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PSE works to mitigate Falls re-licensing impacts

The Snoqualmie Falls Park area is going to look different, but the Falls will remain the same, say Puget Sound Energy officials.

During a public meeting held at the Snoqualmie Ridge Golf Course on April 4 hosted by Puget Sound Energy (PSE), plans were presented to build and reconnect trails, replace boardwalks, create new viewing platforms and pave a river access road.

As part of the power plant relicensing agreement, PSE must mitigate its impact on the land and river. Eighteen plans for improving Snoqualmie Park public access and protecting its natural resources must be submitted by June 2006. Officials for the energy company estimate it will spend roughly $40 million completing the projects.

Ten of the 18 plans have been submitted so far, PSE program manager of corporate communications Roger Thompson said.

"We want the public to participate in the process. We need their input," PSE licensing program manager Connie Freeland stated in opening remarks at the meeting.

Two citizen volunteer teams were formed in June 2005: the "Trails" team and the Fish Hatchery Road team. During the meeting the teams, along with a handful of PSE officials, presented these plans and made recommendations to an audience of about 80 people, which included Snoqualmie Tribe representatives, local law enforcement, forest service officials, outdoor enthusiasts and local residents.

According to Thompson, PSE applied for the new power plant operation license in 1991, and the license was finally issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in June 2004.

"The FERC permit lasts for 40 years. We want to make sure what we do with the property is with the public's wishes," Thompson said.

The Hatchery Road team leader Bill Cleaver presented a wish list that included gating the river access road located at the end of Fish Hatchery Road. This would limit night traffic as the gates could then be locked at dusk. The team also recommended placing signs at the road's turn-off indicating the limited hours of access. Finally, the team asked the energy company to cancel plans to build the maintenance shop at the bottom of Fish Hatchery Road.

"Every weekend we suffer problems from the park visitors; mostly it involves drinking, drinking and driving, crashes from drinking and excessive traffic. This road is narrow and emergency vehicles have difficulty accessing our area. It's a health hazard," said Cleaver.

In response, PSE officials agreed to install a gate this spring, place the signs and close the Tokul Creek access point at dusk.

"We will pave Fish Hatchery Road," Thompson added.

The Trail team plans were presented by spokesman Dave Battey. He gave a slide show of the original Preston-Snoqualmie Trail that runs past the Falls on the south side. Locations on the trail feature panoramic views of the Snoqualmie River valley as well as the surrounding mountains from the southern side of the Falls.

"This would be the last mile of the Rails to Trails project that started 25 years ago," Battey said.

Battey told the audience that the trail restoration is possible, but there will be some engineering challenges. King County received a grant for roughly $900,000 to conduct a feasibility study for reconnecting the Preston-Snoqualmie Trail.

"The study will take 12-18 months," PSE municipal liaison manager Linda Striessguth announced at the meeting.

Not everyone attending the meeting supported PSE's relicensing or the mitigation plans for the trails and park.

In response to the team presentations, Snoqualmie Tribe spokesperson Lois Sweet Dorman said the Tribe is appealing the issuing of the license in the Ninth Circuit Court along with the current PSE license, which means plans for improvement are not legitimate. She told the audience the Tribe considers the Falls a sacred place of creation and her people have been here for thousands of years.

In part she said, "When you talk about the Falls you are talking about my mother and grand mother. You cannot separate us. We are the people of the river. We are still trying to work out a solution."

The Snoqualmie Tribe has been consistent in expressing its wishes, which call for the removal of the dam, the power turbines and the park amenities and restoring the Falls to it's natural state altogether, an option PSE cannot abide by, Thompson explained after the meeting.

Thompson also said that there is no question the PSE and the Tribe have different views.

"We have the greatest respect for their history and heritage. We have been having some very frank discussions with the Tribe. PSE officials hope that in the end the Tribe and PSE can come to some agreements that will satisfy both sides," he said.

Thompson made two additional points about PSE and its role as land owner.

"We own the property. Obviously as property owners, we will have a long-term involvement in the use of the property. The Falls is a priceless public asset. We feel very beholding to public access to our property to enjoy the Falls. The Falls are an asset - a public treasure. We want to be good stewards."

Other PSE plans include removal of five turbines from the lower plant and installing two energy efficient turbines, building a new inflatable dam to be placed above the Falls and adding benches along trail routes.

"We don't know what the final look of the trails and park will be, but this is going to be a community decision, one that everyone embraces," Thompson said.

The next PSE-hosted meeting will be held in the fall of 2005. A specific date has not been set.

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