Updated April 3, 2008
This winter’s storms hit the Northwest hard. In December,
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula was thrashed for two days by
90 mph winds and saturating rains. Rivers rose up to 14 feet,
twisting bridges and sweeping away roads. The storm caused $5
million of road damage in Olympic National Forest alone. While
maintenance crews cleared popular routes of wind-blown trees and
washed-out boulders, thousands of miles of abandoned backcountry
logging roads were left to fill salmon streams with tons of
The deterioration of decades-old roads
on national forests is causing big problems for aquatic ecosystems
across the West, especially in the Pacific Northwest, which has an
estimated $1.3 billion backlog of roadwork on its tens of thousands
of miles of deserted forest roads. “Some of the destruction
is quite awesome, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good
way,” says Gina Ottoboni of the Washington Watershed
Restoration Initiative, a coalition of nonprofit conservation
groups and state agencies.
Washington and Oregon are
particularly troubled because of their vulnerability to big Pacific
storms and their high road densities, says Tom Erkert, an agency
engineer. After World War II, he says, demand for wood fueled
logging in the region, and many roads were built with an agreement
that logging companies would maintain them. When logging was banned
in the late ’80s to protect the northern spotted owl and
marbled murrelet, private companies deserted those roads. The
Forest Service has lacked the funds to pick up the slack.
Additionally, many of the roads are not up to today’s
environmental standards. “We never built roads ignoring the
environment,” says Erkert. “We just know a heck of a
lot more now about the impact of roads.” Culverts, for
example, were often built too small to accommodate salmon spawns
and larger seasonal floods.
Unmaintained roads cause a
variety of problems. They’re one of the most urgent threats
facing struggling Pacific salmon runs, says ecologist Chris
Frissell of the Pacific Rivers Council. Siltier flows, caused by
erosion, reduce the amount of food available for fish, and also
hurt the eggs and fry of salmon, steelhead and trout. Populations
of amphibians, such as the tailed frog and giant salamander, also
tend to be lower in areas with high road density, he says.
Sediment from abandoned roads can wash a long way
downstream, as well. “There’s a big push to clean up
the Puget Sound,” says Ottoboni. “If you can solve part
of the problem before it trickles down, you have a great head
start.” Fixing the roads would help out humans, too:
Backcountry drivers can find themselves stranded by landslides and
impassable conditions following fierce storms.
roads are troublesome, but they’re an easy wrong to right,
says Frissell. Other threats to fish and water quality throughout
the West, such as invasive species and dams, are more complicated,
but roads are one of the few problems with identifiable solutions.
“We know how to do this work, and we have the
technology,” he says. “It’s just a matter of
getting the resources on the ground to get it done.”
Indeed, acquiring the resources has always been the
agency’s insurmountable crux. “The Forest Service is
not doing a good job maintaining roads in a large part because
their budget has been cut, cut, cut over the past 10 years,”
says Ottoboni. Last year alone, the agency’s budget was
slashed by $64 million.
In December, Congress gave the
agency $40 million to repair old roads through the Legacy Roads and
Trails Remediation Initiative, spearheaded by Rep. Norm Dicks,
D-Wash., Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Washington state’s
Department of Ecology, and the Washington Watershed coalition. Just
$8.4 million of that will go to rehabilitate the Northwest’s
92,000 miles of roads. But in an area where one mile of
rehabilitation can cost between $2,000 and $200,000, the money
doesn’t last long.
For 2009, the Washington
Watershed coalition has asked for $75 million for the national
initiative, including $30 million for Washington State. So far,
Congress has not appropriated any funding.
financial insecurity, some land stewards say the Legacy Roads and
Trails Initiative represents progress on a formerly stagnant issue.
“We’re starting to get enough momentum here in the
Northwest,” says Ottoboni. “This $40 million we got is
a drop in the bucket, but it’s a start.”
The author is an intern with High Country