Funding to repair Forest Service roads difficult to come by

The Olympian, Les Blumenthal

WASHINGTON — Back 20 years or more ago, when gear jammers were high balling out of the Cascades with their loads of old growth, jake-breaking around curves with a throaty “blap, blap, blap,” the U.S. Forest Service built 22,000 miles of logging roads in Washington state.

Along with salmon, orcas, Lewis and Clark, and Mount St. Helens, those roads are part of the lore of the Northwest and a reminder of a way of life that has mostly disappeared. But that legacy of timber country is now creating problems.

With the timber harvest on federal lands barely a trickle of what it was during the peak of the late 1980s, state officials say the logging roads are deteriorating because of Forest Service neglect and threatening to undo efforts to restore salmon runs, particularly in the rivers and streams flowing into Puget Sound.

The state has asked Congress to provide $300 million over the next 10 years to maintain or remove the Forest Service roads. And though lawmakers are sympathetic, the federal budget is tight.

Even so, as Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said at a recent hearing, “If we do not fix our roads, we will have to drink our roads — after they slide into our streams.”

Nationwide, there are roughly 380,000 miles of roads in the national forests. The Forest Service estimates there is a $4 billion maintenance backlog on the roads. At the same time, Dicks said the Bush administration has proposed a 31 percent cut in the Forest Service’s road maintenance budget. The roads were built and maintained using money generated by timber sales. But as logging has declined, so has available funding.

Prior to the protection of the northern spotted owl and other threatened and endangered species in the region’s old-growth forests, nearly 6 billion board-feet of timber was being logged annually in Washington and Oregon. Today, less than half a billion board-feet is cut, though the Bush administration would like to see that level doubled.

State officials say the roads, especially in the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie and Olympic national forests, are falling apart and creating erosion and runoff that is smothering salmon spawning habitat with sediment and raising water temperatures above levels the fish can tolerate. “It’s a road system built for resource extraction that is no longer needed,” state Department of Ecology senior policy analyst Steve Bernath said. “If you don’t maintain them, this will be only a growing problem over the years.”

Bernath said the problem was especially acute because many of the roads were at the top of important salmon watersheds along Puget Sound. Their deterioration along with blocked and broken culverts have already caused problems downstream.

About two-thirds of the roads in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Olympic forests need work, Bernath estimated, adding that the Forest Service is only spending about $3 million a year on road maintenance in the state while the backlog of deferred maintenance grows by $8 million a year.

“They are only going to fund 15,000 miles of road maintenance nationwide, and we have 22,000 miles of roads in Washington state alone,” he said.

In 2000, the Forest Service signed an agreement with the state that required it to close roads or fix them by 2015. Five years later, the Forest Service admitted it couldn’t make that deadline.

The state, along with private landowners, have a 2016 deadline to fix their roads.

McClatchy reporter David Whitney contributed to this report.