Congress has approved an unheard of $39.4 million earmarked specifically for road reclamation projects in areas where decaying forest roads contribute to water quality problems.
“This is the most money ever appropriated to the Forest Service specifically for road reclamation,” said Bethanie Walder, Executive Director of Missoula-based Wildlands CPR, a nonprofit that works to restore unneeded roads to their natural state. Wildlands CPR says the funding can create over 580 high-skill, high-wage jobs.
The Forest Service oversees some 32,000 miles of roads in Montana, but many have become obsolete and unnecessary. Many of these unneeded roads can degrade water quality and often wash out to the detriment of bull trout habitat, leaving no shortage of potential projects.
“We have a huge backlog of needs,” says Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull, “so this is the beginning of a positive thing.”
To prioritize road restoration projects, Bull says he will take direction from a couple of sources. First, he says the Record of Decision following the 2002 fire season identifies many existing restoration and reclamation needs within the Bitterroot Forest. Beyond that, he’ll weigh site-specific analyses of watershed areas to choose which projects get priority.
Walder agrees with Bull’s approach. “We need to be open to a site-specific approach to prioritizing these projects,” she says, arguing that best practices specific to particular landscapes will prove more effective than a blanket, forest-wide approach.
And though $40 million represents a substantial chunk of change, the impact will thin out if it’s divided among every national forest. Wildlands CPR staff plans to travel with a coalition of partners to Washington, D.C., for meetings with senior Forest Service officials within the next week to clarify the agency’s plans for distributing the funds.
When big money becomes available, Bull notes, “There’s usually some competition.”