion the issue of creating infrastructure to accommodate East County tourism. Meanwhile, he’ll keep bumping 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/.