USA: Wuerthner on USFS’s ‘temporary’ roads which are nearly the same as permanent roads

A lot of research has found that logging roads are among the biggest impacts to forest ecosystems. (For a good review of road impacts see Trombulak and Frissell.) The Forest Service has at least 400,000 miles of roads on the lands it administers and these roads are a major environmental collateral impact associated with logging and other resource exploitation. Even the Forest Service has had to admit that logging roads have many unacceptable impacts to the forest ecosystem, so they have to come up with a new term and idea to make logging acceptable—temporary roads. Therefore temporary roads only have temporary impacts—or so we are led to believe.

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And some conservationists have jumped on the “temporary” road band wagon just as some readers of the National Inquirer are quick to accept the hype of the latest fad promoting say the low fat ice cream diet. Temporary roads are like low fat ice cream, they seem to taste good, but as any nutritionist can tell you, you’re are infinitely better off if you don’t consume a lot of ice cream at all—low fat or otherwise. The same is true for roads. Temporary roads are only slightly better than a regular road, and no one should be fooled into thinking they somehow eliminate the negative impacts associated with roads just because they are “temporary”.

The problem is that temporary roads have most of the same environmental impacts as regular roads. Roads compact soil. Even three trips by logging equipment over soil can result in a significant reduction in water infiltration. Roads, by slicing across slopes, alter downward flow of subsurface and surface water, often concentrating it on the compacted road surface, thus increasing erosive power. Roads are a chronic source of sedimentation, and a major impact on aquatic ecosystems.

Roads fragment wildlife habitat. Roads are avoided by some sensitive wildlife species or used as a convenient travel corridor by other species. Often roads provide access for “weedy” ones that negatively impact other species—such as creating access for edge birds to invade and attack interior forest species. Roads change air flow which can affect fire spread and even the distribution of plants responding to micro-climate changes. Roads are the major vector for weeds and disease. To fully reclaim a road is more than putting up a gate to block vehicle travel. It requires ripping up the road bed to remove the compacted soil layers.

The side
slope soil has to be put back on the site, and reshaped so sub surface
and surface water flow is restored. Culverts need to be removed, and
stream channels fully restructured and reconstituted. Vegetation needs
to be planted—and grass seed is not enough—especially if the area once
supported forest. And logs, rocks, and other natural structures need
to be put back on the slope. And even if all these things are done, an
old road does not magically disappear overnight. It continues to have
impacts for years until the vegetation has grown sufficiently to more
or less emulate the pre-road condition.

I’ve seen fully reclaimed roads in Redwood National Park and a few other places, but it’s is extremely rare. And the expense often numbers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per mile. By contrast, I’ve seen a lot more minimally reclaimed roads. I’ve been on forest service lands where a “temporary” road is just a road that the FS didn’t put on its travel maps as a legal road. It was still there on the ground, but since it was not included in the official travel plan as a road, as far as the FS was concerned, the road did not exist any longer.

So when you hear someone supporting logging because it won’t have the impacts of roads since all new roads will be “temporary” ask some hard questions about the proposal. How long will the “temporary” road be in use? Will it be closed to all vehicle traffic forever or will it be used again for logging in 10 or 20 years? Will it be reclaimed? What does reclamationmean? Will the road bed be ripped up, slopes restored, stream channels reconstructed, and original vegetation restored? If not, than you will have a road—and a road is still a road whether it is called  “temporary” or otherwise.

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