by David Govus : District Leader and Board Member
This article continues an examination of Forest Service roads, their condition, current uses and future. As the article in the recent winter issue of Forest News noted, some important Forest Service system roads have deteriorated to the point that they are being used as off-road vehicle courses by convoys of fourwheel-drive vehicles, predominately Jeeps. The badly damaged Tray Mountain Road is the poster child for this disturbing phenomenon. Since the article was published, and following complaints from Georgia ForestWatch, the Forest Service has temporarily closed the eastern two thirds of that 14-mile road. This is an encouraging development, but what is the permanent solution?
In the case of the Tray Mountain Road, one Forest Service official I spoke with was not certain that he had access to a vehicle capable of negotiating the road. Without the ability to survey the road, crafting a plan to put it back in service will be difficult, assuming the funds can be found to not just repair, but to rebuild it.
Nationally, the Forest Service has a road system that encompasses somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 miles, depending on who is counting. This road system could span the globe over 15 times. Despite the acute need, funds for road maintenance and repair have been steadily declining. Given the massive budget deficits and obligations of the Federal Government, there is absolutely no reason to think that this trend will not continue.
The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests (CONF) have over 1,500 miles of roads to maintain and estimates that the forest needs 1.7 million dollars per year to maintain these roads. The current appropriation is $578,000, but $350,000 of that is needed for fixed administrative costs, leaving a little over $200,000 that can actually be spent on the ground. It is clear that this amount of funding is insufficient to improve the road system, which will continue to decline. Further complicating this matter is climate change and the prediction that it will bring more violent weather events. This has already occurred on the CONF, with violent storm events in December 2015 causing landsides and road closures on four roads in the Conasauga Ranger District. Several of these roads that collapsed were built by the Civilian Conservation Core and had been in place for 80 years. Fortunately, the Forest Service was able to access emergency funds and make repairs, but some of these roads were out of commission for over a year. As more greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere it seems likely that there will be more damage to the forest road system from violent storm events.
The Forest Service’s response to this crisis is to study the problem. In the early 2000s there was the Roads Analysis Policy (RAP) as part of the Forest Planning Process, and more recently the Transportation Analysis Policy (TAP). Despite the TAP finding that over 80% of the watersheds on the CONF are at risk from erosion or sedimentation, there is no urgent call for closing roads. Instead, TAP directs the District Rangers to use the TAP report to further study the road system during the process of planning timber cutting projects. As a result, there have been a few recommendations for road closures and classification changes, but as projects take years to plan and implement, road rightsizing is proceeding at a glacial pace. Oftentimes the recommendation is to change the maintenance level classification from ML3 to ML2, that is, from a maintenance level that will accommodate normal passenger vehicles to one that will only accommodate high-clearance vehicles. Even though it often seems that every other vehicle in Atlanta traffic is an outsized pickup, in fact most Americans choose to drive fuel-efficient passenger vehicles and are increasingly being excluded from their public road system. Forest Service roads in the CONF that once could accommodate passenger cars have been turned into defacto off-road courses, dramatically accelerating their deterioration.
Despite this crisis, the Forest Service continues to propose new roads. Just a few years ago, as part of the Warwoman project, the Agency proposed building a new million-dollar road up the west side of Tuckaluge Creek in a potential Roadless Area despite the fact that there was an existing system road up the east side of the creek. By its own analysis, the Forest Service predicted that the new road would add to the silt load in Tuckaluge Creek for 10 years. The reason given was a short, steep section on the existing road that was eroding. This made little sense, as it would have been much cheaper and less damaging to modify the steep section. When Georgia ForestWatch protested and looked into the matter, it turned out that the actual reason the new road was proposed was to accommodate tractor trailer trucks in order to haul logs from future timber projects. The existing road is not negotiable by tractor trailer trucks, and more and more timber contractors qualified to bid on Forest Service projects do not possess straight trucks that can be used to haul logs on steep and narrow Forest Service roads.
Clearly, the Forest Service, here on the CONF and elsewhere, needs to change its attitude towards roads and accept the fact that many roads need to be closed and healed. Scarce maintenance dollars should be reserved for important system roads that provide access to the public. Roads designed to accommodate passenger cars cannot be allowed to degenerate into off-road vehicle courses, as has happened to the Tray Mountain and Nimblewill Gap roads and others.
Unfortunately, even when the Forest Service decides to close a road, they have not demonstrated the ability and resolve to do so. Over a dozen years ago, the current Forest Plan affirmed that the Appalachian Approach Trail from Amicalola State Park to Springer Mountain was entitled to the same protection as the Appalachian Trail itself. Georgia ForestWatch pointed out that the badly deteriorated Frosty Mountain Road, which closely parallels the Trail and crosses it in several places, stretching from Nimblewill Gap to the Len Foote Hike Inn turn-off, had been turned into an ORV (off road vehicle) course complete with a huge mudbog. After several years of cajoling, the Forest Service gated the road. Since that time, the gates have been torn down repeatedly. Despite entreaties by Georgia ForestWatch to create a more secure blockade, the Forest Service continued to replace torn down gates only to experience the same results. The latest replacement only lasted a few days. When Georgia ForestWatch contacted the Blue Ridge Ranger District we were informed that a decision had been made to construct trenches and berms to finally close the road. Upon further discussion we learned that there were some difficulties in implementing this plan. The District does not have an employee certified to operate the excavator needed to build the barrier, nor anyone with the commercial driver’s license necessary to move the machine to the site. Even if these problems were resolved, the entire Chattahoochee National Forest only has one excavator shared among the four Districts. The Blue Ridge Ranger District expects to possess the excavator again in six months.