Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why you can find great beer in small towns....(hint: it's the water...)

As the snow blankets the mountains for winter, I think back on some of the sunny days this fall.  In September, I traveled to Eastern Oregon for work.  It's there that I found myself sipping a Pallet Jack IPA at Barley Brown's brewery - simply enjoying the sun and autumn evening - without putting much thought into the primary ingredient of the beer - water.  Me, and my fellow brewery companions, just enjoyed our beers.  Having won many awards, Barley Brown's is known for its beer.  Located in historic Baker City, Oregon - locals and travelers converge to raise pints and swap stories.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I put on my "work hat" and began listening to Michelle Owen and Jake Jones, staff from Baker City, and Robert Macon and Kelby Witherspoon, staff from the U.S. Forest Service, describe the drinking water watershed that the connection was made in my head.  Seems silly given that I was in Baker City as a member of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership.   The partnership was formed to help restore and protect the health of watersheds which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefiting aquatic and riparian ecosystems.  One way we achieve this is through an annual grant program.  Baker City applied for, and received, a grant to help purchase and install fencing in their ongoing effort to protect their drinking water source area.  It’d seem obvious that I would consider water while drinking beer, but like most people, I often take clean water (and good beer) for granted.

As our vehicle left historic city hall and headed up into the surrounding mountains, I began to listen, learn and see what a gift the community of Baker City really has.  Being one of only three unfiltered water systems in Oregon, the water is both amazingly pure and also highly vulnerable. We traveled up-valley, passing by the ranch of longtime residents The Fosters who have a strong relationship with the City, community and the land.  As we continued driving upwards, we left the grassy slopes behind and entered the ponderosa pine forests.  Crossing into the Forest Service lands, we could see Elk Creek trickling along at the bottom of the valley slope.  Being early September, water flow in the creek was fairly low.

We were heading up into the watershed so I could see what was accomplished and report back to other Partnership members.  Baker City draws water from multiple diversions off of small streams draining off the surrounding 9,000+ foot mountains in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.  Three years ago, the City experienced a cryptosporidium outbreak, which was a big alert to the community that more is needed to protect this irreplaceable resource.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness. It comes from human or animal sources and is not what anyone wants in their drinking water.  To avoid this kind of problem, other cities that have unfiltered water systems err on the side of caution and have closed their watersheds to people and cows – both potential sources.  Baker City, however, is trying to carefully balance the desires of its community, which includes: access for grazing, access for hunters and protections for the community’s pure water.  By fencing high priority areas, the City hopes to keep cattle away from entering the more vulnerable areas. 

Fences in National Forests are problematic across the West.  They can be barriers for wildlife.  But then they can also keep cattle out of streams.  At WildEarth Guardians, we take down fences and we also install fences. 

As our truck continues to bump uphill, I ask Jake, who has been with the City for over 25 years, when the fencing project would be done, he responded that fencing is never “done”.   It’s ongoing with about 10% of the fencing needing to be repaired every year in addition to installing more fencing.  Fencing can break due to animals (i.e. elk, cattle), weather (snow, ice) and humans (cutting fencing).  The watershed is big – 10,000 acres – so it’s impossible to fence it all.  This is why the work needs to be focused.

When we finally reach our destination, we step out of the vehicles to see a neat line of fence on one side of the road and a wobbly, tilting, fence line on the other side.  The new fence has traditional barbed wire lines stretched between posts while the bottom line is barb-free so smaller animals can move through.  Fencing can solve some problems by keeping cattle out, but can cause other problems for wildlife.  Since this is National Forest land, there are specific requirements that should be followed to minimize impacts to wildlife. Most of Baker City's watershed is not fenced, but in specific places, it can help keep cattle away from the community's drinking water.

Jake points out the different posts that hold up the fencing.  The wooden posts are built locally and the City tries to purchase as many of these as possible.  One of the City’s greatest challenges is capitalizing on new areas of economic growth.  Supporting local micro-businesses is one way.  A distillery has also just opened in town, benefiting from the great quality of the water flowing down the hills.  City staff know that keeping the water clean and pure is not only good for the health of the community but is also tied to economic growth.

