Millions of dollars have been spent to create wildlife crossings for animals from Hyak to Easton in the I-90 corridor east of Snoqualmie Pass. But an idea floated by State Parks to build up to 100 cabins, a lodge and more would likely undermine the wildlife protection effort.

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HYAK, Kittitas County —

Snow sifts softly through a slot dividing the east and west lanes of Interstate 90, traffic whizzing by out of sight overhead. Down here the light is soft, the sounds muffled, and ferns, logs and rocks evoke a forest floor.

This is a wildlife crossing under the freeway: man-made and brand-new. Motion-activated and infrared cameras show it is, well, wildly popular with wildlife. A menagerie is on the move here, where there used to be a solid wall of highway fill.

To find out more

To watch a video about the wildlife crossings and I-90 improvements, go online:

To see a map of the project corridor and crossings, and learn more about the history of the project, go online:

To learn more and comment on the State Parks proposals and see the list of parks under consideration for private development, go online:

Source: WSDOT, Washington State Parks

But millions of dollars in public money invested in getting animals safely across the zooming maelstrom of I-90 — as well as the animals themselves — may be at risk. In an unexpected switch of roles, Washington State Parks has proposed offering parkland near here for private development — even as the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is working to protect animals and provide habitat.

The development idea is part of the park system’s first rollout of a “transformation strategy” to raise revenue by offering developers a crack at building recreation features at 11 candidate parks. At the top of the list is Crystal Springs: part of the Iron Horse State Park Trail in Kittitas County, and one of the most popular snow parks in the state.

Just right, perhaps, the agency suggests, for a lodge, up to 100 cabins, retail shops and an RV park. The park is a prime location to entice developers marketing to Seattle-based recreationists, said Steve Hahn, real-estate program manager for the department.

“This seemed like a pretty straightforward one, that close to Seattle, that people would want to stay overnight instead of go back and forth,” Hahn said.

Washington State Parks proposed offering park land near animal crossing structures for private development, but scuttled the idea shortly thereafter. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

A former gravel pit, the 80-acre park today is a day-use-only snow park and is closed the rest of the year. The site seemed a great choice not only for its location, but because it already is disturbed, Hahn said, adding that he was unaware of the wildlife issues until last week.

“The animal crossing throws a bit of a twist into this,” Hahn said. “ I don’t know if it kicks it off the list or not.”

The idea is at its most preliminary stage. The list of parks offered up for developers’ consideration is still under review, to be finalized in part on the basis of the public’s response. Whatever eventually gets built on any of the sites will depend on what developers propose, and the agency, with public input, ultimately approves. Even the idea of development in the parks could crater, if the public rejects it.

“It’s one thing to talk about this in the abstract,” said Peter Herzog, assistant director of parks development for the agency. “Its another to talk about places in particular.”

The Crystal Springs idea for one is a non-starter for state and federal agencies and conservation organizations that have invested millions of public and private dollars in the success of more than 20 animal crossings built or under way in the corridor.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and conservation groups have worked for years to swap, buy and conserve more than 75,000 acres of land within the corridor for habitat to support the crossings. The corridor has been designated since the 1990s as a high-priority area for wildlife connectivity in federal land-use plans.

Long-term effort

Planning and construction of the wildlife crossings has been under way since 1999 as part of an $850 million project widening I-90 from Hyak to Easton to improve safety and traffic flow through Snoqualmie Pass.

Some 27,000 vehicles every day move east and west across the pass — but the area also is a critical travel corridor for animals moving north and south.

Animals, including black bears, have already taken to using crossing structures built by WSDOT to provide safe passage across I-90.  (Courtesy of WSDOT)
Animals, including black bears, have already taken to using crossing structures built by WSDOT to provide safe passage across I-90. (Courtesy of WSDOT)

Black bear. Deer. Cougars. Elk. Raccoons, river otters, even wolves and wolverines, all must traverse the I-90 corridor to colonize new territory, find mates and food, and even run for their lives during big fires. Climate change is expected to only increase the need for migration corridors for wildlife seeking new territory as conditions change.

But wildlife and traffic don’t mix: People have been killed in accidents when vehicles hit big animals such as elk.

The answer has been a series of crossing structures under and over the highway, including the state’s first major bridge just for wildlife. Construction began last year on a 150-foot-long, 40-foot-high, $6 million bridge over six lanes of interstate, to be landscaped with black cottonwood, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, vine maple, Sitka alder, serviceberry, lady fern, deer fern and more, grown from seeds hand-gathered from native plants in the wildlife corridor.

“The investment we have on I-90 is not only for transportation, but also to understand the natural setting we have there, which is really quite important,” said Bill Sauriol, environmental manager for WSDOT’s South Central Region.

WSDOT has been renting a portion of Crystal Springs Park from State Parks during the summer as a staging area for work on the I-90 project. But after the agency finishes the job, managers want no further development at Crystal Springs, to protect the public’s investment in the project’s success.

“We want them to do their due diligence and line up all this with the big investment in these improvements,” said Brian White, interim regional administrator for the South Central Region at WSDOT. “We have seen deer and bear already using the wildlife crossings. But human activity will discourage wildlife from using them.

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“The main concern is changing to year-round recreation and bringing more people into this area.”

Sauriol said further development is incompatible with all the work and money invested in making the crossings work for wildlife. “It will really disrupt the animals and devalue our investment, everyone’s investment. This is a corridor for transportation, and it is also a large animal corridor. We cohabitate the Snoqualmie Pass area.”

Migration terrain

It’s the lay of the land through the corridor that makes it a natural highway for animals as well as people. Lakes Keechelus and Kachess draw animals through the unique ecological zones of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and upper slopes of the Cascades near Snoqualmie Pass. Flat ground is also limited heading north and south through the corridor.

The Crystal Springs Park sits right in terrain where some of the most dense animal migration has been tracked over the years by biologists and other specialists seeking to locate the crossings in animals’ habitual routes, noted Patty Garvey-Darda, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. “This is right where animals really need to move,” Garvey-Darda said of the proposed development.

The Forest Service in 2008 closed its own campground in the area to avoid adding human disturbance, and to foster animals’ use of the crossings.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also oppose development of the site. “For wildlife crossing structures to be effective, wildlife have to get close enough to use them,” said Karl Halupka, biologist in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Central Washington field office in Wenatchee.

“People have made investments to try and retain robust wildlife populations,” he said, “and this proposed development could really diminish the performance of those investments.”

The development project also could result in pushing wildlife back onto the roadway, causing collisions, said Scott Downes, biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which wants Crystal Springs to remain a limited, day-use area, off-limits to overnight, year-round recreation.

Animals already have been hemmed in for decades by the highway, said Jen Watkins of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit that has worked for years helping put land into conservation for the corridor and advocated for construction of the crossings.

“The I-90 corridor is the connective tissue between the North and South Cascades,” Watkins said. “This is our last chance to maintain that connection.”

Progress being made now with the crossings is too precious to jeopardize, Watkins said.

“Every acre matters.”