Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest asking for help as it decides what roads to keep up

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 8, 2013 

MT. BAKER-SNOQUALMIE NATIONAL FOREST

The U.S. Forest Service says it does not have enough money to maintain the 2,500 miles of roads in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

MT. BAKER-SNOQUALMIE NATIONAL FO — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Saying there's money to maintain just a quarter of the 2,500 miles of roads in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is asking people what roads are most important to them and why.

Forest officials will use the information as they decide which roads to upgrade, decommission, close or convert to trails in the national forest in the coming years.

"What we have right now is not sustainable. Something has to change. I'm not certain what that is. That's why we need people's help," said Jennifer Eberlien, forest supervisor for Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

People can provide their input during a Tuesday, Sept. 10, meeting that begins at 5:30 p.m. at Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave.

The U.S. Forest Service is conducting the Sustainable Roads Analysis because of a federal directive. It requires each national forest to implement a plan - by Sept. 30, 2015 - for the minimum road system needed to provide access for recreation, management, restoration as well as protection of resources.

The forest's roads were built in the past 60 years, primarily for timber harvests and sales.

As the use of those roads for timber harvests declined so, too, did the money to maintain them.

"We don't have that any more," Eberlien said. "That funding source has been dramatically reduced."

Meanwhile, more than 5 million people play in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest each year, and demand for road access continues to be high for recreation, wilderness and tribal needs.

The budget to maintain roads dropped from $688,000 last year to $250,000 this year.

Those fewer dollars come as forest officials face issues that include larger, more frequent storms - which wash out roads or cause other damage - and the link between road maintenance and environmental degradation, such as damaged roads slumping into rivers.

Forest officials said they will be able to maintain 628 miles of roads this year - 86 percent for passenger cars and the rest for high-clearance vehicles.

It costs roughly $715 per mile to maintain roads for high-clearance vehicles and $1,750 a mile for passenger cars, according to forest officials, by way of explaining that road maintenance is expensive.

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie also is working with a variety of groups that use forest roads, including hunting, off-road vehicle and environmental interests as well as the Washington Trails Association, which serves hikers and preserves hiking opportunities in the state.

Jonathan Guzzo, its advocacy program manager, said the forest's road budget is "woefully inadequate to the task."

That's the case in the region's national forests overall, according to the organization's report, "State of Access: the Future of Roads on Public Lands."

It stated that funding for repair and maintenance of forest roads in region 6, composed of Washington and Oregon, had dropped from $90 million in 1990 to $17 million in 2012.

To help, WTA recommended in part that the U.S. Forest Service receive what the organization called a fair share of the fuel tax - saying that Congress needed to recognize that recreation in national forests contributed $11.2 billion to the gross domestic product during 2004-2008.

"This contribution is dependent on an open and maintained road system," WTA stated in its report.

FOREST ROADS MEETING

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has scheduled a series of meetings to gather public input for its Sustainable Roads effort, including one for Tuesday, Sept. 10, in Bellingham.

The meeting is 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave. An RSVP is required because only 48 people can be at a session and participation is limited to one meeting per person.

RSVP by going to this Forest Service webpage, clicking on "Sustainable Roads" and then selecting "Meetings."

People who can't go to a meeting may give their input at the Sustainable Roads blog.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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