Permanent Damage From Temporary Logging Roads

The latest attempt by the Forest Service to make logging palatable is “temporary” 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. Temporary roads only have temporary impacts—or so we are led to believe. 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. Weeds and disease are one of the most pernicious and problematic impacts associated with roads. In the long term, the introduction of weeds and disease may do more damage to forests than the logging. For instance, a root fungus that is introduced by logging equipment along logging roads is decimating Port Orford Cedar stands in Oregon and California where the tree grows.

Road beds provide access for hikers and hunters—giving more potential disturbance to wildlife. And ORVers typically find ways to get around gates and other obstacles to use the roads as roads. In short, a temporary road is mostly a mirage. It is essentially a new logging road.

Now some will argue that temporary roads are better than regular roads, especially if they are “reclaimed.” If a road is fully reclaimed, there is something to this argument. The problem is that there is no legal definition of what constitutes “reclaimed” and most roads are not fully reclaimed, in part, because it is very difficult and expensive to do reclamation.

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.

The FS usually does go a step further, however, to close temporary roads. Typically the agency will put up a gate. Nevertheless, most gates, unless built extremely well, do not keep ORVers from using the road on the other side and sometimes even the agency continues to use the road for “administrative purposes.”

While such “temporary” roads may reduce road impacts somewhat, they are nowhere as good as no road at all. And this is the rub. I’ve had environmentalists telling me that I don’t have to worry about “new” logging roads because they are all going to be “temporary”. For example, that is one of the claims of the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership proponents. Don’t’ worry, all logging will be from existing roads and any new roads will be “temporary” and must be “removed” in five years.

For one thing, such temporary roads will effectively be a road for five years at the least, and may exist far longer as a marginally reclaimed road, especially in the arid environment found in much of Southwest Montana. Such “temporary” roads will exhibit nearly all the problems of a regular road except that they may not be used for public vehicle travel.

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 reclamation mean? 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. Temporary roads may be better than a permanent addition to the road network, but it should never be thought of as a zero impact. Low fat ice cream is still ice cream—and you’re not likely to lose weight eating a lot of it. Temporary roads are still roads, and typically have all of the major impacts associated with any road.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is editor of Wildfire: a Century of Failed Forest Policy.


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy