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.

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