State says feds should step up to the plate and fix Forest Service roads

The Daily World
By Jordan Kline - Daily World writer

The state Department of Ecology, environmental groups and tribal leaders say the problem is pandemic throughout Washington’s six national forests. They fear washouts and gradual erosion could flood rivers with sediment, harming fish habitat and water quality.

Now, they’re asking Congress for a tenfold increase in funding for the Forest Service to either fix or decommission the 22,000 miles of Forest Service roads in the state.

On April 19, spokesmen for the groups testified during a meeting of the Interior Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which is headed by Washington Congressman Norm Dicks. They have scheduled meetings with Western Washington representatives and staff from the offices of Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

“If Congress designates $30 million per year for the next decade, we can really fix this problem,” says Jay Manning, director of the state Department of Ecology. “We are delivering a shared message to Congress ¬ provide adequate funding to fix national forest roads and restore Washington’s watersheds.”

The budget shortfalls began when logging on National Forest land was effectively ended in the 1990s. Road maintenance was financed primarily from National Forest Service timber sales, and when logging decreased by 90 percent in the wake of the spotted owl set-asides, so did funding.

“We had a road system that was designed for 250 million board feet timber harvest, and we couldn’t sustain that with the introduction of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994,” said Karl Denison, a spokesman for the Olympic National Forest. “Now, the timber harvest is under 20 million board feet per year.”

If road work began today, it would take $300 million to bring Washington’s national forests into compliance with an agreement the Forest Service signed with Ecology in 2000, according to Forest Service estimates. That agreement said the roads would meet Ecology’s standards by 2016.

The Forest Service agrees that funding is inadequate, but agency leaders say their hands are tied until more money comes in from the federal government.

The current federal budget allocates only $3 million for road maintenance, and Ecology says prolonged underfunding has created a maintenance backlog that grows by at least $8 million per year.

Gov. Chris Gregoire is getting involved, too. “The backlog of failing National Forest roads in Washington grows daily,” she said in a press release. “Congress has an opportunity, and an obligation, to act now and provide adequate funding. The longer we wait, the more expensive the cure for our ailing watersheds and salmon habitats on National Forest lands.”

Inside the Olympic National Forest, approximately 950 miles of Forest Service roads are classified as having a high risk to damage aquatic habitat. The Forest Service is planning to decommission 720 of those miles, but a backlog of maintenance still remains on other roads.

Culverts and pipes built decades ago are failing or clogging, creating dams that lead to massive washouts. Sediment from these washouts is carried into rivers and streams, where it muddies the water and harms fish and their eggs.

Other roads have deteriorated gradually, and rainwater brings sediment into high-altitude streams where the watersheds begin. Erosion problems at the headwaters of a stream can have drastic effects on the rest of the watershed.

Denison said the Olympic Forest rangers aren’t standing by doing nothing for lack of initiative. They simply don’t have the money. They’ve had to apply for scattered federal grants to get extra dollars.

“We’ve been receiving only about a third of what we need, about $800,000,” the forest spokesman said. “All in all, there’s a grand total of about $70 million worth of backlogged projects that we need done before 2016.”

They could decommission the roads, but returning them to their natural state costs a lot of money, too.

Environmentalists want the wilderness roads repaired as well.

“Regardless of one’s beliefs about logging, the point is we cannot have these roads fall apart,” said Bonnie Phillips, the executive director of the Olympic Forest Coalition. “The longer we have these in disrepair the more trouble we’re going to have.”