Specific problems attributed to Forest Service roads include:
Oversized road network
There is a legacy of old timber roads running across Forest Service (FS) lands. In Washington State alone there are approximately 22,000 miles of FS system roads – over three times the miles of state, interstate and U.S. highways combined. This network is too large for current management needs and budgets.
Roads were initially built decades ago to access timber harvest sites. They were often poorly located – along streams – and poorly built –since they were not expected to last. These roads start to degrade within five to seven years, which means that the current system is falling apart rapidly. The Forest Service has been challenged to maintain all of the road miles.
Photo: USFS, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Little funding for maintenance and improvements
Reduced timber harvests has led to less revenue for maintenance coupled with prolonged underfunding has created a $300 million backlog of work in Washington State (estimated in 2005). Only 12-15% of the road system can be maintained with today's funds. The national backlog of work is estimated to range from $4.5 billion to $8.4 billion—a price tag that is increasing annually.
Chart: USFS Region 6 data for both WA and OR. Dollars are in thousands.
Reduced access to public lands
Failing roads jeopardize recreational opportunities for hunters, hikers, boaters and anglers who count on reliable access to Forest Service lands. Visitor use of national forest lands continues to increase while the quality of the road system continues to degrade. In 2010, national forests hosted 170 million visitors, yet access to key areas is often hampered when washouts occur or maintenance is not performed.
Photo: USFS, Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Water quality problems
Sediment-laden runoff, from deteriorating roads, pours into streams, changing stream flow dynamics and making them wider, shallower and more susceptible to warming by the sun. Muddy water created by sediment delivered from failing and washed-out roads harms dwindling runs of threatened and endangered salmon that need cold, clear water to thrive and reproduce. Water with excess fine sediment smothers fish eggs when silt settles into clean gravel beds and also harms the gills of salmon and trout. Sediment decreases drinking water quality and increases the need for expensive community water filtration systems.
Roads indirectly or directly lead to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, over-trapping, snag reduction, down log reduction, negative edge effects, movement barriers, displacement or avoidance, and harassment or disturbance at specific use sites. Undersized culverts limit access to critical fish habitat.
In addition to the above listed problems, climate change also exacerbates the issue. Climate change effects include greater variability in the volume and timing of precipitation, causing more flooding and droughts. Unless our forest watersheds’ resilience to storms is increased, the price tag for fixing these sub-standard roads will continue to increase. The situation continues to deteriorate yearly as evidenced by the storm in 2011 leaving an estimated $7 million in storm damage in Washington state.
Photo: USFS, Colville NF, Culvert blocking access to fish habitat prior to replacement.