To Road or Not To Road

To Road or Not To Road

(Third in an eight-part series on Pacific Rivers’ history and successes)

To road or not to road? David Bayles would usually choose the latter. Roads are the worst for rivers.

David saw this most clearly in 1996, from an airplane flying low over the Cascade Mountains and Oregon Coast Range. This was the year nearly every river west of the Cascades flooded its banks. From the plane, David could see literally thousands of landslides. Most of them were along Forest Service roads. He saw watersheds where every single tributary to the main stream had a landslide clear into the stream. He and other staff from the Pacific Rivers Council documented what they saw, and had it published as part of The Landslide Inventory.

Davis served as conservation director and later executive director for PRC for nearly 20 years. He knows a lot about roads on public lands. “Every road in a national park leads to a scenic overlook, and every road in a national forest leads to a clearcut,” David says. Roads in forests are designed for resource extraction. They are the biggest sources of sediment in rivers, which chokes most of the life out of a river. It is only within the last 15 years that the Forest Service has paid any attention to how roads affect rivers, due largely to PRC.

The problem with roads is that after a timber harvest, they often sit unused and untouched for decades. When used at all, it is primarily for recreation. They erode sediment into streams every time it rains. If it rains a lot, the road can fail and dump a lot of sediment in via a landslide.

The national forests have 380,000 miles of roads. That’s eight times as many miles as the interstate highway system. You’d have to circumnavigate the globe, at the equator, 15 times to drive that many miles. For decades, the Forest Service was building roads and then letting them lie, destroying habitat and muddying the water for rural communities. The service reported a road maintenance backlog of $3 billion in 2013, down from $10 billion a few years ago.

You may have heard of the Roadless Rule, a Clinton-era policy proposed in 2001 that prevented new road building in unroaded areas of national forests. It was never fully adopted, but it got a lot of press and is still, in 2014, being litigated.

But the Roadless Rule only addressed unroaded areas. It did not address the problem of what to do with existing roads after they are no longer needed, and how to prevent a new road from harming nearby streams.

So the administration also published the Road Management Policy. It wasn’t nearly as controversial as the Roadless Rule, and thus got far less press.

At the time, the Council had recently helped secure Endangered Species Act protection for dwindling Oregon coastal coho. The next step was to protect the watersheds coho need to survive. Sediment was a huge problem.

The Council and partner groups filed a lawsuit charging the Forest Service with violating the Endangered Species Act by not addressing the risk of roads to coho. The result was the Road Management Policy, which provides real benefits for clean and healthy watersheds. It requires that the Forest Service consider whether a new road is truly needed, whether the agency has funds to maintain it, how to build it in a way that minimizes harm to streams, and how to remove it after it is no longer needed.

Sexy? No. But it is one of the untold stories of changes in our national forests that actually have made a difference on the ground — in streams, for fish, and for the rural towns and businesses that rely on clean water.

“The roads policy is not perfect. It is bureaucratic. It’s not as ecologically informed as it ought to be,” David says. Also, there is a still a multi-billion-dollar road maintenance backlog. “But at least, for the first time, the Forest Service has a roads policy that is based on science,” he says.

Forest roads are one of the biggest threats to rivers, and the Pacific Rivers Council helped bring the issue to light. One of our next steps is to defend and maintain some of the most effective clean water protections available on federal forests. Learn more about PRC’s current campaigns to protect clean water, human health, and robust local economies.

Questions or comments? Find us on Facebook or Twitter, or email

by Natalie Henry Bennon

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *