It will cost taxpayers about $8 million to repair damaged national forest logging roads in North Idaho and Western Montana.
That payout almost is assured. The Federal Highway Administration keeps money aside to cover flood damage to federal roads, such as the more than 300,000 miles of Forest Service byways.
“I’ve heard that the pot of (Federal Highway Administration) money is about $100 million,” said a disgusted Al Espinosa, former chief fisheries biologist for the Clearwater National Forest. “I’d like to see them take that money and improve (U.S.) Highway 95.”
It will be some time before federal officials know the total cost of fixing Forest Service roads that were hammered by heavy November rains, sliced by raging creeks and rivers, and buried by mudslides.
Some roads won’t be fixed for two to three years. Some will never be fixed. Some small bridges were washed to points unknown and must be retrieved.
If snow soon covers the ground, the Forest Service will not be able to find all of the road problems before next summer. If there is an especially wet spring, officials say, several more logging roads and watersheds are expected to become erosion nightmares.
Forest Service engineers say the destruction on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests and the Clearwater National Forest is the worst ever seen. Forest roads still are so soggy that people are urged to stay out of the woods.
Outside of a drenching late November, not all of the causes of the erosion are known. But logging roads built on steep slopes and unstable soils, coupled with excessive clearcuts, are part of what triggered the destruction, federal officials say.
Environmentalists and former Forest Service employees say reopening the roads will just bring on more logging and more erosion problems.
“The public has paid with dirty water, damage to personal property, loss of fisheries and loss of recreation opportunity,” said Barry Rosenberg, of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council. “The public also paid to have the forests cut because of below-cost timber sales.”
Instead of shelling out millions for more roads, it’s time to tear out the unstable roads and stop logging in the unstable soils. “It’s time for a payback,” Rosenberg said.
That doesn’t cut it in timber circles, where industry officials point out that mudslides naturally happen without roads and logging. “It’s one of the facts of life in any forest,” said Mike Sullivan of Potlatch Corp.
“When you have heavy, wet weather, you are going to have soil move,” he said. Leaving the forest alone isn’t a solution either because dead trees don’t help hold the soil.
Ken Kohli of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association shares the “blame nature” theme. “Our topography was formed by major erosion events” like these, Kohli said.
Older logging practices play a role, he acknowledges. Older, poorly designed roads also contribute.
“So we have got to get about the business of fixing them,” Kohli said.
He also defends industry by pointing to mudslides in unroaded, unlogged watersheds.
The Forest Service says it will figure out how often the torrents of dirt and debris kicked loose in logged and roaded areas and how often it happened in areas untouched by logging and road building. Meanwhile, the agency promises not to repeat past mistakes that turned roads and clearcuts into mudslides.
“We’re planning to use this as a learning experience,” said Art Bourassa, district ranger on the North Fork of the Clearwater Forest. “We can’t go blindly ahead and say nothing’s happened.”
What’s to guarantee there won’t be a repeat, especially considering some of the roads that turned into mudslides are relatively new?
A change in the philosophy at the Forest Service for one, officials reply. The agency is no longer narrowly focused on timber management but considers how its programs affect fish, water, wildlife and people.
In addition, logging technology has changed. So it is no longer necessary to crisscross slopes with roads in order to get trees on trucks.
The new logging sales rely more on helicopters, though that increases the harvest cost and makes industry unhappy, Bourassa said.
Helicopter sales still affect the land, argues Espinosa, the former Forest Service biologist. And after 20 years of trying to persuade his former bosses to stay out of heavily logged watersheds, he is skeptical that anything will change.
“They don’t take any risk with their (logging) program, they put the risk on the watershed,” he said.
“The person who makes the logging and road building decisions is betting they are out of there when the damage happens,” Espinosa said.
“And the poor sap who’s left there has to deal with it.”
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