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Decommissioning old roads

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An overview of Conservation Northwest's work to retire, or decommission, out-of-use roads and restore wildlife habitat, past and present.

Restored road in Upper Yakima watershed
Restored road in Upper Yakima watershed

Roads of all sizes can harm wildlife, fragmenting habitat and isolating animals from needed resources.

Roads also can effect the health of our watersheds by changing water storage and flow and contributing high amounts of sediment into rivers. Roads provide access points into key riparian habitats; some of that access is harmful to fish and other river resources.

Conservation Northwest and our allies work to decommission out-of-use roads and restore lost habitat.

In our work to address roads and wildlife, we not only address the need to create safer passage for people and wildlife on our state's highways, but the impacts of smaller and less traveled roads as well.

Safer passage, healthier watersheds

When roads are no longer in use or aren't necessary to access or management, removing them can be a first step in repairing ecological damage and reconnecting habitat. Old roads that pose a risk to natural resources can be retired, or decommissioned.

For high-use roads and highways, we work with the Washington State Department of Transportation to retrofit roads to create safer passage for fish and wildlife. For lower-use roads, our field staff work focus on the eastern Cascades and northeast Washington. We work on national forest roads at the project, watershed, and forest-wide scale to understand which roads are necessary, and which unnecessary, for accessing and enjoying the national forest. We also help identify roads that pose an unacceptable risk to natural resources.

Cougars use abandoned road. Wildlands CPR
Cougars use abandoned road. Wildlands CPR

As a member of the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative, we worked to establish Legacy Roads funding from Congress to provide maintenance and decommissioning funding to the Forest Service to address their tremendous backlog. Through this body we work to make sure that public funding is available to our land management agencies to appropriately understand and manage their road systems.

In 2007, we recognized a need for strategic private investments to compliment and leverage the public funding. A Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest allows us to coordinate with them to address priority restoration efforts, including restoration of unnecessary roads. The partnership leverages private dollars - and volunteer work - with public funding.

Thanks to private funders, Conservation Northwest has worked each year in the Cascades to successfully complete a number of projects.

Successes to date

  • Just west of Leavenworth, we provided funding to Forest Service road crews to decommission and restore a mile of road along the Wild and Scenic Wenatchee River and a mile in the Deadhorse Canyon Late Successional Reserve. The work, which comes with support from The Mountaineers Foundation, helps increase security habitat for ungulates and other sensitive species.
  • In the Upper Yakima Watershed, we're involved in long-term work to reduce road densities and improve watershed function. This includes decommissioning and restoring three road segments totaling 2.2 miles in the Upper Kachess River area in 2009. We converted to non-motorized trail use nearly 1 mile of spur roads near Twin Lakes in the Roaring Ridge area in 2010; and decommissioned and restored approximately 2 miles of old Plum Creek logging roads in the Snoqualmie Pass Adapative Management Area. Thank you to The Mountaineers Foundation, Puget Sound Energy, New Belgium Brewery, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Resource Advisory Council, and the Cle Elum Ranger District for making this work possible. 
  • In the Methow Valley in 2012, we gained agreement for removing 27 miles of national forest road in the Buck Forest Restoration Project,  raising $9,000 that we donated to the Forest Service to ensure that implementation of the restoration began as soon as possible.
  • In the Manastash watershed, we reached agreement with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on the Walter Springs project to protect suitable spotted owl habitat and reduce aquatic harm. The work  includes closing several segments of unauthorized roads in 2013.
  • In the Chumstick watershed north of Leavenworth, with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, we raised $8,500 towards road restoration work  to reduce sedimentation into the river, address numerous stream crossings, and improve the watershed health. Thank you to the Mountaineers Foundation and National Forest Foundation.
  • Altogether, we improved the Forest Service's proposed plans for 5 million acres on Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests. 20,000 public comments called for connected habitat, protected wildlife, and reduced roads.

Upcoming

  • In spring of 2013, a decision will be released on a collaborative Upper Yakima Restoration Project that we have been engaged in designing that is looking at approximately 100 miles of old spur roads to convert to trail, restore, and close.
  • We've applied for funding with the Wenatchee River District to implement restoration of roads to improve watershed health in the Peshastin watershed in summer 2013, and are building partnerships for implementation.
  • The Methow Ranger District will be releasing transportation planning decision that outlines an ecologically and fiscally responsible road system for the Chewuch watershed in 2013, which we've been engaged in as it includes the Buck project investments we made above.
  • By the end of 2015, all national forests will have to analyze the minimum road system needed for their operations including the risk each road segment poses to natural resources and whether they can afford to manage the overall system. We plan to be engaged in reviewing these as they are completed and moving the recommendations into action.
  • The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest will release a Travel Management Plan in early 2013 laying out the system of roads open to specific kinds of motorized use across their 4 million acres. We'll be analyzing the proposal to find the best options for wildlife, and reaching out to our members to make public comment.
If you would like to volunteer or donate to help us reduce the impact of roads on our national forest lands, contact Jen Watkins.
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