The Drinking Water Providers Partnership grant monies supported the City in buying supplies and helped the City finance part of the labor and contractors for fencing.  The Forest Service and Baker City worked together on the project with support from The Fosters, who are one of the two grazing permittees.

Other communities received grants for different types of projects.  One town removed an old bridge that was leaching wood preservative into the river.  Another town planted riparian vegetation to help trap sediment and keep water temperatures cooler. And yet another town decommissioned roads to prevent sediment (i.e. turbidity) from entering the water supply.  One thing Baker City has going for it is that most of the watershed is categorized as “Inventoried Roadless Area”.  The liability of an oversized and deteriorating road system that is so common in national forests is significantly less here.

My work often is focused on restoring public lands that are degraded. But I also work to protect valuable places where the ecosystem is functioning fairly well.  Surveys show that Oregonians value clean drinking water so we work hard to ensure that water remains protected and clean.

After taking some photos, we return to our vehicles to follow the road back to town.  When I ask why Baker City is a great place to live and work, Jake says: “It’s a postcard every day.”

And now I know one big reason Barley Brown’s beer is so good – it’s the water.  With an award winning brewery and a new distillery attracting visitors from across the state, the City has strong economic incentives to ensure the watershed is well-protected.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Clean Water Denied.

We know that water is life.  Maybe that is why people are so drawn to water.  Almost 75% of outdoor recreation is near streams, rivers, and lakes. But when we are in our homes, filling a glass of water from the sink, we rarely think about where that water came from or what it took to keep it clean.  We may be camping or fishing next to the “source” in a forest but then lose the connection to our taps when we are at home.  Little do we realize that one reason millions of acres of forest lands were first protected by our politicians was to “secure favorable conditions of water flows” (1897 Organic Administration Act).

75 years after the Organic Act, a bi-partisan Congress overrode President Nixon’s veto and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) became law. The law’s objective is to protect water by preventing pollution to our waterways by targeting the sources.  The open sewers and fiery rivers may now be in the past - thanks to the Clean Water Act - but thousands of rivers and lakes are still far from being swimmable, fishable and drinkable.

Oversight and enforcement of the Clean Water Act ultimately lies with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  States, cities, businesses, industries, land managers, tribes all have accountability but ultimately EPA is responsible to protect human health and the environment.

This is why we go to EPA when we see our waters polluted.  But when it comes to dirty runoff from forest roads (stormwater), EPA simply turns away.  In 1999, when national stormwater regulations were revised, EPA ignored stormwater from forest roads that were polluting streams. Two conservation organizations, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Center, took them to court.  In 2003, when the Ninth Circuit Court directed EPA to look at forest roads, EPA failed to act again.  And now, 17 years later, EPA once again was directed by a Court to act. But EPA decided that water is protected enough.

Dirty water entering a forest stream.
Photo credit: Crag Law Center

Tell that to the small coastal community of Arch Cape, Oregon where sediment from forestry practices upstream continually clog up their drinking water filtration system. In a letter to the Oregon Board of Forestry, the town declared:
The current Oregon Forest Practices Act needs to be amended, in order to enable water suppliers to be able to meet this basic duty that the public entrusts them with.” (Arch Cape letter to Oregon Board of Forestry)
Yet, EPA argues in its decision notice to do nothing; that “states frequently revise their forest roads management guidance/regulations” and called out Oregon as a positive example: “Oregon Board of Forestry increased the riparian zone buffer width for fish-bearing streams in 2015 (Oregon Riparian Rule, 2015)”. Yes, the rules were revised but it was the first time since the 1990’s! That’s not “frequent”. And the rule revision did not address forest road runoff, nor did it include all forest land in the state.

