Vilsack vision for Forest Service focuses on restoration

Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Courtesy USFS.

Restoration. That’s a very important word to those of us who work in  conservation. Following on decades of logging in our national forests — much of it unsustainable — considerable work is needed to restore the ecosystems our forests contain.

That’s why I was especially excited to hear that watershed restoration is at the heart of the Obama Administration’s vision for our national forests, as laid out by Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in August.

As someone who works with the Forest Service to help the agency find ways to address its over-sized and archaic transportation system in order to restore or wild rivers, wetlands and wildlife habitat and enhance backcountry recreation, I was heartened that Secretary Vilsack clearly pointed out that addressing the agency’s road system will be a chief component of restoring our forests.

The Problems Roads Cause

There are some 380,000 miles of roads on our national forests, so many roads that, lined up end to end, they could take a person from the earth to the moon and half way back!

That road system was developed in the 1980’s when timber production was huge. But timber demand from our national forests has diminished, and with it a need for all those roads — many of them now abandoned — leaving them in disrepair.

Today, our forests play a key role in keeping ecosystems intact, providing wildlife habitat, addressing climate change and in meeting the growing demand for recreation. The road system left over from decades ago is unnecessarily big and is falling apart, leading to a host of problems like fragmented wildlife habitat, endangered fish and sediment-laden drinking water.

Today, with a $10 billion backlog in road maintenance, the Forest Service can only afford to adequately maintain about 20% of its transportation system. Every year that goes by, the backlog — along with the costs of impacted fisheries, waterways, and habitats — grows.

Ridding our forests of roads

Reducing the road system on national forests by a third, as proposed by the Forest Service eight years ago would lead to all sorts of benefits. For example, it would dramatically improve river and stream quality for fish, restore wildlife habitat, enhance the quiet, backcountry experience for hikers, campers and other non-motorized recreationists, result in hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term cost savings for taxpayers. It would also create green jobs in rural areas across the nation restoring forest health, expand roadless areas on our national forests by an estimated 10%, and help our forests adapt to the tremendous pressures and ecosystem shifts that are sure to come as a result of climate change. That’s quite a list!

What's needed to make it happen?

First, we need to know the condition of roads on each national forest, including an assessment of which roads are important, and which roads are causing environmental headaches.

We also need to make an honest assessment, forest by forest, of the size of a road system each can afford. With this information in hand, the Forest Service can make rational decisions about which roads to remove and where to focus their limited road-maintenance dollars. Fortunately, in the last two years, Congress began moving the Forest Service along the path toward watershed restoration, with $90 million appropriated for this work. With as many roads as the Forest Service has and does not need, this is good start.

Second, the Forest Service should rewrite its management guidelines so that each forest has a mandate to restore ecosystems, watersheds, and wildlife habitat. Such a directive would enhance water quality, lessen pressures on threatened and endangered species, and help our forests be more resilient to climate change, all needs that are growing in the 21st century.

Third, the Forest Service should create a high-level program for watershed restoration that has a budget, support from leadership in the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture, and targets for which the agency should be held accountable for meeting. In government, function often follows form.

In these times, our forests are facing growing pressures and demands. The environmental and fiscal problems associated with the agency’s road network have been plaguing the Forest Service for decades. We are heartened by Secretary Vilsack’s stated commitment to and dedicated leadership around addressing the Forest Service roads system. Now is not the time for feigned intentions and distant assurances. The Secretary has called on the agency for bold action, and we believe the agency can and must rise to the occasion.

photo: Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Courtesy USFS.