It is a chilly Thursday morning. Mist is coating the windshields outside the Tall Timber Restaurant and Lounge in Randle.
Once a month, folks gather here for breakfast to advocate for the area’s large population of veterans.
As the last sips of coffee are downed and everyone walks out of the low-lit back room, Lewis County Commissioner and Packwood resident Lee Grose has other plans for attendees Colin Swanson, a representative from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office, and Sarah Kohout, who is there on behalf of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
East Lewis County has a problem that has become impossible to ignore: Its infrastructure is not ready for the massive increase in tourism from the last few years. Until his term ends in November, Grose has decided to make a fuss about the issue, with a special focus on the work needed to bring Forest Service Roads up to snuff.
It is personal for him. Once a week, he takes a Goebel Septic port-a-potty down from High Rock Lookout on Forest Service Road 84 (FS-84), unloads it and heads back up with an empty one. If it were up to him, he would not take this arduous journey every week. Taking the port-a-potty, full to the brim, down the dusty logging road is a white-knuckle drive. But, according to him, his wife compels him to continue the volunteer service.
“She doesn’t believe in divorce, but she does believe in murder,” he says with a chuckle.
We load up into his Audi SUV, myself and Kohout in the back seat, with Swanson and Grose in the front.
Grose has determined the best way to show these folks what the roads need is to drive them. On the long loop from the 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 fall of East Lewis County’s timber industry. He was there to watch it crumble, and remembers sharply the year 1996, when the last mill closed. He remembers being told the next big industry for Lewis County — its supposed economic savior — would be tourism.
Now, the boom is here. In Packwood alone, tourism has grown four-fold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Lewis County Senior Long-Range Planner Mindy Brooks, who is also a Packwood resident.
People come from far and wide to recreate in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but its roads are still more fit for logging trucks than anything else.
So far, the Forest Service’s response has been to discourage tourism. In a county meeting on Monday, Parks and Recreation Director Connie Riker told commissioners that rangers asked Discover Lewis County — the county’s tourism bureau — to stop advertising High Rock Lookout as a destination over a year ago. This frustrated Grose, who has been 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, has recently received some patchwork thanks to Lewis County and the Forest Service.
“It’s the best it’s been in five years,” Grose says.
Along the way, he tells stories. He touches on the spotted owl controversy and what it means today for the east end of Western Washington’s biggest county. He speaks of the days before cell phones when his then-fiancée was stationed up at Burley Mountain fire lookout as she planned her wedding with her mother over radio. Grose even recalls his youth in Packwood, when Skate Creek Road was still gravel, and he drove it to visit Eatonville and a girl he dated there.
As he talks, us passengers let out occasional yelps as the SUV hits holes in the road. The exact funding mechanism for the colossal task of fixing these roads is beyond him, but the commissioner is hoping the drive will encourage his federal electeds into action.
When we arrive in Packwood, Brooks is waiting for us outside the Packwood Brewery. She has another bone to pick along the same issue.
Brooks has been heading the county’s subarea plan for Packwood, a community-led blueprint for the next two decades of planning.
“The most immediate issues from the subarea plan are affordable housing … and traffic. Specifically, pedestrian safety,” Brooks tells Kohout and Swanson. “It’s frustrating to get the brush-off when we have so many cars and people (on U.S. Highway 12), particularly in the summer.”
Seeing no resolution, I leave the four to their discussion. The issue is wrapped in a decades-long search for prosperity in Cascadia forests, conservation, recreation, accessibility to the outdoors and questions about who is responsible for the land. Residents have done their best to step up: the Gifford Pinchot Trash Force holds work parties to clean up litter, nonprofits maintain trails and a variety of stakeholders have joined in the subarea plan process to be representatives for their community’s interests.
After Grose leaves his post, someone else will have to champion the issue of creating infrastructure to suit East County tourism. In the meantime, he’ll continue bumping up and down 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/.