Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
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.
Over the 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.
"A lot 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."
Along 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 foot.
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 worried."
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.
"It's expensive 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 open."
Until recently, Dan Oko wrote from Missoula, Mont. He now lives and writes in Austin, Texas.