Ironically, EPA’s recent decision nationally runs contradictory to it’s own agency action in Oregon. In March of this year, EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) withheld $1.2 million in grant funds because Oregon failed to control water pollution to protect fish, wildlife, and public health. For 18 years these federal agencies have said that Oregon’s poor forest practices create water pollution and harm fish, but it wasn’t until this spring that they finally took stronger action and penalized the state. In their reasoning, the two agencies specifically call out forest roads:
As a result, NOAA and EPA cannot determine, and the State [Oregon] has not made information-based representations specifying, the extent to which voluntary efforts have addressed the sedimentation problems and landslide risk posed by the legacy road network.” (NOAA/EPA Decision Rationale)
Forest to Faucets” is literal. 50-75% of the U.S. population relies on forest lands for good quality water. But when EPA keeps turning away from its responsibilities to uphold the Clean Water Act, communities are then tagged with the bill to spend millions to clean-up the dirty water. Clean water denied.

What will it take to truly value and protect clean water?

Photo credit: High Country News

Friday, April 8, 2016

For National Forest Roads, Less is More—Time to Make It That Way

Hiking Horseshoe Bend Trail, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The trill of a bird melody floats on a breeze between towering old growth, carrying my steps along Horseshoe Bend Trail in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Each trek like this is a day-cation, the national forests by wild haven. Even in 1899, Theodore Roosevelt recognized the importance of the wild to the human spirit. He wrote: "Spring would not be spring without song birds, any more than it would be spring without buds and flowers." 

Acting on his desire to conserve wilderness, Roosevelt created the federal forestry bureau that led to the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. The extensive grazing, logging, and extractive uses condoned by the Forest Service today might well surprise Roosevelt. Indeed, the magnitude of these destructive activities on our national forests surprises many Americans. Equally surprising is the number of roads that are part and parcel of the destructive activities: the Forest Service manages 372,000 miles of system roads.

Given this history of abusing and fragmenting our national forests, restoring a balance with natural ecology through rewilding is essential. A critical step in creating that balance is reducing the miles of roads. Returning expensive and deteriorating forest roads to the wild through road decommissioning reconnects wildlife and fish habitats, restores water quality, and improves forest resiliency in the face of climate change. Reducing the number of forest road miles also relieves the Forest Service’s financial strain to maintain its mammoth road system on its miniscule budget.

The Forest Service’s own rules actually require a rewilding of sorts—in 2001 the agency directed a paradigm shift away from road-building and towards forest restoration. To do quality restoration, the agency first needs to understand the problems, which is why the 2001 rules required an analysis. My previous blog explained this “travel analysis process” and advocated the agency rewild much of its over-sized road system (Rethinking Our Roads: Less Really is More).

Left: under-sized, overgrown culvert directing a stream under FS Road 39 (credit: Marla Nelson). Right: washout on FS Road 31 (photo credit: U.S. Forest Service). Both in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

In 2010, the Forest Service’s Washington Office directed forests to complete a travel analysis and prepare a report that includes: (1) an analysis of all system roads (maintenance levels 1 though 5); (2) a map displaying roads likely needed and likely not needed; (3) an explanation of the map, including a financial analysis of long-term funding expectations; and (4) a list of roads likely not needed. Most forests drafted travel analysis reports by the September 2015 deadline.

Based on our initial reviews, the quality of the reports varies widely. We are currently working with The Wilderness Society on a big picture assessment of the reports, identifying forests that prepared reports that truly lead to good forest restoration, and those that need improvement.

What’s Next: the Minimum Road System

In technical terms, unlike the National Environmental Policy Act, which is purely procedural, the travel analysis process is a “substantive duty” meant to produce real outcomes. In simple terms, travel analysis is meant to close the gap between the agency’s small roads budget and the high costs of maintaining its deteriorating road system.

The Forest Service’s next steps will be the most important: it is where the rubber hits the road, and the agency will start making on the ground progress. Now that forests have completed travel analysis reports, each National Forest must consider the information in the reports and identify the minimum road system it needs for safe travel and to protect forest lands. The agency must propose actions, subject to NEPA, to implement the minimum road system. Restoration projects at the subwatershed scale or larger provide the perfect opportunity. Ideally, in the not too distant future these projects will produce a National Forest road system that is economically and environmentally sustainable.

