A U.S. Forest Service cleanup program repaired or removed more than 1,000 of roads and trails in Montana over a recent five-year period. Now its advocates worry a new budgeting process could squelch that momentum.
“The Legacy Roads and Trails program was one of the most successful Forest Service programs that achieves the goals it set out to do,” said Adam Rissien of Wildlands CPR, a watershed restoration group based in Missoula. “It provided jobs and fixed a lot of problems in Montana.”
But that momentum could be lost under a new budgeting system the Forest Service let some of its regions try. Missoula-headquartered Region 1 is one of the pilot sites for Integrated Resource Restoration budgeting, which combines money from five task-related budget pools into single buckets defined by landscapes or watersheds.
Under the old system, for example, the Lolo National Forest paid for projects from line items such as timber, wildlife habitat, fisheries, hazardous fuels reduction and vegetation management. So a decaying forest road dumping silt into a creek might get fixed with money from the fisheries account.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Legacy Roads and Trails program aimed dollars directly at transportation problems that hurt water quality. Wildlands CPR and The Wilderness Society collaborated on a study of its accomplishments. In Montana, the program obliterated 640 miles of obsolete road, improved another 235 miles of usable road, and upgraded 178 miles of trail. It also built or repaired 17 bridges and improved 140 culverts. The whole deal provided between 72 and 115 jobs a year and $19.2 million in spending.
Montana has 31,836 miles of Forest Service roads. Just 14.1 percent of that – 4,495 miles – was maintained in 2011.
Nationwide, the road program spent $270 million to decommission 4,510 miles of unneeded roads, improve 12,053 miles, restore fish passage at 823 sites, upgrade 3,215 miles of trail and reduce annual road maintenance costs by about $3 million a year, according to the groups’ analysis. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell personally praised the report.
The new Integrated Resource Restoration system takes that road and trail money and combines it with other line items. Forest supervisors have discretion to draw from all the pools to fix the biggest problems on their to-do lists. And each forest has chosen two watersheds to be the top priority project areas.
“Forests weren’t given specific ways of producing them,” said Region 1 hydrologist Bruce Sims. “Supervisors just take their priorities and figure out what the top two priority watersheds might be. They’re also supposed to be ones that they could easily accomplish in the next five years, instead of the shotgun approach where you do a little bit everywhere.”
In the Lolo National Forest, those two watersheds are the 28,098-acre Cashe Creek area and 11,576 acres around West Fork Fishtrap Creek. The whole forest comprises 2 million acres.
“The LRT was a well-rounded program, small and scrappy and nimble, that did good work,” said Josh Hicks of The Wilderness Society. “We’re concerned that if its money goes into IRR, and the priorities don’t overlap, it’ll get lost.”
The concern moved to a higher level last week, when the Obama administration called for expanding the IRR budgeting system nationwide. Currently only Forest Service regions 1, 3 and 4 are using the method.
Region 1 renewable resources Director Gene DeGayner said while the priority areas may dominate a forest’s spending, supervisors are supposed to keep their eyes on the whole of their territory.
“Our roads budget has been hurting,” DeGayner said of the national allocation process. “But we still get lot of demand for decommissioning, whether for bull trout or grizzly habitat or to provide elk security cover. It’s a growth industry for us.”
And the to-do list is also supposed to be more responsive to local residents’ needs.
“It gets to float based on local community support and what the collaboratives are clamoring for,” DeGayner said. “Then it’s up to each forest supervisor. They could do a lot more roadwork, or it may not be the highest priority. It’s competing with aquatic pests and fuels activity and all those other things.”