Plan narrows scope of U.S. Forest Service road maintenance

EVERETT — U.S. Forest Service officials have finished a plan that suggests cutting back on the number of roads they manage and maintain in order to focus on the most important miles throughout the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

They’re hoping to fit a daunting road maintenance bill into a dwindling budget.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Sustainable Roads Report, a planning document that has been in the works for about four years, was released earlier this month. It calls for decommissioning or closing more than 780 miles of forest roads. Decommissioned roads are taken out of the forest transportation system entirely, whereas closed roads are off limits to vehicles only temporarily. They remain part of the Forest Service’s inventory and may be reopened.

Some of those roads could be turned into hiking or biking trails, according to the plan.

Those 780 miles represent roughly 32 percent of the 2,440 miles of forest roads in the 1.7 million acre Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Another 1,566 miles, or about 64 percent of the roads, could get by with reduced maintenance, according to the plan. What exactly that reduced maintenance would look like is to be decided during more local planning efforts. It could include fixing problem spots on roads so they’re less frequently in need of repairs or decommissioning routes that are too costly to fix.

The Forest Service is in the early stages of creating multiple Access and Travel Management Plans guided by the overarching Sustainable Roads Report, Forest Service spokeswoman Tracy O’Toole wrote in an email.

“The Sustainable Roads Strategy is not a decision document,” O’Toole said. “It is a guide that will inform future decisions on where and how the Forest Service invests resources on building new roads, managing current roads or decommissioning old roads.”

The plan does not recommend building any new roads.

The Forest Service looked at funding trends over the past five years and concluded that, at current levels, they can afford to maintain a little more than a third of the roads they’re in charge of. It would take about $82 million to catch up on maintenance they’ve deferred over the years, and if all the roads were fixed up, it would cost more than $9.6 million a year to maintain them, according to a financial analysis.

The Forest Service spends about $2.3 million to maintain roads in the Mount-Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. The changes proposed in the Sustainable Roads Report are expected to drop that to about $1.4 million.

More than 40 percent of the forest roads face environmental and safety concerns such as endangered species living nearby or unstable terrain, according to the report.

Officials held public meetings and worked with local tribes on the plan. They determined which roads were more or less important to maintain based on a list of criteria, including: access to recreation sites or timber sales; legal commitments and permits; tribal access; risk to wildlife, water quality of cultural sites; and economic impact on nearby communities.

Moving forward, there will be local public comment opportunities before officials make final decisions about roads in specific areas. To stay up to date on public meetings and other information about forest roads, go to www.fs.usda.gov/goto/mbs/sustainableroads.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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