Time for YOU to Get Involved!

Because restoration projects are “final agency action,” the Forest Service must complete an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. This means that the Agency must provide multiple opportunities for public involvement—through notice and comment.

Never commented, or don’t know what a comment is? No problem. A comment is a letter to the agency, in this case the Forest Service, outlining what you think of the project and suggesting changes or things to consider. A comment may be positive, negative, or both. The important thing when drafting a comment is to read—yes, read—the agency’s proposed action and draft environmental analysis. If the analysis is super long, as it often is, a skim will also do. Bottom line, informed comments make more sense and are more persuasive.

Search for projects with open comment periods in the Federal Register (type “Forest Service” in for the agency) or go to your favorite forest’s website and look for a “Schedule of Proposed Actions.” Look for large-scale restoration projects or road-related proposals. Check out the Forest Service projects that we are actively engaged in.

Once you have identified a project, WildEarth Guardians is here to give you a boost. We have prepared a comment template to get you started reviewing the project. Contact me for a copy.

Need For Change

Even in his day, Roosevelt observed: "the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation." More than 100 years later, continued harm from grazing, logging, extraction, and the roads built for these activities has only exaggerated the need for the Forest Service to change its approach.

It is beyond time for the agency to prioritize protecting wildlife, clean water and wild places over destructive activities. In the context of forest roads, now really is the time to make your voice heard. Urge the Forest Service to reduce the size of its road network. Not only will this help reset the historic imbalance, but it will also provide hope for more resilient forests as we step into the future. This is good news for songbirds, our forests, and hikers like you and me.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Why we celebrate 1000 culverts

When I first moved to wet Seattle from the dry Southwest, I spent every free moment I had driving up into the mountains in my little red Honda civic hatchback to seek out trails and campsites that opened into a spectacular new world for me.  Trees bigger than my arms could reach around. Ferns and moss carpeting the forest floor.  Alpine meadows full of wildflowers with whistling marmots breaking the silence.  And water everywhere – dripping from the sky, tumbling down waterfalls and collecting in creeks, then streams, and finally large rivers.  It never occurred to me that all that water was creating havoc to the Forest Service roads I used to get to my favorite places.  Or that the old methods for channeling the water were devastating to native salmon such as Chinook, coho and chum along with steelhead, bull trout and many other native species.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, OR.
What I did not notice, while I was carefully avoiding potholes and other obstacles on my way up to the trail, was that these roads all have ditches running alongside of them to collect water.  And every half mile or so there is often a buried pipe (culvert) to move the water collected in the ditch under the road, across to the other side, and out to a creek or stream or forest floor – just away from the road.  I also didn’t notice that each stream or river the road crossed needed a pipe/culvert so that the water in the stream could move under the roadbed.  Every road, even a dirt road in a forest, has a complex system of ditches, drains, pipes, culverts, bridges all trying to move water away to protect the road.
Seems like a big culvert but wild steelhead were unable to swim through to reach critical habitat.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest, WA
The problem is that they are just too old.  Most Forest Service roads were built nearly 50 years ago and like everything, degraded over time.  When the culverts get plugged or disintegrate, the water builds up like behind a dam and eventually bursts through the entire road fill.  There goes the road and access to my favorite trail.

The old culverts were also not designed to handle some of the water from the large storms we have lately.  Being too small, branches, twigs, rocks easily plug the pipes, which also leads to road wash-outs.  This winter, in a portion of the Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, two storms effectively closed down 45% of the forest because roads collapsed or bridges and culverts washed out.
This road wash-out dumped tons of sediment into an important salmon river and closed access to trails.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, WA
And the road engineers in the 1950’s didn’t think about all the native fish that swim upstream to spawn and swim downstream to reach the ocean.  Culverts act as barriers because fish often can’t jump into the culvert or the speed of the water in the culvert is too fast for a fish or there isn’t enough water for the fish to swim through the pipe.  It’s not just iconic fish like salmon – culverts are barriers to a whole slew of aquatic species including tiny macroinvertebrates, worms, amphipods, snails, giant salamanders, turtles, crayfish, and freshwater mussels.  These species are all important for healthy stream ecosystems, yet they are blocked from natural movement because of culverts.

