Future gets brighter for state's aging national forest roads

Dec 22, 2009

OLYMPIA - Congress and the Obama administration are responding with on-the-ground results in response to appeals by a coalition of conservation groups and the state Departments of Ecology and Fish & Wildlife.

Federal action is now occurring to repair and reclaim crumbling national forest roads in Washington state that have been harming endangered salmon and clean water.

After years of neglect, deteriorating national forest roads are getting a record amount of federal dollars to reduce the risk they pose to clean water and the environment. The funding is creating new jobs in rural communities and carrying out federal commitments made in 2000.

Substantial federal funding coming to Washington and Oregon in 2010 doubles the federal allotments provided in 2008 and 2009 combined.

National forests in Washington and Oregon received $8.4 million in 2008 and $9.5 million in 2009. Now, a record $19.1 million is heading to the two Northwest states in 2010.

Muddy runoff from the roads degrades both drinking water and the vital habitat that threatened and endangered salmon and other fish need to spawn and reproduce.

"The most encouraging sign is that we are beginning to see a long-term funding plan to address this decades-old problem left behind from timber harvesting in national forests in our state and across the nation," said Sue Gunn of Wildlands CPR, the director of the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI) coalition.

Gunn said the Forest Service itself estimates that the current backlog of road and culvert projects in Washington will cost $300 million and the amount is growing yearly.

Washington and Oregon have seen a significant increase in federal funding for road repair and reclamation in national forests since WWRI formed in 2007. WWRI built public awareness through the news media, networking and testimonies to Congress.

Studies have found that 16 to 30 jobs are created for every million dollars spent on watershed restoration, Gunn said. This 2010 funding will create or maintain between 300 - 575 jobs in Washington and Oregon, she added.

The Washington state coalition helped create a national effort that in the last three years has secured $180 million for the Forest Service to restore watersheds and water quality while enhancing recreational access. The Forest Service is using these funds to repair and reclaim degraded roads and trails within national forest system lands across the country.

During the first two years of the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation program, the Forest Service projected the funds would restore more than 125,000 acres of habitat and more than 1,110 miles of stream habitat nationwide.

"We especially want to thank Rep. Norm Dicks for his incredible leadership in helping Congress understand and begin fixing this problem," Gunn said.

While numbers for 2009 are still being compiled, results of the funding for Washington and Oregon in 2008 included:

  • 23 road-stream crossings constructed or reconstructed for fish passage, which opened 65 miles of habitat.
  • 934 miles of roads improved or maintained.
  • 132 miles of road reclaimed.
  • 219 miles of trails improved or maintained.

In addition to the bright note about funding, the coalition recently received national recognition for its campaign to build awareness about the problem. Representatives from WWRI travelled to Washington, D.C., Dec. 16 to accept the "Rise to the Future-Public Awareness Award" from the Forest Service.

Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Mary Wagner said, "I'm pleased the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative is receiving this national recognition. Their efforts have helped us make progress towards our goals of improving watershed conditions, creating a more durable and sustainable transportation network, and supporting local economies at a time of extraordinary economic challenges."

Stephen Bernath, policy lead for forestry issues with the Washington Department of Ecology said, "We are honored to receive this national award. The Forest Service has been an appreciated partner and understands the gravity of the problem in the Pacific Northwest. The WWRI members have worked tirelessly to address the harm roads and trails have on clean water and fish habitat."

WWRI members include the Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Alpine Lakes Protection Society, American Whitewater, Cascade Chapter-Sierra Club, Conservation Northwest, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, North Cascades Conservation Council, Olympic Forest Coalition, Pacific Rivers Council, Pilchuck Audubon Society, The Mountaineers, The Wilderness Society, Washington Trails Association, Washington Wilderness Coalition and Wildlands CPR.

Rise to the Future Award for Public Awareness:

Background news releases:

Summary of the national forest roads problem in Washington state:

Washington Department of Ecology