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Forest Service takes a hard look at their road system and sees...opportunity?
The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for more than 8 times as many miles of road in Oregon than ODOT.
Contact: Marla Nelson (651) 434-7737
[Portland, Ore. December 16, 2015] Conservation and recreation groups applaud a first step by the Forest Service to identify a sustainable road system on National Forest land that balances their budget, protects resources, and provides for a wide range of access onto our public lands. When asked who the largest road manager is in the State of Oregon, residents will quickly respond: Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). But they would be wrong. The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for more than 8 times as many miles of road in the state—68,000 miles—yet they have only a fraction of the budget necessary for maintaining those roads.
“The national forest road network in Oregon is so large that I could drive from Portland to New York City and back twelve times, and still not have driven all the roads,” said Amy Harwood, Bark’s Executive Director. “Not all roads are equal—some roads are short ¼-mile dead-ends, while other thoroughfares stretch a hundred miles into the forest. Roads near streams or on steep, landslide prone slopes can have more impact on water quality than others.” Mt. Hood alone has about 2,900 miles of Forest Service roads.
Attempts to cope with the crumbling National Forest roads and make sure community access is safe has left the agency to make piecemeal (and often controversial) decisions. Winter rain-on-snow storms now make road closure decisions on the agency’s behalf, as neglected roads crumble off steep slopes or bridges and roads wash out—making access impossible and cost-prohibitive to fix.
“Planning can be tedious,” said Marla Nelson, Rewilding Attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “But in this case, it’s long overdue. For years we’ve asked the agency to create a blueprint to manage their roads into the future. We want to see a plan that directs investments to the right roads, rather than place leaky band-aids everywhere in vain.”
In 2010, the Chief of the Forest Service directed all National Forests, including those in Oregon and Washington, to complete a Travel Analysis Report by the end of 2015 with the goal of “identifying and maintaining an appropriately sized and environmentally sustainable road system that is responsive to ecological, economic, and social concerns.” Each National Forest has now looked critically at their road network to figure out what roads are important to invest in to provide reliable and sustainable access into the future. The agency needs certain roads for maintenance of recreational sites, forest management, and monitoring. People rely on specific National Forest roads to get to trails and campgrounds, travel between communities, and explore the forest.
“We must find the right balance of roads for recreation that are well-maintained, not redundant and don’t continue to drain the limited road maintenance budget,” said Adam Baylor, Mazamas Stewardship and Advocacy Manager. “These decades-old logging roads allow millions of people access to climbing, hiking, whitewater kayaking, fishing, hunting and camping on public lands.”
The agency’s analysis and comments from the public also identified inadequately maintained and unnecessary road segments that harm salmon, steelhead and bull trout habitat, as well as drinking water supplies and wildlife habitat. “We wouldn’t allow a dump truck to regularly drop loads of dirt into salmon spawning areas. Yet that’s what’s happening on a regular basis in our National Forests when roads aren’t taken care of,” says Russ Plaeger, Bark’s Restoration Coordinator. “Rainwater routinely washes sediment from poorly maintained roads into streams and roads collapse in big storms. Both destroy habitat and bury salmon eggs. We are hopeful that the Forest Service has identified roads that are causing problems for aquatic species and created a prioritized plan to fix them. Mt. Hood National Forest used to be a regional leader in removing old, unneeded roads but in recent years their progress has slowed significantly. That’s a shame because salmon and bull trout populations are still at risk in the Mt. Hood area.”
Likely the most difficult screen the agency had to apply to its road system was to identify a road system they can afford to maintain. Congress has slashed the agency’s primary road maintenance budget by more than 80% since the early 90’s.
“Our members are tired of losing access to trailheads because a storm washed out an undersized culvert or a road is too gullied for a small car to drive,” said Baylor. “If the Forest Service can create a plan that shows that key recreational roads will be maintained, we are eager to help.”
“Removing old, unneeded roads is a win-win for salmon, wildlife, contractors, and the public,” said Russ Plaeger. “Money invested in decommissioning unneeded roads creates high-skill, high-wage jobs for the local contractors who do the work. And by reducing erosion it decreases the impact of roads on water quality.” Closing or decommissioning unneeded roads results in a wilder landscape for elk, bears, and other species that are sensitive to vehicle related disturbance especially in areas where the road density exceeds the agency’s own standards.
Travel Analysis reports for all National Forests in Oregon and Washington will be available on each individual forest’s website. These reports do not make decisions, but rather are a thoughtful review by experts on the state of our national forest system roads. They are the first step towards creating a more manageable road system that meets this century’s needs. Now that the report for Mt. Hood National Forest is available, Bark, WildEarth Guardians, and the Mazamas will review it to determine whether the agency truly is heading down the right road. “We’ll provide more detailed comments at that time,” said Plaeger.
To see the Travel Analysis Report for Mt. Hood National Forest, click here.