At WildEarth Guardians, and tagging along with Forest Service road engineers on field trips, I’ve learned a lot about culverts.  I have seen that replacing old culverts with arched culverts that are sometimes 20 times larger really works to move water and salmon and protect the road during torrential storms.  I now know that there are thousands of culverts out there but the Forest Service needs money to fix them.  Some of that money comes from a program started 8 years ago called Legacy Roads and Trails. The program has one goal: to reduce impacts to water and fish from Forest Service roads, including culverts. Because we know we won’t see improvements in forests without money, we work hard every year to make sure funding continues.
To a fish, the river bed now is continuous, making it much easier to swim up and down stream.
Siuslaw National Forest, OR

So when I saw that a milestone in the Legacy Roads and Trails program was going to be reached – 1,000 culverts fixed – I thought we should celebrate!  The Forest Service was happy to tell the story of this success and our partners at The Wilderness Society and Trout Unlimited pitched in to help.  We held the first event on Capitol Hill in D.C. because our champions in the Senate and Congress are responsible for ensuring there is funding for this work.  Congressman Kilmer (WA-6th), Senator Merkley (OR), Senator Wyden (OR) and Forest Service Chief Tidwell all attended and spoke about how fixing culverts reconnects streams for fish and makes roads more resilient to storms.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell at the 1000th Culvert Celebration on Capitol Hill.
But there is more to come.  On May 21 we will be part of a global event called World Fish Migration day.  Select forests across the U.S. will host field trips to highlight projects that show that fish need open rivers to migrate. 

And as we celebrate the accomplishments, we also look to the work that still needs to be done.  Just in Washington State, there are 994 barriers to fish passage that need to be fixed on national forest lands.  And that doesn’t include the smaller drainage culverts that are also falling apart.  Legacy Roads and Trails funds must increase to make progress on this looming problem.

At WildEarth Guardians, we know that roads are one of the top 3 threats to public lands.  The issue is complicated, receives little attention, and triggers strong emotions with the public.  We like these types of challenges and will keep working on solutions.

I still use roads to seek out trails but these days I also see the overgrown ditches, the plugged pipes and the decaying culverts along with the new arched culverts and bridges.  There are too many roads to fix all of them but by being smart about the work and making sure there are funds for the work, the next 1,000 culvert milestone could happen quicker.  This helps me get to my trailhead and helps salmon get home.
Coho salmon.
USFWS, Creative Commons

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Is Logging Forest Restoration?

WildEarth Guardians helped to plan extensive forest restoration in the Jemez Mountains but now contests the plan. Despite the veil of “collaboration” and $40 million in federal funding, the U.S. Forest Service decided on precisely what it expected from the start: a logging project.

There is general agreement that business as usual will not suffice if our forests are to survive in a climate changed and drought stricken world. Southwestern forests evolved with fire and beneficial fire is indispensable to their persistence. Fire shaped these forests and logging cannot emulate that process. But the Forest Service is trying to log its way out of the predicament.

Photo by Brant Hyenga
The Forest Service is pressing this logging agenda across Arizona and New Mexico under the ruse of restoration, asserting we can make forests fireproof. But we can’t fireproof forests, nor should we.

The hitch - according to scientific consensus - is that small trees are the problem not big ones. The Forest Service claims it needs some big trees as well as small ones to create openings and offset the cost of restoration.  But exactly how many big trees? Travel over to the Zuni Mountains west of Albuquerque and you will see many large trees on the ground or stacked for removal.

Following the lead of national forests in Arizona, the Santa Fe National Forest considered a multi year “restoration” project on close to 170 square miles of public lands. The result of the “collaborative” process is that nearly 40 square miles of forest will be thinned and logged, which in turn requires 120 miles of road construction or reconstruction.

