The road system on national forest lands is arguably the single largest source, direct and indirect, of environmental damage to the surrounding ecosystem. Roads fragment habitat, create barriers for fish, lead to increased sedimentation in streams, and increase human impact on plant and animal communities. The forest road system in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (GPNF) is in need of review. The GPNF has over 4,000 miles of system road (enough to go to Texas and half way back). Many of these roads were built between the years of 1950-1990, primarily for the heavy timber harvesting of the era. Since that time, however, needs for and uses of the system have shifted dramatically as timber harvest has declined considerably and other uses, such as recreation, have grown. Road restoration is an important step in improving water quality, restoring habitat for both fish and wildlife, creating enhanced opportunities for experiencing wild lands and pristine forests, lessening the spread of invasive plant species, and supporting public access to key recreation areas.
Over the last few years, the Cascade Forest Conservancy has conducted on-the-ground road surveys, carried out a forest-wide GIS analysis, and conducted a public opinion survey to capture important information about the use and impact of roads in the forest. We have also worked to increase funding for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program to help the Forest Service maintain necessary roads, reclaim unnecessary or problem roads, and repair trails, culverts, bridges, and stream crossings. We are continuing our efforts to collect on-the-ground data on the status of roads and culverts, and we will continue our work to promote road restoration in the GPNF, including collaborative projects to tackle large road restoration issues. To learn more about our past collaborative road restoration projects, follow these links: Clear Creek Road Decommissioning, Plantation Restoration Project and Cave Bear Restoration Project.
In July 2015, we submitted a comment letter to the Forest Service concerning the recently published draft of the Travel Analysis Plan. The draft plan brings back an antiquated model of timber-focused forest planning, and it suggests keeping an unnecessarily large amount of roads active on the system for timber extraction using a budget dependent on increasing timber harvests. Our intent is to encourage the Forest Service to consider a more sustainable road restoration plan and to work to reduce the amount of degrading road miles in our national forest. This is a great time to set a course for a more sustainable and ecologically-sound road system.
A recent management plan of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest has proposed road restoration in the Upper Lewis River area, northeast of Indian Heaven Wilderness and south of the Dark Divide. The Upper Lewis River Roads Pilot Project is a road restoration plan to repair degraded roads, block unclassified roads, and close or decommission about 17 miles of road. The work of our road survey volunteers (carried out in 2014, 2015, and 2016) was instrumental in helping identify roads that were impacting aquatic habitat and prioritizing which roads were to be considered for closure. And, the plan has outlined steps to properly block, using large earthen berms or other closure methods, the unclassified routes that have been illegally re-opened through OHV use and the circumventing of blockades. These unclassified roads were documented and mapped by volunteers during our road surveys in 2015 and 2016.
We are glad to report that the draft decision notice was published on January 12, 2017 and includes closing 17.3 miles of roads and blocking many of the unclassified roads that wind through the project area. We are glad to see this partnership actively advancing meaningful restoration and habitat improvement in the forest, for the benefit of both terrestrial wildlife and aquatic species impacted by habitat fragmentation and erosion. Further, by decreasing the amount of roads on this large road network, the agency can more effectively update and maintain the roads that are needed and important, and which cause expensive repercussions when they fail or wash out during high flow events.
Our official comment letter can be found here, our 2016 road survey report can be found here, and the Forest Service’s draft decision can be found here. We hope to see similar stand-alone road restoration projects like this in the future; these types of steps are critical for restoring important habitat areas and improving aquatic ecosystems in the forest.
For more detail on the Draft Decision of the Upper Lewis Roads Project, see the summary list below, as stated in the decision document.
The decision includes:
We have also recently commented on another roads project occurring in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a plan to rehabilitate several roads that were impacted during the heavy stream flows of winter 2015-2016. These comments, which can be viewed here, were submitted along with WildEarth Guardians and Washington Trails Association.
The road surveys of the Cascade Forest Conservancy bring an important conservation focus to roads management and the Travel Analysis planning of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. On-the-ground road surveys pinpoint restoration needs by locating culverts that are blocking fish passage, measuring erosion and sedimentation effects, highlighting areas of misuse, and helping map the existence of roads that are not presently part ecological plans or GPNF road maps.
Click here to see our 2015 Road Survey Report outlining the results and recommendations from last year’s field efforts.
If you’d like to take part in upcoming field surveys, contact Shiloh to inquire about trips and summer plans. Road surveys are a great way to visit new areas of the forest while helping with the conservation and restoration of the forest ecosystem.
In an effort to add valuable ecological data to the Travel Analysis planning process and the planning of road restoration opportunities in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, we have undertaken the work of overseeing the completion of a forest-wide GIS roads analysis and transferring this information to the Forest Service for incorporation into the planning process. Based on variables such as slope, habitat overlap, area designations, stream intersections, and sedimentation, this analysis highlights which roads are likely to have the greatest impacts on the National Forest. The results can serve as a filter to help the agency in determining priority roads for repair, closing, or decommissioning during the Travel Analysis process and for future management projects.
The GIS analysis employed the use of the RoadRight model, which is a decision support system that uses social and ecological criteria to prioritize opportunities for road restoration in national forests. It is intended to be science-based, simple, transparent, flexible, and scalable. In 2013, we contracted Bird’s Eye GIS to run the RoadRight model to capture and document an important perspective on the road network of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Results of this analysis have been organized into relevant and useable tables with restoration priority ranked according to five different variables: in-stream sedimentation index, stream crossing index, important areas designation index, isolation index, and a combined risk measure. These tables and the related maps have been compiled in our RoadRight Analysis Report, presented to agency representatives, and transferred to planning specialists.
In partnership with a coalition called the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative, the Conservancy is working to increase federal funding to support road-related restoration in our national forests. The coalition was instrumental in establishing the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program (LRT) in 2008 and works to increase federal funding for the program annually. Between 2008 and 2014, over $23 million of LRT funding was invested on national forest lands in Washington State to address road-related problems through maintenance, repair, and reclamation of forest roads and culverts. During the first seven years of the program, 229 miles of deteriorating roads were decommissioned, 2,014 miles of road were maintained or improved, 12 bridges were constructed or reconstructed, 36 culverts were replaced or repaired to improve fish passage, and 104 miles of trail were maintained or improved in Washington State.
The Conservancy is also working to ensure sufficient LRT program funding is directed to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. We work closely with the Forest Service to identify priority road restoration projects that can be funded through the LRT program and retained receipts.