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 damaging debris.

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.

Derelict 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.

Despite its 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 News.