Roads in forests are bad for soils and water quality, likely worse even than extreme fires. So, why build roads and take large, fire resistant trees when hand thinning and prescribed burning is cost effective and far less risky for soil and water? The answer: to prop up a logging industry.

After more than 5 years of “collaboration,” the Forest Service selected a predetermined outcome including large tree logging.  This result delegitimizes “collaboration” and alienates the public.
Photo by Brant Hyenga

The final selected plan is akin to the “bull in the china shop” approach to restoration. More logging and road building is not what our fragile watersheds need. Together with a full fire suppression policy, that is precisely what landed us in our current quandary.

A pattern is emerging across the Southwest. The U.S. Forest Service has an agenda driven from headquarters that overrules local stakeholder consensus. Until forest management is truly driven by “collaboration” these projects will be challenged. Everyone that cherishes our national forests and all that they provide must stand up to the Forest Service and resist the logging of large, old trees under the guise of forest restoration.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What is Wilderness? ( I of IV)

The rambling spaces of the American West have enchanted generations. Ninety years ago, we decided that it was important to protect that opportunity. The opportunity to be enchanted. The opportunity to be a little person in a big landscape. Today, an untrained eye may wander the horizon and wonder at the rambling wilderness, crisscrossed with barbed wire and game trails. A trained eye however, will settle on the far fence and know that there, beyond that fence, lies the Wilderness.

Wilderness, when defined legally, must meet certain benchmarks and thresholds. It must be larger than 5,000 acres. It must be have outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation and generally appear to be unaltered by works of man. It is suggested that a Wilderness have exceptional geologic, scientific, or ecological value. But above all else, it must obviously wild. It is a place we have chosen to protect from ourselves. Or at least try to. But there are other wildernesses too. Little ‘w’ wildernesses, places that are also wild, and primeval and unaffected, but not yet a designated Wilderness. So how do we decide what is a Wilderness and what is a wilderness? And how do we tell the difference?

The Wilderness Act, passed in in 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and gave Congress the authority to designate any qualified tract of federally owned land as Wilderness. At it’s inception, the NWPS included 9.1 million acres. Since then, just over 100 million acres have been added, protecting  5% of the US land area as federally designated Wilderness. Held contiguously, this equals an area slightly larger than the state of California. In comparison, 4 Californias worth of the United States are used as cropland (408 million acres). It will come as no surprise that the largest Wilderness area is located in Alaska. The Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness, in the National Park of the same name, spans 9,078,875 acres. And although the majority of Wilderness is in the Western states and Alaska, 44 states have designated Wilderness areas.

Outside of the National Wilderness Preservation System are millions of acres eligible for Wilderness designation. These eligible acres are classified as Potential or Recommended Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas, or Roadless Areas, depending on their status and managing agency. Each of these classifications is a stepping stone on the way to becoming a congressionally designated Wilderness Area. Potential Wilderness is an area that has been identified as eligible for Wilderness designation by the managing agency, while Recommended Wilderness is an area that has been identified as desirable for designation. Occasionally, lands are recommended to become Wilderness Study Areas, which are areas that are managed as Wilderness, but not officially designated as such. On lands managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) alone, there are 58,518,000 acres of Inventoried Roadless lands eligible for Wilderness designation; an area roughly the size of Idaho. That is close to half the acreage includes in the NWPS.

What is the most surprising about the 58 million acres of USFS Roadless lands and the 12.5 million acres of BLM Wilderness Study Areas that exist today is that they exist at all. The world’s (and nation’s) first wilderness, the Gila Forest Reserve in New Mexico, was designated over 90 years ago. Since then, urban areas and mineral extraction have exploded and the politics of Wilderness designations have become increasingly complicated. But there still remains progress and there still remains possibility. The most recent Wilderness designation, the 275,840 acre Boulder-White Cloud in Idaho, took over 15 years to bring to the President’s desk. America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act of 2015 was introduced for the 10th time this May (the first was in 1997).

