July 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Forests At A Crossroads Battle Lines Drawn As Senate Gets Set To Judge Access Program

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Forest roads fall off mountainsides, foul streams, exacerbate flooding and clog transportation routes.

There’s never enough money to maintain them and rarely any agreement on where it’s appropriate to build them.

So taxpayers, politicians and environmentalists are asking the same question: Can a nation that can’t balance its books afford 380,000 miles of National Forest roads - eight times more miles than America’s interstate highway system - when some argue the roads mainly benefit logging companies?

“You are cutting payments for welfare recipients,” said Larry McLaud of the Idaho Conservation League. “People think it’s only fair that you cut subsidies for corporations.”

Congress began debating the question earlier this month. A coalition of environmentalists and fiscal conservatives are using the Idaho Panhandle and Clearwater national forests to make their case for barricading the Forest Service road construction program.

They want to end direct appropriations for Forest Service road construction. They also want to abolish the purchaser credit program, which gives lumber companies timber in exchange for building and maintaining roads.

The effort was narrowly quashed earlier this month. The U.S. House of Representatives voted for only small cuts in the $50 million Forest Service request for road construction. The House also cut the $50 million purchaser credit program in half.

The Senate will debate the issue soon - perhaps next week - and may allow unlimited purchaser credit.

Forest Service officials in North Idaho say it will make little difference if both programs go away. Road obliteration, not construction, is the mode of the day.

Timber industry officials see the attack on road funding as another disingenuous way for the environmental crowd to stop logging in the national forests. They say the roads are also useful for recreation and fire control.

Environmentalists say it’s time to quit using tax dollars to build roads that are too expensive to maintain and, as a result, create landslides.

All sides agree on one key point. There isn’t nearly enough money to maintain Forest Service roads.

The latest effort to stop road construction started last winter when environmentalists and fiscal conservatives such as Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Illinois, called for closing the road-building bank account. The Clinton administration joined the effort tentatively, calling for an end to trading trees for road work.

Idaho immediately started being invoked in the debate.

“The Panhandle is the most heavily roaded forest in the country,” said Samantha Mace, of the ForestWater Alliance. “The Panhandle and the Clearwater are the worst poster children of what not to do in a forest when it comes to roads.”

The Clearwater has 4,558 miles of federal forest roads and the Panhandle has more than 8,000 miles. For the Panhandle, that translates to more than 10 miles of road per square mile - ten times the average on national forests. Panhandle forest officials estimate another 8,000 miles of road have been overgrown or otherwise reclaimed by nature.

Most logging roads are built with the logs-for-construction swap, which “is repeatedly determined to be the most efficient way to build roads in our national forests,” said Jim Riley, executive vice president of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.

He cited a report prepared by accounting giant Price Waterhouse for the industry to back that statement.

It also may not accomplish what road foes intend.

The Panhandle doesn’t build logging roads with cash from Congress, said Andy Anding, a Panhandle official. That money goes for recreation or general purpose roads.

The Panhandle Forest isn’t building many roads - even with the trees-for-construction trade. In fact, most timber sales now are designed to include removing roads, he said.

Timber companies are required to upgrade and maintain roads as a part of logging jobs. As recently as the early ‘90s, “more than half of our road maintenance was accomplished by timber purchasers,” Littlejohn said.

And there’s never been enough cash for road maintenance. The Wallace-Fernan Ranger District typically receives only 40 percent of what it needs, it said in a letter to the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.

Overall, Panhandle officials estimate they need as much as $20 million a year to adequately take care of their roads. The Clearwater needs at least $2 million a year for 10 years to catch up and keep roads open.

But it’s hard to be certain of the exact need because the Forest Service doesn’t know exactly how many roads there are or which ones will become problems.

For example, the Forest Service has tended to write off the miles and miles of old, overgrown logging roads. But “a lot of roads that we thought were abandoned came back to haunt us in (the floods) of 1995-96,” Littlejohn said.

Arguing that timber sales are needed to maintain roads is self-defeating, said Charles Pezeshki of the Clearwater Biodiversity project.

“First of all, they end up fixing roads that need to be obliterated,” Pezeshki said. “So timber harvest keeps roads open that are fragile and falling apart.”

He doesn’t blame the Forest Service. “They respond to the incentives they are given,” he said. “The Forest Service knows they can’t keep their local critics and the Larry Craigs and the Helen Chenoweths happy unless they build roads.”

Saying roads are needed for fire protection and for recreation are weak diversions, said McLaud of the Idaho Conservation League.

Roads bring more people and vehicles into the forest, which means more fires, McLaud said. Besides, “people don’t need 4,500 or 8,000 miles of road to get to their favorite place.”

Forester and former Congressional Research Service staffer Robert E. Wolf thinks both sides are wrong. If Forest Service timber sales had to make money, there would be far fewer sales and therefore far fewer roads, he said.

He disagrees that trading trees for construction is an efficient way to build roads. The Forest Service doesn’t do a good job of keeping track of what it costs to build roads, so it wouldn’t have any idea of what the least expensive method is, Wolf said.

Instead, the agency designs timber sales so they are large enough to cover the road costs, not because the scientific analysis supports the logging volume.

Wolf cautions against cutting either the timber-for-roads program or direct appropriations with the expectation that it will make the expected difference. Since timber-for-roads isn’t a direct exchange of cash, it won’t make a difference in the bottom line, he said.

And cutting direct appropriations may be worse for the environment, he added, because that money is used, in part, by Forest Service engineers designing the roads.

If that goes, “who’s going to make sure the road is being built right?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Building, and obliterating, logging roads There are thousands of miles of logging roads in the Inland Northwest’s national forests, wiht more being built - and some destroyed - each year. Listed below are some of the local forests and the logging roads in each.

Idaho Panhandle National Forests Miles of road: 8,312 Miles obliterated since 1994: 374 miles Clearwater National Forest Miles of Road: 4,558 Miles obliterated since 1994: 37 Colville National Forest Miles of road: 4,019 Miles of road obliterated since 1994: 10 miles All national forests Miles of road: 380,000 miles Miles of road obliterated since 1994: 5,499 Source: U.S. Forest Service

This sidebar appeared with the story: Building, and obliterating, logging roads There are thousands of miles of logging roads in the Inland Northwest’s national forests, wiht more being built - and some destroyed - each year. Listed below are some of the local forests and the logging roads in each.

Idaho Panhandle National Forests Miles of road: 8,312 Miles obliterated since 1994: 374 miles Clearwater National Forest Miles of Road: 4,558 Miles obliterated since 1994: 37 Colville National Forest Miles of road: 4,019 Miles of road obliterated since 1994: 10 miles All national forests Miles of road: 380,000 miles Miles of road obliterated since 1994: 5,499 Source: U.S. Forest Service


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