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National Forest Watersheds, Imperiled Wildlife, Rural Communities Poised for a Much-Needed Boost

Proposed program to reduce water quality impacts from aging infrastructure and climate change
Cold, clean streams are prime habitat for the  threatened bull trout, whose historic range has shrunk by half.

Cold, clean streams are prime habitat for the threatened bull trout, whose historic range has shrunk by half.

Joel Sartore / National Geographic Stock / U.S. FWS
June 26, 2020
Washington, D.C. —

The U.S. House of Representatives announced this week the Moving Forward Act, designed to improve green infrastructure and reduce climate impacts. The Act includes a provision called the “The Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program.” Incorporated from legislation previously introduced by U.S. Representatives Kim Schrier (WA-08) and Derek Kilmer (WA-06), this much-needed program will address aging and obsolete Forest Service transportation infrastructure to improve fish migration, water quality, imperiled species habitat, and future resilience to storms.

The U.S. Forest Service manages a massive road and trail system on behalf of the American public, including more than 370,000 miles of roads, 159,000 miles of trails, hundreds of thousands of culverts and more than 13,000 bridges. Twice as many miles as the national highway system, the Forest Service road system demands considerably more maintenance attention than current funding allows and every year the deferred maintenance backlog grows. The Forest Service currently reports an astounding $3.2 billion road maintenance backlog.

In addition to the official road system, the National Forests are haunted by a ghost system of tens of thousands of miles of abandoned and obsolete roads, a legacy of the big timber era.

The implications of decaying and abandoned infrastructure are severe. Crumbling roads bleed sediment into rivers, creeks, and wetlands endangering fish and other aquatic wildlife. Failing and undersized culverts block fish migration crucial for the long-term survival of salmon and other highly valued fish. Fragmented habitat impacts the health of imperiled species and big game.

“Confronting the problem of obsolete and decaying roads and trails will help wildlife, taxpayers, and the 66 million Americans who rely on our National Forests for clean drinking water. Authorization of the U.S. Forest Service’s legacy roads and trails program has been a long time in the making and is a victory for people who love the outdoors and threatened and endangered species. Thank you to Rep. Kim Schrier for her leadership in introducing legislation that is so important for endangered fish and wildlife,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO and president, Defenders of Wildlife.

The Legacy Roads and Trails program will benefit local communities and imperiled wildlife. The program will storm-proof roads and trails so that they can withstand more intense storms anticipated with climate change without polluting waterways. Obsolete roads will be decommissioned to preclude harmful effects to wildlife and the environment. Undersized and blocked culverts will be removed or expanded to allow fish to migrate unimpeded.

“The Forest Service not only has a responsibility to uphold Clean Water Act standards set by the states, but also for the 3,400 communities that rely on national forests as drinking water sources,” said Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians. “This program gives the Forest Service a real tool to meet this responsibility. We thank Representatives Schrier and Kilmer for leading this effort to protect clean water.”

Increased funding to address severely damaged fish and wildlife habitat in the national forests and grasslands will provide jobs to rural communities that are struggling to cope with the current economic recession. Most of the funding in the program goes directly to on-the-ground work supporting local contractors and specialists. Heavy-equipment operators are particularly well poised to benefit from the program.

“Representative Schrier’s Legacy Roads and Trails bill provides a smart solution to reduce the harmful impacts of national forest roads on water quality and fish, while also providing much-needed jobs and economic benefits to rural communities,” said Megan Birzell, Washington state director for The Wilderness Society.

“Having seen the positive results in Washington State, Representatives Kilmer and Schrier understand why this program is so critical for forests across the country,” said Tom Uniack, executive director for Washington Wild. “We thank them for taking a leadership role in Congress supporting clean water, salmon habitat, and local jobs.”

The Legacy Roads and Trails program, initially established in 2008 (and subsequently defunded in 2018), proved to be an effective, no-waste program with demonstrated results. Over its first 10 years, the program provided employment for 697 – 1,115 Americans annually; made urgent repairs to over 18,000 miles of roads and 5,000 miles of trails; improved over 1,000 stream crossings for fish passage; improved 137 bridges for safety; and reclaimed 7,000 miles of unneeded road. This program has a proven track record of saving taxpayer money, improving habitat, creating jobs, and guaranteeing safer access for all.

“The Forest Service should be removing old roads, not building new ones,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice. “That’s why we are so thankful to Congresswoman Schrier for introducing this Legacy Roads and Trails legislation that will invest needed dollars and give shape to an initiative that will help protect the population of everything from grizzly bears to bull trout, not to mention strengthening our forests for carbon sequestration. This proposal is the right one to ensure our forests are climate resilient, and Earthjustice is proud to support it.”

“We are so pleased to see that Representative Schrier is stepping up to enhance U.S. Forest Service lands and the incredible coldwater habitat they provide for trout and salmon,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “Forty percent of all blue-ribbon trout streams flow across national forests, and this agency is one of our most important partners. Investments from the Legacy Roads and Trails Program will help us make fishing better, but at the same time improve our water supplies and bring high-paying jobs to rural communities.”

Additional Resources

Contacts

Phil LaRue, Earthjustice, (202) 797-4317

Marlies Wierenga, WildEarth Guardians, (503) 278-0669

Mike Anderson, The Wilderness Society, (206) 890-3529

Katie Arberg, Defenders of Wildlife

Rob Catalanotto, Trout Unlimited

Tom Uniack, Washington Wild, (206) 633-1992

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