Gazing eastwards to the Cascades from north and central Seattle, a large chunk of the vista one sees is the mountains of the North Fork Snoqualmie country. The upper reaches of the watershed are in the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest.
Below the confluence of Lennox Creek and the North Fork, the valley opens up into the Snoqualmie Tree Farm, commercial timber land owned by Weyerhaeuser for many years until it was sold to Hancock Timber and then Campbell Global. It is through these lands that two great whitewater runs can be found: starting at Wagner Bridge the river drops through an impressive cascade before the start of the Upper North Fork, a great intermediate whitewater run. This is followed by Ernie's Gorge, a challenging class V run that regularly draws in paddlers from across the Pacific Northwest.
The Snoqualmie Tree Farm comprises approximately 90,000 acres between the lower Snoqualmie valley (and towns from Fall City to Duvall,) and the Cascade mountain front. As the last big piece of relatively flat undeveloped land in King County, the area has been the object of a number of development schemes. It was considered as a site for a major new airport to supplement Sea-Tac, a route for a new outer ring freeway, “Interstate 605,” that would have extended from the present route of Highway 18 through Tree Farm opening up the land for development.
King County, led by then executive Ron Sims with support from county council members including Larry Phillips and others, put together a deal to buy the development rights to most of the Tree Farm for $22 million. While public funds were used to secure development rights, the forest remains as a private commercial timberland with associated restrictions on public access.
Much of Ernies Gorge is still within the Snoqualmie Tree Farm, but below Rachor (pronounced “rasher,”) Creek the left bank is part of Washington DNR's Mt. Si Natural Resource Conservation Area, essentially a state wilderness area. Although these slopes were highgraded (only the choice trees logged,) from a road cut across them probably in the 1930's. Bigleaf maples were of little value then and many old, mossy, wide spreading specimens survived on the gentler slopes here below the cliffs of Mt. Si. On a bench just south of Rachor Creek and right above Ernie's Gorge, one can find several dozen acres of untouched old growth that still stand.
The most serious threat to the North Fork and its tributaries is from dams and water diversions. In the mid 1980's the City of Bellevue made an attempt to build a big dam on the North Fork that would have impounded a large reservoir providing a water supply controlled by the city along with a hydropower project (FERC P-5926). Around this time Weyerhaeuser also applied for a hydropower license for the Black Canyon Hydroelectric Project (FERC P-5837). More recently a private developer proposed a development on the North Fork that would have diverted up to 900 cfs and bypassed it around Ernie's Gorge (FERC P-14110). With several overlapping layers of conservation protections on the river corridor, the developer ultimately threw in the towel in fall of 2016 but the treat remains and the river needs permanent protection that explicitly prohibits hydropower development.
Interest in hydropower development on the North Fork Snoqualmie tributaries has persisted since the early 1980's on the following creeks:
- Calligan Creek: First explored by Snohomish PUD (FERC P-5778), then Weyerhaeuser who later transferred the project to Calligan Hydro (FERC P-8864), then Cascade Power (FERC P-12560), and most recently Snohomish PUD (P-13948) who constructed the project in 2017.
- Hancock Creek: First explored by Snohomish PUD (FERC P-5777), then Weyerhaeuser who later transferred the project to Hancock Hydro (FERC P-9025), then Cascade Power (FERC P-12559), and finally Snohomish PUD (FERC P-13994) who constructed the project in 2017.
- Rachor Creek (aka Black Creek), currently has hydropower on it (FERC P-6221).
These projects tend to produce very little power compared to the amount of disturbance they cause.
With Contributions from Rick McGuire, North Cascades Conservation Council
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Sultan Relicensing - North Fork Snoqualmie- WA
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North Fork Snoqualmie- WA
Hydropower Development at Ernies: Public Meetings Scheduled
New Hydropower Project Proposed for North Fork Snoqualmie
American Whitewater Files in Opposition to Dewatering Ernie's Gorge
Preliminary Permit Issued for North Fork Snoqualmie Hydropower Project
American Whitewater Opposes Hydropower Development on North Fork Snoqualmie (WA)
AW Comments on NF Snoqualmie Hydro Project
Report Your Run: Ernie's Gorge Whitewater Survey
Take Action: Comment on Northwest Power and Conservation Council Protected Areas
AW Recommends Stronger Protected Areas for OR, WA, ID & MT
AW Seeks Stronger Protections for PNW Rivers
Hydropower Development at Ernies: Developer Continues to Pursue (WA)
Developer Ends Effort to Build Hydropower Project on Ernie's Gorge (WA)
- Black Canyon Hydroelectric Project Motion to Intervene
Motion to intervene for preliminary permit for the Black Canyon Hydroelectric Project.
- North Fork Snoqualmie Hydro Project Scoping Comments
Comments of American Whitewater et. al on the proposed hydropower project on Ernie's Gorge.