The need and love of wilderness is a long held cultural value that persists today. The continued interest and desire to protect wilderness is ubiquitous, with the majority of westerners supporting conservation initiatives. But where does this love and need for wilderness and wild places come from?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Rethinking Our Roads: Less Really is More

Our National Forests have too many roads. Super-sized and under-funded, the Forest Service's road network contains over 370,000 miles of forest roads. That is enough to get you to the moon and halfway home again. The roads slice through wildlife habitat, cutting apart corridors essential to imperiled species including grizzly bears, lynx, and wolverine. Forest roads, especially unpaved ones, are a primary source of dirt that pollutes our waterways. This dirt (or sediment) kills native fish including bull trout, a species that is at risk of dying out.

Left: Forest road #1825, Mt. Hood National Forest; Upper right: fish in the South Fork of the Salmon River, Mt. Hood National Forest; Lower right: stream running through decommissioned road.

The Forest Service's road system currently has about 1/3 more miles than it needs: we would be far better off if we rewilded these roads. Tomorrow. With agency resources strained by smaller budgets and emergencies like this wildfire season, the road system is simply unaffordable. Lacking proper funding, the Forest Service is unable to properly maintain its roads. And when roads fail they often wipe out fish populations and restrict access for forest visitors like you and me.

Back in 1998 the Forest Service recognized its massive, under-funded road system might be a problem. Through rules published in 2001, the agency announced a paradigm shift away from being a road-building agency. Instead, the agency would focus on removing unneeded roads, restoring ecological processes, and minimizing the negative environmental impacts from the forest roads that are deemed essential. More than 15 years later, we might finally start to see the fruit of that sea change.

What is the travel analysis process?

By the end of September 2015, all National Forests must complete a travel analysis process. Essentially a "fall cleaning," each forest must review its road inventory and identify those roads that are unneeded. The end goal is to identify the "minimum road system" for each National Forest. This minimum road system must minimize negative environmental impacts and have an eye towards balancing the agency's finances based on realistic future budget estimates. The minimum road system will refocus the agency's priorities. It will also write the playbook for scaling back the Forest Service road network.

How can I get involved?

The Forest Service is not providing a formal comment period for the travel analysis process or travel analysis reports. Rather, the agency views the travel process as a blueprint for future site-specific travel decisions. The Forest Service therefore interprets this stage of planning as beyond the scope of agency action requiring an environmental analysis.

But that in no way means we must or should remain silent. Although the Forest Service is not formally accepting comments, many forests have informally requested public input. Anyone may, and should, submit comments or concerns to the Regional Forest Supervisor.

You can periodically review your favorite forest's website to see if its managers are soliciting input on a travel analysis planning interactive map. A simple Google search of the forest's name and the terms "travel analysis planning" should provide results. If the forest is requesting input, we recommend treating it as a formal comment period.

If you are looking for inspiration, take a look at the comments WildEarth Guardians sent to the Bitterroot National Forest. This letter urged the Bitterroot's managers to critically think about the roads they decided to keep. It also requested a more robust financial analysis. 

Limited funding was a major impetus for the travel analysis process. Yet many of the travel analyses that Guardians has reviewed so far seem to largely ignore lack of funding for road maintenance and insist on maintaining the status quo. We believe, and the agency's own internal memos agree, that forests must consider long-term funding. The status quo is not enough. The existing road system is not economically sustainable. It also is not environmentally sustainable.

Upper: Marlies Wierenga standing on deteriorating portion of National Forest Development road 25, Gifford Pinchot National Forest; Lower: Tryon Creek State Park.

End of the road

Ultimately, the Forest Service needs to identify an economically and ecologically sustainable road system for each National Forest. The travel analysis process is only the beginning. Forests will soon start to implement the travel plans through site-specific projects. This will be another opportunity to make your voice heard. 

Identifying the minimum roads we need on our public lands will not be easy. Cutting back never is. But reducing the human footprint on our National Forests will protect the natural resources and wildlife within, ensuring future generations get the chance to enjoy the wild as much as we do. Less really could mean more. It's up to us to make sure the Forest Service sees it that way, too.