Forest roads and American infrastructure

Forest roads on National Forest System (NFS) lands are an essential part of America’s infrastructure, providing forest products, open space, wildlife habitat, clean water and air, and more.

They provide motorized access into our federally-owned forests, enabling millions of Americans to enjoy our public lands.  Forest roads facilitate search and rescue operations, and enable firefighters to quickly and safely suppress wildfires before they burn out of control.

Forest roads are an essential component of active forest management. Historically many miles of NFS roads were built and maintained by the timber industry.  And with the decline of timber harvesting on federal lands, our network of National Forest System roads is crumbling.  This is due to the lack of funding, neglect, past policy decisions, environmental litigation and other factors.

It’s estimated the NFS has 380,000 miles of roads in its network, but many of the roads are no longer usable. Since 1991, the Forest Service has decommissioned an average of 2,000 miles of roads per year.  The movement to dismantle this network accelerated with the 2001 Roadless Rule that was implemented at the end of President Bill Clinton’s presidency. The rule established prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands.  With at least 80 million acres of NFS land at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfire, we need a strong and reliable network of forest roads more than ever.

Forest roads are essential to life in rural America, and those living near national forests understand that we are losing, not gaining, access on these public lands. The U.S. Forest Service’s deferred maintenance backlog exceeds $5 billion, much of it tied to the forest road network. It’s estimated less than 20 percent of forest roads are fully maintained, and so far, the U.S. Congress has refused to reinvest in our forest road network in a meaningful way.

This could change as the Federal Forest Resource Coalition and others are working to include forests and access roads in federal infrastructure legislation intended to improve America’s roads and bridges.  Christopher Topik, director of the forest conservation program at The Nature Conservancy recently told E&E News that including forests as “green infrastructure” “helps us have resilient forests, to treat that as well as we treat a highway.”

Any effort to save our forest road network will be opposed by those who do not want human intervention in our forests.  It is true that past road building practices caused damage to landscapes and waterways, but science and road-building technology have improved significantly.

In 2016, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency recognized additional regulations were not needed to protect water quality and maintain roads on the National Forests. The EPA issued a notice pointing out that “state, federal, regional, tribal government, and private sector programs already exist nationwide to address water quality problems caused by discharged from forest roads.”

Forest roads help assure healthy forests, among many benefits. The time for reinvestment is now.

Forest roads and American infrastructure