I was in the middle of writing this piece when Russ Vaagen posted “Roads are not the Enemy” on his blog, theforestblog.com. At first I thought about scraping my article but after reading his, I think the two pieces are complementary to each other. Mine is from the perspective of a forest engineer who has spent most of my career dealing with forest roads, both new construction and maintenance. Nearly all this work was on private and state trust lands in Washington State. I think this provides a unique perspective on the forest road issue, especially on U.S. Forest Service lands.
If you look around much of the road infrastructure – road surfacing, culverts, bridges, etc. of federal forests are crumbling away, much as we see across the federal highway system. For the most part this is not due to a lack of will or desire on the part of the hard-working field level staff of the Forest Service. Really, it is mostly due to the significant underfunding of road maintenance needs nationally on the Forest Service road system. This lack of maintenance of key infrastructure, admittedly primarily built for timber but providing access now for a broad range of users, has and continues to have negative impacts on access and the environment. Failed culverts, washed out roads, plugged ditches, and aging culverts and bridges are just a few examples of the type of issues impacting water resources or limiting access. Often cutting off recreational and economic opportunities in the forest.
What can we do about this?
Many people look at the success of the Washington State Forest Practices Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plan (RMAP) process and wonder if it can be applied elsewhere. Perhaps even on the National Forest? According to a Washington Forest Protection Association 2015 report, private forest landowners and state lands (mostly DNR Trust Lands) have spent over $300 million dollars since the year 2001 in Washington state, “resulting in removal or repair of more than 5,600 barriers to fish migration, which has restored nearly 3,900 miles of historic fish habitat.” While this figure primarily captures the investment in fish passage, there is another monetary metric that was not well captured in how DNR collects data.
That metric is non-fish passage road maintenance work, such as adding or installing larger cross drain culverts, road surfacing upgrades, and road abandonment. Additionally, there is the routine maintenance, not tracked through the RMAP program. Ongoing road grading work, culvert and ditchline cleaning, and road side vegetation management. All work to maintain a transportation system not only for regulatory reasons but also operational reasons.
As an engineer, I have spent much of my career identifying, designing, and complying this type of work. I have lost track of the number of truckloads of culverts I have overseen the installation of, but it is a substantial number. Private landowners and DNR trust lands have and are investing millions of dollars into the ongoing maintenance and upgrades of their transportation systems. This benefits, water quality, provides economic benefit from the work, and in many cases, enhances recreational access.
Is this a potential model for Forest Service transportation systems?
Ultimately, yes! A similar model on Forest Service lands can be developed, but some hurdles need to be overcome. Roads are such a contentious issue, especially on the National Forests. Can interest groups with such diverse opinions, those that want to keep every road and those who would like to see significantly less if not all roads obliterated come together on common ground? Some roads may need to go away, but conversely there may need to be new permanent road constructed to maintain access needs. Relocating roads out of flood plains or similar areas to higher ground are one example of the need to build new road while eliminating some existing road. Can agreement be reached?
Funding is the major road block to getting work done. Some Forests are using Stewardship dollars to conduct restoration level road maintenance, but this does not meet the overall need. Private and state trust lands harvested trees to pay for much of the RMAP work they conducted. A similar program can be used on Forest Service grounds, while still meeting ecological goals and within the confines of federal land management regulations. But it will require increasing “pace and scale” while also seeing congress add more funds to the Forest Service budget to accomplish this work.
In the end a new model needs to be built for the Forest Service because it is the right thing to do for many stakeholder interests. The RMAP program grew out of the Washington State Forest Practices Forest and Fish HCP. It was an effort to balance the needs of water quality and fish habitat with a viable and sustainable forest products industry. An effort that to date appears to be very successful on state and private forest land ownership.
On Forest Service lands this work would not only benefit access needs for recreation and vegetation management but also water quality and fish habitat. A successful program would enhance the environment while helping to maintain and enhance the economic infrastructure of road maintenance, logging, and milling. This could go a long way in working to create family wage jobs in rural communities. – Matt Comisky