During the first week of November, 17 inches of rain and snowmelt came gushing out of Lightning Creek east of Sandpoint.
Flowing with the record amount of water was at least $3 million worth of backcountry roads.
The roads include some of the most popular access points near Sandpoint for hunting, huckleberry collecting, trail riding and camping, but environmentalists are now pushing the U.S. Forest Service to reconsider the wisdom of trying to maintain an extensive road network in Idaho’s wettest drainage. Flooding in the basin has knocked out roads an average of once every six years since World War II, when most of the roads were bulldozed, according to federal records.
“At some point you have to question how many times are we going to use taxpayer dollars to fund the reconstruction?” said Brad Smith with the Idaho Conservation League.
Several weeks ago, Smith and Phil Hough, of Sagle, Idaho, hiked about 40 miles through the boulder-strewn road wreckage. Much of the area is now inaccessible even to horses, much less pickups or all-terrain vehicles, said Hough, chairman of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.
“It absolutely boggles the mind how much energy was released in the flooding,” Hough said.
With the roads washed out, Hough said it’s been easier to spot wildlife in the area. On their hiking trip, Hough and Smith spotted a bobcat and wolf scat on the washed out roads. Lightning Creek is also an important spawning area for threatened bull trout. Endangered grizzly bears live in the surrounding forest.
The drainage receives an average of 94 inches of precipitation a year, but November’s flooding was off the charts. Peak flow after the rain and snow sent 18,000 cubic feet of water per second through the mouth of Lightning Creek near Clark Fork, Idaho, according to Forest Service records. This was three times the record previous flow set in 2003.
Next month, the Forest Service will host a meeting aimed at gathering input on how to proceed with the damaged roads. A date for the meeting has not yet been set. Sandpoint District Ranger Dick Kramer said changes need to be made to prevent further costly blowouts.
“When we design roads and structures, we’re trying to design for the long term. That hasn’t happened up there,” Kramer said.
The changes could include moving the roads away from the creek, strengthening existing roads or abandoning some roads altogether, Kramer said. All the options will be costly, he said. Federal highway dollars will help, but Kramer said he’d like to see a solution that won’t require high expenses into the future.
“Maybe we’re trying to fight Mother Nature too much,” Kramer said. “We have a drainage that geologically is very erosive. It’s probably always been that way since Glacial Lake Missoula blew out.”
The problems up Lightning Creek come as the Forest Service faces declining road maintenance budgets – much of the money is now going to fight year after year of massive wildfires. According to information from the Wilderness Society, the agency faces a $10 billion road maintenance backlog and is only able to provide upkeep on about 30 percent of its roads in Montana and North Idaho.
A big part of the problem, Kramer said, has been the dramatic decline in timber sales on national forest lands. Logging revenues once helped support the road network.
John Finney, an attorney and member of the Sandpoint Winter Riders snowmobile club, said the agency might need to move or change some of the roads, but it shouldn’t close off the area to vehicles. The roads provide unique access to the backcountry, including for people who don’t have the ability or strength for long hikes, Finney said. Porcupine Creek Road, for example, is one of the only roads in the Panhandle where people can drive to a mountain lake.
“We would like to maintain as much public access for a wide range of users, including motorized,” Finney said. “It’s been a very popular spot for a long, long time.”