Road decommissioning in the Collawash River Watershed

Mt. Hood National Forest proposes to decommission 255 miles of unneeded and deteriorating roads in the Collawash River Watershed. The proper decommissioning of these roads will improve habitat in the area’s salmon bearing streams, connectivity for terrestrial wildlife, and drinking water quality. The Collawash Road Decommissioning project would decommission 58 percent of the roads in a watershed with a history of heavy logging and road building.

Bark is delighted that Mt. Hood National Forest has responded to almost five years of our insistence that they deal with their crumbling road network with this proposal. The Forest Service has a range of options when it comes to decommissioning roads. Roads can be “obliterated:” literally taken off the landscape and re-contoured so that in a matter of years the roadway would be virtually invisible on the ground. The other end of the spectrum is “passive” road decommissioning which typically involves obliterating the first eighth of a mile of the road and also removing major features like culverts, but essentially leaving the road on the landscape.

The Forest Service can also “actively” decommission roads without fully obliterating them. Examples include grinding pavement or decompacting the road surface. Passive road decommissioning is the cheapest option, but allows roads to remain as significant scars on the landscape.

Road decommissioning isn’t just good for fish and wildlife: it can also improve safe access for recreationists. How? The Forest Service can’t afford to maintain its vast and aging road network: Mt. Hood contains almost 4,000 miles of roads. Hundreds of miles of these roads are no longer suitable for passenger cars and are literally crumbling into streams. Roads regularly blow out during major storms, especially in high earth flow areas like the Collawash Watershed. In the past few years blow outs have blocked access to major recreation destinations like Ramona Falls and the Bull of the Woods Wilderness for months at a time. By decommissioning unnecessary roads, the Forest Service will be able to invest its limited road maintenance funding into keeping the major roads we use to access our favorite places in the Forest open and safe. In addition, Bark and our friends in the recreation community have advocated for road-to-trail conversions in the Collawash, Zigzag, and White River Watersheds.

Unfortunately the Forest Service’s timber program continues to hinder work by other branches of the agency that will restore wildlife habitat and improve recreation access. The Collawash Road Decommissioning and Jazz Timber Sale projects are a perfect example of this relationship. Many of the roads included in the Road Decommissioning will not be decommissioned until the Forest Service has used them for the Jazz Timber Sale and other anticipated logging projects in the next five to ten years – delaying improvements in salmon habitat, drinking water quality, and recreation access. After the decommissioning is accomplished, when the Forest Service wants to log the forest again in areas accessible only from these decommissioned roads, it plans on temporarily rebuilding the road. This is a waste of taxpayer money that will negate many of the environmental benefits of the original decommissioning. Bark knows to expect this because the Forest Service’s timber program has already proposed a project that features this backward practice. The Jazz Timber Sale planned for the Collawash Watershed includes the reopening of several obliterated and passively decommissioned roads. Bark is deeply concerned that the Forest Service will improperly consider ease of access for future logging projects, rather than watershed restoration, when deciding whether to passively decommission or obliterate roads.