House Passes Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program as Part of “Moving Forward Act”

Supporters of the “Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program” say national forest watersheds, imperiled wildlife, and rural communities are poised for a much-needed boost. Here’s a press release from some forest protection and wildlife groups:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today the U.S House of Representatives passed the “Moving Forward Act” (H.R.2) designed to improve green infrastructure and reduce climate impacts. The Act includes a provision called “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.

“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.”

“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.

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

A 10-year accomplishments report on the Legacy Roads and Trails Program can be found here.

A Forest Service storymap on Legacy Roads and Trails-funded work to replace 1000 culverts to reconnect fish migration corridors can be found here. Embedded are several informative videos including a 4 minute video available here and a 16 minute video available here.

22 thoughts on “House Passes Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program as Part of “Moving Forward Act””

  1. I looked up the Moving Forward Act — 2309 pages! Wow!

    SEC. 82401. FOREST SERVICE LEGACY ROADS AND TRAILS REMEDIATION PROGRAM.

    1. to carry out critical maintenance and urgent repairs and improvements on National Forest System roads, trails, and bridges;
    2. to restore fish and other aquatic organism passage by removing or replacing unnatural barriers to the passage of fish and other aquatic organisms;
    3. to decommission unneeded roads and trails; and
    4. to carry out associated activities.

    Maybe some decommissioning is needed, but many USFS roads are falling apart and are a threat not only to streams, water-quality, etc., but to human life. I drove one USFS road last year where the pavement was crumbling and the potholes huge.

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    • “Maybe some decommissioning is needed”

      The U.S. Forest Service is one of the largest road building entities in the world. There are nearly 400,000 miles of roads on America’s National Forests and Grasslands, enough to circle Earth at the equator about 18 times. Maybe a lot, lot, lot more than just “some decommissioning is needed.”

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  2. Aside from the blatant anti-motorized ideology from the groups quoted, I think this program sounds like overall a good thing that the motorized community could support and would even be willing to help with. I’m all for giving the Forest Service more funding for road maintenance and improving culverts and stream crossings.

    I do not like the fact that this is helping with road decomissioning, but my impression is that renewing this program doesn’t automatically mean more roads will be decommissioned, as those determinations will still have to be made in individual forest travel management plans.

    It’s also worth pointing out that many of the roads these folks are calling obsolete and unneeded are actually popular motorized trails used by thousands of off-road enthusiasts every year, and many of them are currently maintained by the volunteer efforts of off-road clubs at no expense to the Forest Service.

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  3. A particular area I visited yesterday has roads in bad shape leading to a trailhead. Even though my activities (hiking) are high on the Pyramid of Pristinity, I need roads (Forest roads) to get there. The roads were questionable for my high-clearance vehicle.

    What about the goal of getting more urban people into the outdoors? Say people who can’t afford a high-clearance 4WD vehicle?

    It almost seems as if the “road closing” aficionados and the “improving access to federal lands” folks are working at cross purposes.

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    • That is something we motorized advocates point out over and over again but it usually feels like shouting into the wind. EVERYONE who recreates on National Forest land uses a vehicle and drives on Forest Service roads to get there. Forest Service surveys on different types of recreation fail to reflect this because they only ask people what their primary activity is. It’s always a relatively small number of people who visit the Forest solely for motorized recreation, which makes motorized roads and trails seem unimportant. But the reality is that almost all the activities surveyed involve use of the road system. It boggles my mind how the “quiet use” advocacy groups fail to understand this.

      One of the main anti-motorized groups in the Pike San Isabel travel management process is the Colorado Mountain Club, the biggest organization advocating for quiet use recreation in Colorado. You would think they of all people would understand that hikers, backcountry skiers, etc. need roads to access the backcountry, yet they and their allied groups helped develop an alternative which would close three of the primary access roads and trailheads to the Lost Creek Wilderness as well as the primary trailheads for Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. In their comments they called for closing the road to Clohesey Lake near Leadville, which is one of the only cherry stemmed access roads into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and is used by both motorized recreationists and hikers. It’s just bizzare how they are advocating against the interests of even the user-groups they claim to represent.

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      • The good thing about interest groups is that they have the time to investigate things we regular people don’t have the time to (e.g., forest plans, travel management). The bad thing is that we may think they are representing our interests, but they never actually ask us what our preferences would be, so we have to give them the benefit of the doubt (or not.)

