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Chief Tidwell discusses right-sizing the Forest Service road system
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell spent some time on Capitol Hill this week explaining the Forest Service’s proposed 2011 budget with Congressional appropriators and oversight committees. The new budget proposes to pool numerous existing line items into one large “Integrated Resource Restoration” (IRR) program. The idea is that this would enable the agency to move forward more effectively toward all restoration objectives, including watershed restoration.
While we love the idea, we don’t love the proposal, and at this point in time we don’t think it will help the agency increase true watershed restoration work. How can it, when roads are one of the primary impacts to water quality and watershed health, but this large new program barely gives the time of day to road management issues? The agency explains that the IRR pools funds from a Forest Service budget area that addresses natural resources, not infrastructure. Infrastructure, including all road management funding (road maintenance, construction, Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative, etc.), is funded through the agency’s overall Capital Improvement and Maintenance budget. The resources and infrastructure funding aren’t typically mixed on paper, though some resource funds can be, and are, used for things like culvert upgrades and road decommissioning when roads affect those resources.
On the bright side it appears that some of our advocacy is at least getting through in concept to the Forest Service. According to a 2/26/10 article from the publication Energy and Environment Daily (Noelle Straub; House appropriators question proposal to reshape Forest Service budget), the following exchange occurred regarding road funding:
“Committee members also objected to the proposed reduction in funding for road improvements and for the Forest Service research program.
The agency's capital improvement and maintenance program would drop from $556 million in 2010 to $438 million next year, with most of the decrease coming from a reduction for roads activities. While $168 million is requested for road maintenance and decommissioning, no funding is provided for new road construction or upgrades to existing roads. The budget requests $50 million for the Legacy Roads and Trails program, down from the $90 million approved for 2010.
Tidwell said the agency is shifting its focus to "right-sizing" its road system, meaning it will not build new or upgrade existing roads but instead will work to maintain the roads its needs and decommission those it doesn't. The Forest Service has 45,000 miles of road it no longer needs that are expensive to maintain and can cause environmental problems, he said.”
We’re glad this discussion occurred, since Tidwell gave scant attention to road management issues in his formal testimony. For example, road decommissioning gets mentioned once in the opening, and then other road management issues, including Legacy Roads and Trails (which the budget proposes cutting in half!) receive one long-ish sentence in the concluding paragraph. Recreation advocates were probably equally disappointed, as recreation is the other topic covered in that one sentence. The message seems clear: the agency considers road management far less important than timber management, even when it comes to watershed restoration.
But again, just having Tidwell give public statements that the agency is moving toward right-sizing the road system is a step forward. Now they have to put real actions behind their words, and we’re working hard to help them do so!