A Partial Patch, with a Long Road to Repair

By Beacon Staff

The thousands of dollars Congress recently allocated for roadwork in Flathead National Forest will have ecological and economic benefits for the valley, U.S. Forest Service officials and environmental groups say. But with a road maintenance backlog estimated to cost millions it’s not nearly enough.

“This is a great chance to get a jump on some of our needs right now,” Denise Germann, public affairs officer for the Flathead National Forest, said. “But, in terms of deferred maintenance, there’s probably close to $50 million needed just for roads and another $7 million for trails.”

That’s the story for Forest Service lands nationwide, as the agency struggles to keep up with the 400,000 miles of road that crisscross national forest land. The Forest Service currently has an estimated $10 billion nationwide pileup of road maintenance needs.

In December, Congress allocated $39.4 million toward the Legacy Roads and Trails program – the first time it has set aside money specifically for decommissioning national forest service roads.

Among the forests in western Montana, Flathead National Forest received $350,000, Lolo National Forest received $250,000 and the Bitterroot National Forest received $530,000. The funding will be spent on bridge repair, decommissioning and maintenance for roads and trails and the removal of fish barriers, especially in areas that support threatened or endangered species or provide drinking water for communities.

“The biggest benefits of this program are jobs and improved water quality and fish passage,” Chris Mehl, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, said. “These roads are part of our history, but they’re causing a lot of environmental and safety issues.”

Statewide, the Wilderness Society projects Montana’s total funding will create about 65 full- and part-time jobs and generate about $6 million in sales for Montana businesses, $100,000 in local and state taxes and around $1.7 million in wages.

Flathead National Forest’s funds will go toward four projects and be contracted out to area business, Germann said. The projects include a restoration of the Battery Creek watershed by replacing a culvert about 40 miles from Hungry Horse Dam on Westside Reservoir Road; trail work and culvert restoration on Baptiste Lookout Trail which was damaged in a fall of 2006 flood; and the Moose Roads Project, a removal of high-risk stream culverts and decommissioning of five miles of road that were identified after the 2002 Moose Fire.

Additionally, $40,000 will be used to clean about 400 culverts throughout the valley to reduce the risk of future failure and reduce sediment inputs.

Many of the roads, once built to environmental standards, no longer meet green benchmarks and prevent fish passage. A few of Flathead’s projects are aimed at benefiting Westslope Cutthroat habitat and other threatened and endangered species. “A lot of these culverts were built a long time ago and they’re just not up to doing the job they’re supposed to do,” Germann said. “Some of them act more as a barrier than a passage. We just know a lot more now about the impacts of roads than we did then.”

While environmental groups and the Forest Service say the federal monies are a great help, they note there’s still a long way to go before the problems and roads are fixed. The Northern Region, which includes Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota, put in project requests totaling $12 million and received $4.7 million. Flathead National Forest received enough funds to do work on just four of the 10 projects it submitted.

“A lot of this is materials and supplies that were put in years and years ago,” Germann said. “It’s kind of like working on your house – you have your home improvement list, but you get to things when you get to them and when the money is available. This gives us a jump on that list.”

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