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  4. I stopped reading when I came to this part.
    “said Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO and president, Defenders of Wildlife.”
    Jamie Clark was never indicted for theft of millions of conservation dollars when she was Director of USFWS, but none the less millions were given as bonuses to her anti hunting buddies, spent on lavish European vacations, and so on. The theft was so egregious that congress changed the entire way allocation of Pittman Robertson funding is made. When a whistleblower complained he received anonymous threats to his pension job etc.

    I’ve no idea if this proposal is good or bad, but if people like Jamie Clark support it, I’m against it.

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  5. I imagine this source of funding also reduces pressure on the Forest Service to hold bake sales (aka timber sales) to generate revenue for fixing road problems. (At least under an administration that isn’t applying pressure to get the cut out.)

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    • I think the USFS could and should hold timber sales to generate revenue for fixing roads, culverts, etc. Anyone know of stewardship contacts being used to repair roads?

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      • Sure, but what about roads that aren’t included in those timber sales? A Stewardship Contract might aim repairs at roads anywhere on a forest.

        FWIW, A couple of months ago, I drove to a popular wilderness trailhead on a narrow strip of land not in the wilderness. A few of times I hit large potholes and/or sunken areas, one of which was so deep that my gear in the back bounced to the roof liner. Yes, I was going slow, but not slow enough to see that divot or the white painted warning line around it in time. I hope no one hits it at night. There’s no timber to be sold in that area, but a Stewardship Contract on a sale elsewhere might fund repairs on that road.

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  6. You would be amazed what you could accomplish with a grader, backhoe, and dump truck. Just keeping culverts and ditch lines open would go a long ways in keeping roads passable.
    I am afraid that it ends up being up to the philosophies of districts whether these monies are use for decommissioning roads or maintaining them.
    This is an old program and for years districts have been decommissioning roads, improving fish passages, and making travel plans. Actual road maintenance appears to be of low priority.
    Timber sales have helped with road maintenance. Often fire salvage, hazard tree removal, and thinning timber sales that have hundreds of thousands of dollars of road maintenance included.
    One thing I know is, if you curtail the access to the forest because of poor road maintenance or by the decommissioning of roads, there will be a negative impact on the local communities.

    (I remember attending a meeting about restoration of a certain watershed where the district ranger was excited by the possibility of closing roads. She was a little shocked when people mention this was a well use road between the coast and inland and closing it wasn’t looked upon favourably).

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    • I agree it’s amazing how much leeway individual district rangers are given when it comes to closing roads. In the proposed Pike San Isabel travel plan, the vast majority of closures are in three ranger districts known to have rangers that are extremely biased against motorized recreation (clearly shown in emails we obtained in a FOIA request). The South Park Ranger District has nearly 100 miles of closures, while Pikes Peak has 35 miles and South Platte has 21 miles of closures. The other three ranger districts have less than 10 miles of closures each. Those three happen to have rangers that have a much more favorable view of motorized recreation and have worked closely with motorized groups volunteering to maintain trails.

      The three districts with the most closures are the ones closest to the front range cities, and the vast majority of the trails proposed for closure are heavily used, highly popular 4×4 trails, several of which are included in guidebooks and listed among the top 100 motorized trails in Colorado. These are not “obsolete and unneeded” roads by any means. When you really look at how these decisions are made, it’s amazing how arbitrary they are and up to the personal views of the rangers which roads to close and which to keep.

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        • Yes it certainly does. The majority of the routes in the litigation were also in those three districts, especially South Park.

          But the Rangers have been given tremendous discretion about which of those routes to close. They did a rushed travel analysis process at the beginning of this process deciding on their own what routes were high and low value, with almost no public input. The scores from those travel analysis reports then were used to formulate the preferred alternative through the minimum road system rubric. But even that wasn’t applied mechanically and rangers were free to deviate from from the rubric at will, most often closing roads the MRS rubric would have kept open based on TAP scores. Even the anti-motorized groups commented on how arbitrary the process was, though of course they said not enough roads were closed.

