On the Clearwater National Forest in north-central Idaho, a group of hikers follows a Forest Service tour guide along a creek not far from where Lewis and Clark crossed the Bitterroot Mountains. Under clear August skies, they discover a different sort of pioneering effort. Rather than blazing new trails, the U.S. Forest Service is tearing out old roads to protect streams and rehabilitate watersheds.
More than 6,000 miles of
roads run like a mess of spaghetti through the Clearwater, relics
of the 1950s and 1960s, when timber companies cut roads across
steep hillsides to remove spruce trees with Idaho Jammers,
primitive cable logging systems. After the loggers moved out, the
Forest Service all but forgot about the roads. Then, in the winter
of 1995-1996, culverts clogged and roads washed out, taking entire
hillsides with them and dumping silt into the spawning beds of
endangered and threatened salmon.
"Most of these
roads were abandoned and assumed to be stable. And now we're
getting all these landslides," says Annie Connor, a Forest Service
engineer who started her career developing roads and now heads the
Clearwater's road-obliteration program.
past four years, the Clearwater has beefed up road obliteration.
Its funding came from the Nez Perce Tribe and the Northwest Power
Planning Council, as well as federal appropriations for the
forest's fisheries, soil and engineering programs. Seasonal crews
used excavators to tear out 134 miles of road in 1998, and another
80 miles last summer. Connor says her goal is to obliterate 100
miles of roads each year for two decades.
of these roads are obsolete, but they are contributing to water
degradation," she says. "Landslide and debris torrents are a
natural part of the land-formation process, but we have greatly
accelerated them with our road-building."
the West Fork of Squaw Creek, Connor shows the group a road that
was rehabilitated in 1998, and is now barely visible beneath
mesh-covered straw, salmonberry and a few small trees. The agency
removed 3,000 cubic yards of dirt to erase the road, but left a
narrow path so hunters can travel the drainage on
Terry Cundy of the Potlatch Corporation, a
timber and paper products company, raises concerns that removing
roads could hinder efforts to cut disease-killed trees and control
wildfires. "If we're talking about protecting streams, I guess
that's a good thing," adds Pete Ellsworth, a union representative
from Lewiston, Idaho, whose T-shirt reads, "Save the Salmon and the
Dams." "But some of these other things have got me a little
Connor says that by allowing for
public comment, and by teaching seminars on watershed health and
leading tours like this one, she has garnered the support of some
in the timber industry and even ORV riders. Still, with road
obliteration costing an average of $7,000 to $10,000 per mile,
misgivings are understandable.
unless you look at the long term," says Christine Bradbury, who
works under Connor. "We'll have no maintenance, no cleaning out
culverts. We don't have to come back year after year. Some of these
roads are so poorly located, it's just killing us to keep them
Until recently, Dan Oko
wrote from Missoula, Mont. He now lives and writes in Austin,