Forest Service program revitalizes watersheds, jolts local economies

The White River National Forest is arguably Colorado’s flagship national forest.

With a whopping 9.6 million visits annually, more than any national park or national forest in the country, the forest is treasured for its world-class skiing, hiking and other recreational opportunities. Its premier water resources, which include thousands of miles of perennial streams and thousands of acres of lakes and riparian areas, are also a remarkable Colorado treasure.

But every year, more and more of the forest’s streams and rivers — which help supply drinking water to many Coloradans — face increasing danger from thousands of miles of unmaintained and eroding roads.

Nearly 2,300 miles of motorized routes criss-cross the forest and another 1,095 miles of unauthorized, user-created routes have been cut through the area. If lined up end to end, these routes could take a person from Grand Junction to Washington, D.C. and back.

While a core road system is critical for recreational access and forest management, many of these roads are old and unused mineral exploration and logging routes leftover from a bygone era of timber and mineral extraction. Going unmaintained for years, these decaying roads are dumping massive amounts of sediment runoff into rivers and streams like the Roaring Fork, Eagle and White Rivers — tributaries of the Colorado River.

That sediment can suffocate cutthroat trout and other native fish, and it is gradually filling reservoirs that supply drinking water to communities across Colorado.

Additionally, those roads impair prime habitat for elk, deer and other popular wildlife, while also degrading backcountry lands that could otherwise provide quietude and remote getaways.

The problem with these old and unneeded roads isn’t just limited to the White River National Forest. It’s a problem that land managers at nearly every national forest across the country are facing. Nationwide, the U.S. Forest Service has a multibillion-dollar backlog in uncompleted road maintenance. According to a 2004 report by Taxpayers for Common Sense, $232 million of this backlog is attributed to national forests in Colorado alone.

Yet, little resources are being allocated to address this massive problem. That means more culverts are failing and roads falling apart, resulting in constant runoff choking our streams and creeks.

To stop the damage, heal the forest and restore water quality, the Forest Service needs to decommission these unneeded and unauthorized roads and perform emergency critical maintenance on the important ones.

The Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative, a federal funding source created by Congress in 2008, is the right tool for the job.

In the last two years, the initiative has already allocated nearly $5.9 million to projects in Colorado, enhancing more than 100 miles of streams, improving about 1,650 acres of habitat and decommissioning more than 325 miles of unauthorized and unneeded Forest Service roads.

On the Routt National Forest, for example, the Forest Service has used Legacy Roads and Trails funds to restore four miles of aquatic habitat by improving stream flow and reducing erosion, which was accomplished by simply replacing two failing culverts.

Funding from this initiative could provide the White River Forest with the critical resources to restore habitat and prevent even more sediment from bleeding into our rivers by decommissioning those roads that were identified as being unneeded as a part of the nearly completed travel plan.

On top of its ecological benefits, the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative is also strengthening local economies and helping unemployed Americans get back on their feet. A recent University of Oregon study estimates that between 13 and 29 jobs are created or retained and more than $2.1 million in economic activity is generated for every $1 million invested in watershed restoration. Other economic studies have produced similar findings.

The Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative and its watershed restoration efforts are a smart federal investment that will protect our water, create high-wage and high-skill jobs in rural communities and save billions of dollars in the future.

Yet, despite its success, the Obama administration has requested $50 million for the initiative in its 2011 budget — down from the $90 million approved last year. That’s not enough to address the urgent road decommissioning, emergency stabilization, and watershed protection needs resulting from the 375,000-mile network of national forest roads.

To address the urgent road decommissioning, emergency stabilization and watershed protection needs on our nation’s forests, Congress should fund the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative at $120 million next year.

The Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative is a win for Colorado’s forests and a win for Colorado’s economy.

Bryan Martin is director of conservation for the Colorado Mountain Club. He lives in Golden.


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