The irrigation district flew the machine up to Eight Mile Lake to do maintenance on an earthen dam.

Thursday, September 27, 2018 8:46am NORTHWEST
By Tony Buhr / The Wenatchee World

LEAVENWORTH — How to remove an excavator trapped in the middle of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, miles from any roads?

That’s the question that the Icicle-Peshastin Irrigation District and the U.S. Forest Service are asking. The irrigation district flew the excavator up to Eight Mile Lake in May to do emergency maintenance on the earthen dam there, said Tony Jantzer, Icicle Peshastin Irrigation District manager. Eight Mile Lake is about 40 miles west of Leavenworth and 3.3 miles from the nearest Forest Service road.

The irrigation district would now like to drive the excavator out of the wilderness area, Jantzer said.

But the Forest Service has some concerns about the impact driving it out might have on the environment and what laws it might violate, said Holly Krake, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest public affairs officer. It is working with the irrigation district to identify which route it plans to use to drive the excavator out of the wilderness area.

“We need to work in partnership with the irrigation district to identify that route,” Krake said. “Based on the proposal from the irrigation district, the Forest Service would be able to identify any potential environmental issues and any laws or regulations that might weigh in on that proposed action.”

Part of the problem is that both agencies have rights over Eight Mile Lake. Eight Mile Lake has been a reservoir maintained by the irrigation district since the 1920s, Jantzer said. But the U.S. Congress also designated Eight Mile Lake as part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area in 1976.

The Alpine Lake Wilderness is 414,161 acres in size and includes parts of the Wenatchee and Snoqualmie National Forests, on both sides of Highway 2. Wilderness are given more protection than national forests and activities within them are highly restricted.

In 1990 the irrigation district gave the Forest Service the rights over the reservoirs, Jantzer said. But it kept an easement to do maintenance and repair work, he said.

The irrigation district believes it can drive the excavator out of the wilderness area without permission from the Forest Service, he said. But it is still working with the Forest Service to find the best solution for both parties.

The Forest Service, though, wants the district to complete a permit application, Krake said. After the district completes the application the Forest Service can review any potential impacts to the wilderness.

“At this point in time we are working with the irrigation district and looking forward to their completion of that application so we can analyze those effects,” she said.

Alpine Lakes Protection Society President Rick McGuire said his organization doesn’t support any mechanized use in the wilderness area, but recognizes that the irrigation district might have a legal right to access reservoirs.

“Our position is that we don’t like seeing them drive things in and out of the wilderness, but there isn’t much we can do about it if they have a legal right to do it,” McGuire said.

The Alpine Lakes Protection Society was one of the key organizations behind the creation of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 1976. The society continues to advocate for protection of the wilderness.

If the Forest Service does not allow the irrigation district to drive the excavator out of the wilderness it may consider leaving it, Jantzer said.

It cost the district close to $100,000 to fly the 12,000 pound 305 CAT excavator into the wilderness area, he said. The excavator itself costs $24,000 and the district plans on submitting an application with the Forest Service to construct a new dam at Eight Mile Lake anyway.

“The district feels it is not cost effective to fly that thing out of there,” Jantzer said. “Especially when we know that we will be applying for a permit this year to replace the dam next year. If we can’t walk it out of there we’re going to leave it.”

The Forest Service has requested that irrigation district submit a plan as to how they plan to remove the excavator, Krake said. But she would not say what, if anything, the Forest Service would do if the irrigation district decided to leave the excavator.

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