A rough road to repair

  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.
High Country News Classifieds
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.