Friday, August 18, 2017

“It’s always an adventure…”

This is how Shiloh characterized our dilemma as our caravan of four cars came to a halt.  We were stopped in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (WA) by a sinkhole on the dirt road we were driving.

“Looks like our survey work starts here” he said as our group of 11 volunteers (and 3 dogs) stepped out of our cars and gathered around the sinkhole.

It was a sunny warm day in this forested part of Southwest Washington.  We didn’t know each other but we all shared a desire to be outside doing something for the public lands we enjoy.  But this adventure had a unique focus….we were going to collect information on some little used forest roads.  With over 4,000 miles of roads on this forest alone, Forest Service staff simply can’t keep track of all the road problems.

We broke into 4 teams and Shiloh showed us on iPads what information to record.  We were looking for obvious problems – like the sinkhole – but we were also looking for the “ticking time bombs”.  These are the culverts that usually are not visible because they run underneath the road.  Culverts are important to move water from one side of the road to the other but if they plug up – it’s like a cork as the water builds up and finally explodes the culvert and road apart.  Not only does this create an expensive problem to fix, but people can’t use the road (often for years) and the downhill river or creek gets polluted with too much road material (dirt, sand, fill).

In our team, Paul quickly became the culvert sleuth.  He scampered down roadsides, moved ferns away, peered under leaves from salmonberry bushes and found culverts that were partially buried from winter weather and lack of maintenance.  “30% blocked” would come echoing out of the culvert as Paul estimated what he saw.  We’d measure the road width, the diameter of the culvert and eyeball how much dirt/fill was on top of the culvert.  Some looked good but many needed to be fixed.

But with only about $980,000 per year for road maintenance, tough decisions need to be made. Should the Forest Service prioritize the roads that most people use?  Should they prioritize roads for logging trucks?  What about the old roads that damage salmon or slash through protective corridors for elk, bear, cougar and the elusive pine marten?  What about those tens of thousands of hidden culverts?

Several hours later we gathered again at our vehicles satisfied that we had contributed important data.  “How many miles did we survey today?” I asked Shiloh before heading out. 

“3.1 miles” he said.  “Only 3,997 more to go.”

Shiloh Halsey is Conservation Science Director at Cascade Forest Conservancy, one of the many partner organizations that WildEarth Guardians works with.

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