Putting forests to work: How removing old roads will help in climate battle

An example of a Forest Service road in desperate need of removal. Courtesy USFS.

Take a close look at our national forests and you will find that they are scarred by a vast network of unused roads left over from years past. This road system was born of industrial logging practices allowed decades ago, but today it’s an outdated, crumbling and environmentally-harmful vestige on the land.

It’s time to start removing these roads, not only because doing so will improve water quality and help decrease a massive maintenance backlog, but because it will give us one more tool in the fight against climate change.

According to a new report from The Wilderness Society, right-sizing the Forest Service road system could have benefits in terms of storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide on our forests. In fact, removing unneeded roads could amount to the same as removing up to 8.8 million cars from the road for one year.

Wilderness Society researchers wanted to get an estimate of how much carbon could potentially be sequestered if the Forest Service were to permanently close and revegetate all of its unneeded roads. Turns out it’s a lot – we approximate between 39.5-48.5 million metric tons — or the equivalent to removing 7.2-8.8 million cars from the road for one year. Put another way, it would be equivalent to locking up in a garage every car, truck, motorcycle, and SUV in the state of Colorado for two straight years.

Of course different types of forests have different carbon storage capabilities. Check out The Wilderness Society’s briefing memo for a regional breakdown.

These roads aren’t just lines on a map. Think about it. A typical road in your neighborhood is several feet wide. Denude of vegetation, each mile of Forest Service road consumes about ten acres of wildlife habitat and, with 375,000 miles in its inventory, the acreage adds up fast. In fact, if the Forest Service were to obliterate all of the roads it no longer needs — which is projected at about 126,000 miles – we estimate it would be equivalent to revegetating an area larger than Rhode Island. That’s a lot of land!

Many of these roads are abandoned or rarely used and don’t receive any maintenance. As a result, these roads are literally falling apart resulting in massive amounts of sediment bleeding into our rivers and streams. Needless to say, these old abandoned logging roads cause serious impacts on water quality. Further, the road maintenance backlog alone is upwards of $10 billion which, any taxpayer must find nonsensical.

So let’s talk about solutions. Legislators, policy makers, Forest Service leadership, and forest-level staff need to make the agency’s road system ecologically and fiscally sustainable.

Revegetation after road removal in Bitterroot National Forest. Photo by Adam Switalski, Courtesy Wildlands CPR.The way to do this is for the Forest Service to first complete the necessary analysis for all of its roads to identify, forest-by-forest, which ones are no longer needed and can be revegetated. Then the agency should incorporate road decommissioning and revegetation into any climate change strategy it develops as it will serve as an effective strategy in climate change mitigation as well as adaptation to changing forest conditions.

Congress should consider the carbon sequestration potential of right-sizing the road system when providing oversight of agency progress towards addressing climate change. Congress should also incorporate the obliteration and revegetation of old, unneeded Forest Service logging roads into any climate change legislation it crafts.

In the end, right-sizing the agency’s road system will serve as the roadmap to clean water, green jobs, enhanced wildlife habitat, larger roadless areas, and serves as another strategy to help in the fight against climate change. That’s a lot of bang for the buck.

photos:
An example of a Forest Service road in desperate need of removal. Courtesy USFS.
Revegetation after road removal in Bitterroot National Forest. Photo by Adam Switalski, Courtesy Wildlands CPR.

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