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.


  1. It's automobiles that use the roads in our forests that harm the environment. If they run a tram through forests instead of letting people drive their cars it'd be much better for the forests. For example, there should be trams running through the Great Smoky Mountains so that visitors can park their cars on the outer rim of the forest and hop a tram through the woods. One tram carrying up to five carloads of passengers causes much less pollution than the cars they'd drive bumper to bumper.

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