Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

It's Time to De-road the National Forest System

By Andy Kerr

Column #16 - Go to next column

Length: 748 words

First published: 27 January 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

The National Forest System contains at least 370,000 miles of roads. It's probably more, but the Forest Service hasn't documented them all. That's at least eight times more than the Interstate Highway System or all the way to the to the moon and half-way back. Many of these roads are harmful to both the environment and the taxpayers. It's time to close a large part of the federal forest road system.

Roads which are extremely damaging to nature, extremely expensive to maintain and/or are of little public value, should be put to bed. Of course, many Forest Service roads should remain open to provide access to recreation areas and scenic viewpoints. The remaining road system—while much shorter—would be better maintained for public use and to prevent environmental harm.

By their very nature, roads are unfriendly to nature. Road kill on high-speed routes are the most obvious effect, but probably not the most important. The vast majority of Forest Service roads are low-speed roads built for logging. Logging is decreasing and will likely continue to do so, along with taxpayer dollars to maintain such roads.

Roads—if they do stay in place—fragment wildlife habitat and inhibit wildlife migration; serve as introduction corridors for non-native wildlife, diseases and weeds; increase erosion and stream sedimentation; and increase opportunities to for off-road vehicle abuse and poaching.

Forest roads increase the "edge effect," which allow opportunistic species such as raccoons greater access into previously intact interior forest habitat. This has been extremely devastating for many songbird species.

The greater the density of roads, the less value to wildlife. Take elk for example, where habitat effectiveness decreases at least 25% when road densities reach one mile of road for each square mile of land, and at least 50% when that's doubled to two miles of road.

Roads—if they don't stay in place—slide out and cause massive amounts of dirt to foul streams to the extreme detriment of salmon, other fish species and the aquatic ecosystem in general. This has been happening a lot of late, now that we're back to a more normal wet winter pattern in the Pacific Northwest.

With the recent heavy rains and floods (which are essentially annual events), numerous federal forest roads no longer exist. Because of diminishing agency budgets, most won't be rebuilt. Some will be proposed to be rebuilt that shouldn't be. Some were simply in a wrong location like a flood plain and will fail again during the next big flood. Some were on steep slopes which are still prone to failure.

Lot's of roads are ticking time bombs waiting for the next heavy rains to set them off. The Forest Service should proactively close these roads, but not just be gating. It must take steps to make the problem roads "hydrologically invisible" to the hillside by putting water bars every 50-100 feet to divert surface water back to it's natural flow.

Such bars are little trenches put across the road to guide upslope water directly downslope, rather than channeling and concentrating it to culverts; many of which are too small to carry maximum flows. Culverts are also often a barrier and to migrating fish.

This waterbar work and culvert removal is very cost-effective and could provide transition jobs in the woods for equipment operators who won't be doing as much logging as in times past. There is plenty of watershed restoration work to fill out the work lives of these displaced woods workers.

The Siuslaw National Forest used to produce a lot of salmon. As logging increased, salmon decreased. Today, coho, chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout are all proposed for the endangered species list and the Forest Service is slowly realizing that the forest is more valuable for salmon, water, wildlife and recreation than logging. The President's Northwest Forest Plan dropped the timber cut on the Siuslaw in excess of 90%. It's closing and restoring two-thirds of its road system.

It is a model that should and will likely be followed by other national forests.

Many national forests are closing ranger district offices and cutting staff positions, as Congress reduces the Forest Service budget. A coalition of environmentalists and fiscal conservatives may finally be able to do good for both the taxpayers and the environment and persuade Congress to cut the Forest Service road-building budget and allocate money to watershed restoration.

It's something that salmon and the taxpayers can agree on.

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