In 2019 the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Legacy Roads and Trails (LRT) program was virtually eliminated by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, removing a decade-old dedicated budget line item for this important work. This Forest Service Program, started in 2008, is a widely popular, bi-partisan conservation program that directs USFS work to urgently needed road decommissioning, road and trail repair and maintenance, and removal of fish passage barriers.
The program emphasizes areas where Forest Service roads may be contributing to water quality problems in streams and water bodies that support threatened, endangered, and sensitive species or community water sources.
The LRT program was first conceived in Washington State, where state agencies, private forest landowners and the USFS committed to address their forest road problems – as required by the Endangered Species Act (related to listed salmon runs) and the Clean Water Act. The deadline for completion was 2015. From 2000 to 2007, while state and private landowners made significant progress, the USFS fell far behind – mostly because the general road maintenance budget was insufficient. Several groups worked with state agencies and former Representative Norm Dicks (WA06) to find a solution and Legacy Roads and Trails was established. Not only have Washington’s watersheds that support clean and safe drinking water, wildlife and fish habitat and recreation opportunities benefited, but so have lands and waters across the nation.
Over the last decade, on national forest lands in Washington State, LRT funding produced significant measurable results:
- Maintained and/or storm-proofed 2,298 miles of needed roads, helping Washingtonians get where they wish to go on Forest Service lands;
- Reclaimed 313 miles of unneeded roads, preventing sediment from entering streams, many of which supply drinking water to rural and urban towns and cities;
- Restored fish passage at 55 stream crossings, boosting opportunity for Washington’s $1.1B sportfishing industry and advancing salmon restoration goals;
- Improved 105 miles of trails, keeping the $535M National Forest recreation industry going strong and
- Saved America’s taxpayers $3 million per yearin road maintenance costs
In Washington alone, the Forest Service maintains 21,561 miles of roads – which is enough to drive from Seattle to D.C. eight times! Only 67% of these are technically “open” for public access, and many of those “open” roads are actually inaccessible due to lack of maintenance, landslides, sinkholes, potholes, large gullies, broken culverts and bridges and storm damage.
The Forest Service also maintains 9,167 miles of trails in Washington – which is enough to hike from Seattle to D.C. more than three times! Many of these trails are also falling apart, risking public safety. And there are still over 990 barriers to fish passage on national forest lands.
The Legacy Roads and Trails program aims to adapt the road system to a more manageable size over time, reducing fiscal and environmental burdens and enabling the Forest Service to ensure better and more reliable access. It’s a simple solution to a formidable problem. But it needs funding to succeed.