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    • Hello Bob – You mention that road closures can have a negative effect on local communities. That may be so but I went to a Travel Analysis meeting on the Gifford Pinchot NF where some locals felt the roads were their roads when in fact they are federal infrastructure. People were saying things like, “that’s my favorite road for berry picking” or similar self-centered justifications for keeping a road open, Those are NOT the basis for sound fiscal, natural resource or administrative decisions!
      Truth is we’ve emasculated the FS through drastic budget cuts and other actions; it has very little capacity to do anything on the ground now including road maintenance.
      Here’s the difference between a well thought out Travel Analysis Plan (TAP) and just keeping an excess of roads on the landscape; with a TAP, if it’s well done, the agency and community prioritize which roads to keep and which to decommission.
      In the absence of a hard look at the reality of funding for road maintenance NATURE will decide which roads get closed by things like massive landslides, flooding due to rain on snow events, etc.
      The roads we lose to natural events may not be the ones we would have chosen to decommission.

      I’ll give you an example from the Gifford Pinchot NF in the area near Packwood, Washington; about 4 years ago I was driving to a trailhead for the Goat Rocks Wilderness when I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a massive washout in the road. A large culvert, more than 20 feet in diameter, had plugged during a storm and the road fill washed out. The repair cost would have been huge and the FS had not done a repair a few years after the event. Heck, they hadn’t even posted adequate warning signs for drivers!
      Would the TAP for that ranger district have kept that road on the system? I don’t know
      BUT the reality is, regardless of what the TAP recommendation was, in that case Nature made the call and CLOSED that road about 2 miles away from the wilderness trailhead.

      As a long time land manager, I say it’s better for us to collectively decide which roads to keep and which to get rid of rather than leaving the shots to natural events.
      FS BUDGET – Last time I looked @ road maintenance budget for Mt. Hood NF (about 5 fiscal years ago) the Hood had money to maintain, to FS standards, only about 18% of it’s road mileage that fiscal year. You can’t do much with so little money.
      NOT closing unneeded roads puts the rest of the road system, and our public investment, at risk due to natural events.

      Sorry, my post is long but I was heavily involved in the TAP process and led some congressional field trips to advocate for Legacy Roads and Trails funding. While I was on the Gifford Pinchot I was part of our district’s flood emergency team at a time when we had funding to patrol roads and check for plugged culverts during large storm events. I doubt the FS has any of that capacity now.

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      • Old Woodsman:
        You said:
        “People were saying things like, “that’s my favorite road for berry picking” or similar self-centered justifications for keeping a road open”
        Isn’t any reason to keep a road open “self-centered” in some way? As in “I fish that stream, or I use that trailhead, or it’s access to my cabin or ???”
        I guess the difference is what is not “self-centered” is something FS folks decide to be important.. are FS folks not “self-centered”. When you say it’s best to “collectively decide” is that a consensus in which everyone’s self-centering is somehow taken into account?

        This may be one of those areas that varies greatly by locale, topography, and rainfall. Many of the roads I go on don’t seem to be maintained and don’t wash out either… in those cases, do they “need” to be closed? Could they just be “not maintained, go at your own risk?” (which is pretty much what they are without the sign).

        Could the “not maintained” be adopted by user groups, as Patrick mentions for off-road groups?
        As to the flood emergency team, maybe that’s something volunteers (including retirees) could do is patrol roads and check?
        Speaking for myself, as a retiree, driving around looking at things would be one of my favorite volunteer activities if that would help the FS by saving $.

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        • I agree with Sharon. What exactly is “self-centered” in the context of public lands? If it is self-centered for one person to want roads to stay open so they can enjoy the challenge of wheeling their favorite trail, or have access to their favorite lake, etc., is it not equally self-centered for someone else to want to have access to their favorite hiking trail? Or on the other side, isn’t it equally if not more self-centered for someone who sees no value in motorized recreation but loves hiking to want motorized trails closed to vehicles and turned into hiking trails? And what about environmentalists who don’t believe in human uses of public lands whatsoever and want them preserved solely for animals?

          The truth is we all make value judgments, and what is important to one person may not be important to another. Everyone’s views of proper public lands management are ultimately driven by self-interest, no matter what value hierarchy you have. Calling another person’s views “self-centered” just shuts down discussions without achieving anything productive.

