As forest roads crumble, access to woods slips away
Seattle Times staff reporter
Deep in the woods near Granite Falls, Bob and Deb Roth have their little piece of heaven. But their road is going to hell.
The federal Forest Service road, the only route from their mountain home to the outside world, is sliding toward the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River. At times, it has gotten so bad that they worried the propane-delivery truck wouldn't make it.
"If it does go out," said Bob Roth, "I don't know what we would do."
The Forest Service offers sympathy, but little more. It helped smooth the road over the summer, but permanent repairs could cost $1 million, twice the annual road-repair budget for the entire Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
And there are plenty of other forest roads needing work. The Forest Service simply has too many roads and not enough money.
In national forests all over Washington, roads are crumbling, washing away or clogging with underbrush. In the Cascade Mountains alone, hundreds of miles of roads have essentially been abandoned. Routes that Honda Civics could cruise a few years ago will soon be passable only by pickups and SUVs.
In some cases, the Forest Service is intentionally neglecting roads or tearing them out. In others, it's fighting a losing battle as it tries to keep up with too many roads. On top of it all, residential subdivisions are being built along some of the same roads, straining them even further.
For hikers, campers and other users who have come to expect nearly unbridled access to the mountains of Washington, the situation means countless acres of backcountry could soon be much harder to reach. Forest managers are forced to think less ambitiously about the role of roads in the woods. Even for environmentalists, who usually have little love for roads cut through the wilderness, the neglect spells trouble for fragile streams and fish runs.
"I think it's a time bomb," said Kevin Garrity, a Sierra Club volunteer who works on road issues.
Maze through the forest
Over the past century, Washington was carved with a maze of forest roads — about 20,000 miles of them — built in the heyday of logging to get the timber out of the woods.
People followed. Cabins went up. Hikers could use the roads to drive to their favorite trails, or drivers could just soak in the scenery from behind the wheel. Now every road is someone's favorite, forest rangers say.
But when logging in national forests dried up in the early 1990s, so did the money to maintain the roads. Now there's an estimated $1.1 billion backlog on repairs to national forest roads in Washington and Oregon. Nationwide, the backlog is estimated at more than $10 billion.
In response, the Forest Service has intentionally dismantled some roads, or rangers quietly close them and let nature take over.
The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which encircles Mount St. Helens, has stopped regular maintenance on more than 400 miles of forest roads that once were kept smooth enough for passenger cars. In the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which reaches from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier, at least half of the roads now open to cars could be left to deteriorate, said Wayne Hamilton, the forest's chief roads manager.
"I'm contemplating that we will spend the money we have on the highest-traveled roads, and the other ones, when we run out of money, that's the end of the work," he said.
An obstacle for climbers
Last spring, rock climber Matt Perkins learned firsthand how the Forest Service's budget woes can threaten favorite roads.
He and some climbing buddies were making their first trip of the season to some beloved, glacier-polished cliffs high above Darrington when they drove up on a massive hole gouged from the road by a rockslide.
That had happened before, but then the road was quickly repaired. This time, the Forest Service decided the road would stay closed, with the cliffs lying miles beyond the damage.
"I think that would have been the end of that as a climbing area," said Perkins, a Seattle attorney.
The agency finally reversed course after a barrage of phone calls from climbers. But the Forest Service crew mustered only a quick, cheap repair.
Fish at risk
As many roads are neglected, the result can be deadly to fragile fish runs.
Old, rusty culverts collapse, and tons of debris wash into streams. Dirt roads leak sand into rivers, threatening to cover and suffocate fish eggs.
In the late 1990s, the state Department of Ecology asked the Forest Service to do something about its crumbling roads. In response, the Forest Service promised that by 2015 it would fix every road hurting rivers and streams.
Last March it finally admitted it couldn't keep that promise. Repairs could cost $310 million and take a century to complete, the agency said.
"It's just how it is," said Tom Erkert of the Forest Service, who oversees road maintenance on national forests in Washington and Oregon.
Ecology officials say they plan to talk to the state's congressional delegation to help find money, and they are considering legal action to make the Forest Service repair the roads. But they also acknowledge the situation the Forest Service is in.
"There is no new money out there. The question is who are you going to beg, borrow and steal from," said Stephen Bernath, a senior policy analyst with Ecology.
In the midst of the budget crunch, a new challenge is emerging just over the Cascades in Cle Elum, Kittitas County. Hundreds of homes are going up in forests once owned by timber companies. And many of them rely on Forest Service roads built to handle log trucks and the occasional hiker.
One of the new residents is Gary Flagler, an auto technician who commutes to Kirkland every day in a Mazda along Forest Service Road 3350, just outside Cle Elum. It's a teeth-chattering ride, with potholes and a washboard surface.
"There isn't anyone, probably, from Ellensburg to the top of the [Snoqualmie] Pass that hasn't at one time or another heard about Forest Service road 3350," Flagler said. "Its been a thorn in everybody's side."
Recently, a subdivision developer under pressure from the Forest Service paved part of the road — just up to the entrance of the development. But there are more homes going in farther up, near where Flagler lives.
The Forest Service has asked Kittitas County to take over a long stretch of the road and maintain it, but the county says it can't afford to do that.
That's a familiar situation for the Roths, whose road above the Stillaguamish River is falling apart.
The Forest Service has told the Roths and about 25 other landowners that the agency would gladly hand over the failing road. But the neighbors can't afford to keep it up, either.
So far Bob Roth has spent $30,000 buying a bulldozer to keep the road open. But "we can't say what's going to happen when the rains come," he said.
Even with all its woes, the Forest Service has been finding it difficult to shed some old habits. While many roads are all but abandoned, critics complain the agency is wasting money to keep open other roads it can't afford.
A good example is Road 26, a narrow, paved path through the foothills north of Mount St. Helens. After floods in 1996, the Forest Service spent $6 million to rebuild it, using money the Federal Highway Administration doles out to fix roads ruined by natural disasters. Last year, only two years after repairs were completed, the Forest Service realized it couldn't afford to maintain Road 26 once it fixed it.
"In retrospect, I'm not sure it [the repair] was the best thing to do," said Dean Lawrence, an engineering technician with the Forest Service.
Some national forests, including the Gifford Pinchot, are now beginning to envision a more modest future.
The Olympic National Forest plans to demolish 750 miles of roads, though it doesn't have the money to do it all yet. In the Skokomish River basin, a coalition of local governments, timber, tribal and environmental groups are advising the Forest Service how to best remove or repair the roads.
"It's an example of where there's actually progress being made. The roads are becoming less of a problem because of a concerted effort," said Mike Anderson of the Wilderness Society.
But the agency hasn't fully confronted the problem, critics charge.
Jim Furnish, second in command of the Forest Service during the Clinton administration, says many national forests still cling to unaffordable road systems. That raises the danger of environmental problems, because roads are neglected rather than properly dismantled, he said.
"If you just start spending less everywhere, then it's like the water starts building up behind the dam," he said. "Unless something changes, something bad is going to happen."
The Forest Service's Erkert said forest officials often fear public backlash if they try to let some roads decay.
He wonders whether the agency will come to grips with what it needs to do: travel back to before the heyday of logging, when most of the national forests weren't reachable by car.
"To me, it's almost like we have to go back to post-World War II era, in terms of what the transportation system looked like," he said.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company