A decision on whether to replace a dilapidated bridge in the Pemi Wilderness Area of the White Mountain National Forest won’t come until early next year. That's longer than expected because the agency is using an unusual procedure to allow additional public comment on the controversial issue, according to the forest service.
The structure is the Thoreau Falls Bridge, which crosses the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River. It is a six-mile hike from the Lincoln Woods Ranger station just off the Kancamagus Highway.
It was built around 1962 and in 2011 the forest service concluded it wasn’t safe due to a combination of age and damage from Hurricane Irene.
That raised the question of whether to remove the bridge or replace it.
Some hikers argued it should be removed and not replaced because it is in a federally designated wilderness area.
Others worried that because it is at the end of a long trail some people might risk fording it in high water rather than turn back.
The forest service got 69 comments urging the bridge be permanently removed. Seventy-eight wanted a new bridge.
Typically when the U.S. Forest Service undertakes a project, the public gets a chance to comment, a decision is made and implemented. Once the decision is made there’s no reversal.
But given the debate over the Thoreau Falls Bridge, District Ranger Jon Morrissey chose a different regulatory process, says Dan Abbe, an official with the forest service.
“Jon felt that giving the public – specially in light of all the input on the project – the opportunity to object if there was a need, was important,” says Abbe.
That means if there are widespread objections to a decision that the forest service thinks raise good points it has the authority to reconsider.
A study is now underway is looking at issues surrounding removing or replacing the bridge. That includes a hydrologist trying to determine how often the river might be deep enough to pose a hazard to hikers trying to ford it.
A draft report should be available by the end of the summer. Then comments would be accepted.
Another report incorporating those comments would probably be released late fall or early winter, along with a “draft” decision. That would be followed by another comment period.
Then, those comments would be considered and the forest service would decide whether to make the draft decision final. That final decision is expected early next year.