A rough road to repair

by Francisco Tharp

For decades, burly Pacific storms have wreaked havoc on thousands of miles of deserted and poorly maintained National Forest roads in Washington and Oregon. The torrential, snow-melting rains wash out clogged culverts, collapse roadside embankments and sluice sediment into waterways, where it can bury fish eggs, choke fish gills and kill amphibians. World War II-era logging routes, abandoned in the ’80s when logging was banned to protect the threatened northern spotted owl, are “the single most widespread and urgent threat facing salmon in the Northwest,” says Chris Frissell, an ecologist with Pacific Rivers Council. Compared to other major watershed threats like dams and invasive species, it’s also the easiest to remedy. “We know how to do this work, and we have the technology,” says Frissell. But, as the numbers to the right show, the trickle of help coming in has yet to match the flood of trouble.

$10 billion Estimated backlog of national forest road restoration and repair work nationwide.

$1.3 billion Estimated cost of overdue roadwork in national forests in Oregon and Washington.

$39.4 million Funds appropriated in 2007 for restoring and repairing national forest roads and trails nationwide.

$8.4 million Amount of that appropriation dedicated to national forest roads in the Pacific Northwest.

$5 million Amount of damage a single severe storm in December 2007 caused to roads in Washington's Olympic National Forest.

2 Average number of miles of road per square mile of national forest in the Pacific Northwest, including wilderness and inventoried roadless areas.

1 Average number of miles of road per square mile it takes to begin damaging fisheries.

4,000 Average amount in tons of sediment washed into waterways per mile of unpaved road in the Pacific Northwest over 25 years.

300 Number of dump trucks it would take to transport that sediment.

92,000 Miles of national forest roads in Oregon and Washington.

$1,200 amount the Forest Service estimates that road decommissioning would save taxpayers per mile in reduced maintenance costs annually.

SOURCES: Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative; Tom Erkert, Forest Service engineer; USFS; Chris Frissell, ecologist with Pacific Rivers Council; Mary Ann Madej, USGS sediment specialist