          Also, as Sharon said, not every forest road requires a lot of maintenance. Most forest roads in Colorado aren’t particularly prone to washouts, and roads in the ML2 category (4WD roads) especially will often go many years without significant maintenance being needed by the Forest Service. To the extend they do need maintenance, that is often done by users, either informally such as individual offroaders cutting fallen trees and winching them off the trail, or formally by 4WD clubs that adopt trails and devote considerable volunteer time and resources to clearing trails, filling in mud bogs, blocking off unauthorized bypasses, putting up signs, etc. In Colorado, larger maintenance projects such as re-routing trails or filling in large mud bugs are often funded through grants from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife OHV Fund, without the Forest Service having to contribute anything. Yet when it comes time for a new travel management plan to be made, the category of roads that suffer the most mass closures are almost always ML2 roads, not the much more maintenance heavy ML3 and above roads.

          So this issue is far more complex than it seems. You can’t just say, the Forest Service doesn’t have the budget to maintain all its roads, therefore most of them should be closed. There are other ways to handle road maintenance and still keep most existing roads open.

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          • Hey Patrick – Thanks for your comment. I only have a few minutes now so I’ll give you a brief reply and will ponder your ideas while I do some chores.

            I spent almost 50 years in natural resource management in a variety of roles and organizations so I have a bit of experience to draw from. As a person who evolved from being a timber forester at the start of my career to retiring from a position as a staff person with an environmental group I’d like to take exception to your rather broad generalization re: people in environmental groups.

            You said, “And what about environmentalists who don’t believe in human uses of public lands whatsoever and want them preserved solely for animals?”
            To me, the label environmentalist is nearly worthless given how broadly it’s used and how little it means. I worked with snowmobilers who I considered to be “environmentalists” given their interest in protecting big game winter range through road closures. Although we had serious policy and management disagreements some of my USFS colleagues were environmentalists in some ways; they were willing to abide by riparian buffers for water quality because many of them loved to fish or kayak.

            Back to your statement I know many, many people who you might consider to be “environmentalists” who completely support public access to our public lands at the appropriate time and place. NO, they don’t all believe those lands are only for the animals!
            That may be your perception and perhaps you’ve run into people like that but they’re not representative of the “environmental” community as a whole. No more so than saying that all dirt bikers are bad based on seeing one bad apple misbehave on a trail.
            I’m afraid that your statement is as inaccurate as me saying something like, ‘All motorized trail users are irresponsible and don’t care about the environment.’
            I know from my own experience as a USFS recreation manager that is not true. Yes, some motorized users are irresponsible but so are many of my fellow hikers and I call them out on it when I have the chance.

            Perhaps we can continue this dialogue later?

          • Thanks for the reply, though I think you missed my point. My point was not that all environmentalists have those specific beliefs (though I certainly have encountered those who do), but that everyone in the debate over how public lands and specifically roads should be managed is ultimately motivated by self-interest.

            Everyone has their own hierarchy of values, and they want their own values and priorities to take precedence over other people’s. Sometimes that self-interest is more obvious than others, such as motorized users wanting to keep motorized routes open for their own recreational enjoyment, or conversely non-motorized recreationists wanting to close motorized routes so they can enjoy exclusive access to them for their own preferred form of recreation.

            Others believe that public lands should be managed either primarily or solely for the benefit of wildlife, and that any human use which poses the slightest chance of harming wildlife should be shut down. While they have a less obvious personal benefit from such a decision, they are still self-interested in that they are asserting that what they value (wildlife) should take precedence over everything other people value (recreation, etc.), and they certainly view getting other users shut out of public lands as a personal victory and validation of their views.

            So to frame different views of road management on public lands as “selfish vs. not selfish” is neither accurate nor helpful. Personally, I think we should instead be questioning the paradigm that views public lands management as a zero sum game that must constantly have winners and losers, and instead find ways that multiple uses of public lands can peacefully coexist and share the resources we have.

  7. Sorry, MRS is minimum road system. TAP is travel analysis process. Each ranger district compiled a TAP report which ranks every route for risk and benefit. This was done in summer 2015. Then the draft EIS published last September had a minimum road system rubric where roads scored high benefit and low risk or high benefit high are kept open as part of the minimum road system while roads scored low benefit low risk and low benefit high risk and slated for decomissioning. Only the risk and benefit ratings were arbitrarily assigned by the rangers and their teams with only a brief 30 day comment period that apparently no one knew about and most districts received only one or two comments vs thousands for the main travel management EIS. And the draft EIS noted the rangers were free to deviate from the MRS rubric in deciding the fate of individual routes.

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