Reports Show Roads Maintenance, Funding Challenges for National Forest
WTA, along with over 20 other recreation groups and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest have released reports illustrating public use of roads to forest trails.
Two new reports, released together late last year, may help guide some tough decisions for sustainable road management within Washington's largest and most popular National Forest.
The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in partnership with Washington Trails Association, The Wilderness Society and more than 20 other recreation groups, have released a Sustainable Roads Public Engagement Report. The product of two years of work, it details how the public uses roads and where they go on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The report's data was gathered from an online survey and multiple community meetings.
Simultaneously, National Forest Service officials released the . The report shows that the Forest Service is committed to providing access to high-quality recreation opportunities even in lean times. The report identifies opportunities for cost reduction in road maintenance, the need to maintain access to trails and explores the implications of current budget trends.
WTA has long been concerned about dwindling funds for the nation's forests, and the road system within the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is currently too large to be sustainable. WTA is hopeful the future road system can be ecologically and financially sustainable while maintaining access to ample recreation opportunities.
Hikers, trail enthusiasts say they use and value road access in the forest
Visitor numbers have increased each year along with Puget Sound's population boom, but increased visitation doesn't always translate to increased funding.
The Forest Service states they will, "seek additional funding for road maintenance through regular appropriations."
However, recent trends in funding for public lands show an uphill battle for all land managers. For example, in 2013, the forest's $400,000 budget was an almost 50 percent decrease from 2011.
Currently, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest only has funding to maintain about 25 percent of its 2,500 mile road system.
The citizen-generated report echoes the Forest Service's funding concerns, but it also includes hopeful findings like:
- The public uses the road system in a variety of ways—from popular access routes to recreational hotspots to simply enjoying the natural environment and the solitude and peace the forest provides.
- The public, especially those who live close to the National Forest, is intensely passionate about access to National Forest lands, and has concerns about how a reduced road system would impact recreational opportunities and management needs.
- Volunteers are motivated to help the Forest Service maintain its road system and participate in restoration efforts.
The public engagement report also showed that some of the highest-use roads are in the northern half of the forest. They include roads that lead to heavily-trafficked recreation destinations like Twin Lakes and Hannegan Pass, North Fork Sauk, Artist Point, and Heliotrope Ridge, among others. In the public meetings and in an online survey, participants were given the opportunity to identify roads they use to access destinations within the forest. A total of 59 percent of roads, about 1,500 miles, were identified as important to two or more participants.
A majority of people indicated that they visit the forest for hiking, strenuous recreation like backpacking or for observing nature.
Federal budget offers limited forest road funds
The report recommends reducing maintenance levels on up to 64 percent of roads in the forest. The specifics of which roads will fall into this category and to which standard they will be maintained in the future will be decided during local planning efforts.
It would take an estimated $82 million to fund all deferred maintenance on roads within the forest.
“The Sustainable Roads Strategy is not a decision document,” Forest spokesperson Stacy O'Toole said. “It is a guide that will inform future decisions on where and how the Forest Service invests resources on building new roads, managing current roads or decommissioning old roads.”
The plan advises against creating any new roads, focusing on recommendations to decommission seldom-used or severely damaged roads while repairing and maintaining those that offer specific public benefits.
Unmaintained roads pose major challenges for the agency, recreationists, and the environment. They are more vulnerable to washouts from storms and can lead to degraded soil, water, and habitat conditions.
Roads could be converted to trails, none identified yet
As the Forest Service seeks to be more strategic with its maintenance dollars, decommissioning of roads could mean converting some into hiking, biking or equestrian trails, though the specifics are yet to be decided.
The Forest Service report identifies 783 road miles that could be decommissioned, but the the data listed within the report is simply a recommendation. Roads have not yet been selected for action. The public will have opportunities in the coming year to comment on any action items generated from the plan.
WTA is currently analyzing the report, evaluating the roads recommended for decommissioning and the reduction of maintenance levels on some roads to ensure reducing maintenance levels will not prevent some people from accessing trails.
- Read more about the plan at the Everett Herald
- The complete report can be read on the Forest Service website
- Read the public engagement companion report authored by WTA, The Wilderness Society, United States Forest Service, Portland State University along with input from the outdoor recreation and conservation communities
- Up-to-date info on next steps in the forest