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Will restoration funding stand out in a crowd, or be lost in the sauce?
By Bethanie Walder
Since 2007, Wildlands CPR has been advocating for increased funding for watershed restoration on Forest Service lands through the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program and associated efforts. Now a new funding approach offers a potential opportunity to increase funding for this work, but it is not without its risks. Over the past few years, the Forest Service has been flirting with a new “Integrated Resource Restoration” (IRR) idea: instead of funding individual line items, the Forest Service will merge several different funds into one large restoration funding bucket. IRR was first proposed in the President’s budget a few years ago, but Congress wasn’t so keen on it and so it wasn’t adopted. Last year the Administration made some changes and proposed it again, and Congress amended it further and adopted a three-region pilot to test IRR on the ground.
Now here’s the risky part. Usually, when a pilot is tested, it is also evaluated to understand what worked and what didn’t, however, the February release of the President’s budget for 2013 proposed skipping this evaluation and adopting IRR wholesale across all Forest Service lands. This would mean no evaluation of the challenges and opportunities presented by implementing the pilot, and no opportunity for adapting the proposal to address the lessons learned.
While increasing Forest Service restoration funding is a goal we share with the agency, it has to be done right. What if IRR doesn’t work? And what’s the point of a pilot if you don’t take time to assess it before adopting it wholesale?
Wildlife use of reclaimed roads has been documented.
Wildlands CPR photo.
The agency is promoting IRR because they think it will work better than the current system. The rationale: pooled funding will be more efficient and the agency can accomplish more with the same amount of money. We can support this in theory, but we want to see if it’s true on the ground. Unfortunately, in the FY12 pilot regions, the agency isn’t just trying to accomplish more with the same amount of money, they’re actually trying to accomplish more with less funding – because their overall funding went down. This makes the pilot a little challenging to test.
Perhaps most significantly to Wildlands CPR, we have serious concerns about the intersection of Legacy Roads and Trails funding and IRR. In the FY12 pilot regions, all Legacy Roads and Trails money was pooled into the IRR, becoming part of that big bucket of money along with fish and wildlife funds, vegetation and watersheds funds, timber funds and fuels/fire hazard reduction funds. Our concern is that once an individual fund is pooled into the IRR, that individual fund ceases to exist, and what used to be dedicated funding can be used for any activity within the IRR. The pooled Legacy Roads and Trails funds can be used for timber harvests, but so too can pooled timber funds be used for road decommissioning. In the pilot regions, therefore, Legacy Roads and Trails money has effectively disappeared this year. But the road problems that led to its creation have not.
We are very concerned that under IRR, roads might fail to garner the attention they so desperately need from within the agency, as staff work to achieve the many competing mandates set out for them. For example, Forest Service staff have regularly told us that Legacy Roads and Trails funding works because the money is dedicated exclusively to fixing road problems — problems that were often overlooked until this new program was created. Some staff are worried that roads might fall back to the bottom of the list once the funding is pooled.
The agency is trying to address this and other stakeholder concerns by setting targets for accomplishments in the pilot regions. They’ve adopted five specific performance measures related to the IRR pilot:
- Number of watersheds moved to an improved condition class
- Acres treated annually to sustain or restore watershed function and resilience
- Volume of timber sold
- Miles of road decommissioned
- Miles of stream habitat restored or enhanced
We are generally positive about these performance measures. They illustrate that the Forest Service is starting to reframe the concept of restoration and that they are looking at restoration from a broader perspective than just silvicultural management. We’re most pleased, of course, that road decommissioning is one of their performance measures, and like to think that our persistent engagement is one of the reasons they included this target. In addition, a significant portion of the “stream habitat restored” measure could come from fixing culverts and restoring aquatic passage – another significant road issue. As a matter of fact, the performance measures could actually be an improvement over the independent Legacy Roads and Trails line item, because that line item never included specific targets for road decommissioning (though for the years we have assessed, it seems that about a third of the funds were used for decommissioning).
But shortcomings remain. Most problematic: timber volume sold is one of the target performance measures. Though we recognize a legitimate need to address fire/fuels and unnaturally dense forests in some places through ecologically sensitive logging, we do not think that timber volume sold is an appropriate performance measure for a restoration initiative. The timber targets could create a perverse incentive to promote timber sales that are not restorative. We are also concerned that “acres treated for watershed function” could become a euphemism for additional timber harvest that may not be ecologically justifiable from a restoration perspective. The “acres treated” measure needs to be refined and improved to address a broad range of restoration needs and concerns.
This brings us back to the concept of evaluation — the Forest Service needs to assess the pilot — ideally for a full three years. This can help us understand how concerned we should be about our favorite program, Legacy Roads and Trails, which would be swallowed up if the IRR is adopted across the board. This will help other stakeholders understand if their concerns are being met, and it will provide the agency an opportunity to improve the pilot based on the results of the assessments.
Reseeding with native vegetation on a Colorado road restoration
project. Photo by Vicky Burton, US Forest Service.
Our goal is not just to sustain Legacy Roads and Trails, but to ensure that the work for which it was created is prioritized and accomplished. The Forest Service estimates a multi-billion dollar road maintenance problem that is damaging fisheries habitat and municipal drinking supplies. In the state of Washington, for example, it will cost a minimum of $300 million to bring Forest Service roads up to minimum Clean Water Act standards. While road work makes sense as a part of an integrated restoration approach, the problem is so enormous that it has justifiably received its own dedicated funding for the past five years, and that funding has only been a drop in the bucket. The Legacy Roads and Trails program goals have not yet been met, and it’s unclear whether or not IRR will be the right mechanism for meeting these goals over the long-term.
We appreciate this attempt to improve restoration outcomes and to create organizational efficiencies by creating a pooled fund, and we’re looking forward to working with the pilot regions to identify additional performance measures and to fully evaluate the effectiveness of the program. However, in the meantime, we hope the Forest Service takes a step back, consistent with this pilot approach, to ensure that IRR is well-vetted and amended as needed as a result of lessons learned. We’ll be very curious to learn whether IRR increases, or decreases, the agency’s capacity to address road issues, and we’ll press to ensure this information, specifically tied to Legacy Roads and Trails performance, is included in the public and private reports developed on IRR.