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Infrastructure Act includes money for forest road work, wildlife crossings

Trails Missoula
Posted at 5:27 PM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 19:27:47-05

MISSOULA — Supporters of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act have touted all the highways and roads that will be improved, but some are celebrating all the roads that could be removed, or at least improved for wildlife.

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan bill, which will provide $1.2 trillion over five years to repair and improve roads, transportation systems, water systems and broadband connectivity.

Highways and bridges got the most publicity, but buried among the details of the measure is a section funding the Forest Service Legacy Road and Trail Remediation Program, which Congress created in 2008 to help the Forest Service manage its huge network of roads, trails and bridges.

The program’s emphasis is on reducing or eliminating the amount of sediment flowing into streams or wetlands caused by poorly maintained roads and trails. As a result, most of the agency’s work focuses on old road decommissioning, culvert repair and fish passage while remaining funds go toward maintenance, wildfire and storm-damage repairs, and assessing road conditions.

Like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the program has often suffered from Congress allocating only small amounts of money for the work. Congress allocated a high of $90 million in fiscal year 2009 but the funding was part of another infrastructure bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. After that, Congress continually cut the program’s allocation.

Since 2018, the program has been completely defunded.

That’s why conservation groups were happy to see that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act not only allocates $50 million a year to the Legacy Roads and Trials program for the next five years, but it also permanently authorizes the program.

“For too long, the transportation infrastructure on national forests has been neglected, with crumbling roads limiting access for recreation and impacting water quality in streams. This program is especially important for climate resiliency and will improve river health while also ensuring access to public lands for all to enjoy,” said Thomas O’Keefe of American Whitewater.

A yearly allocation of $50 million doesn’t go too far for an agency that oversees 370,000 miles of roads, 159,000 miles of trail, hundreds of thousands of culverts and more than 13,000 bridges. For example, the U.S. Forest Service presently has a list of priority culvert projects that would restore more than 1,700 miles of streams, but the projects would cost around $109 million. Meanwhile, more than 370,000 miles of roads — many built half a century ago — have more than $3.2 billion in unfulfilled maintenance needs.

But it’s better than nothing, said Marlies Wierenga of WildEarth Guardians.

“It hasn’t received $50 million for a while. So this is going to be super helpful,” Wierenga said. “And it’s good that the program is permanent. The Forest Service in the past hasn’t always embraced the program. But now it’s there, it’s part of the restoration portfolio, so they need to make sure they implement it correctly.”

The Lolo National Forest could use the money because it recently ran into problems trying to authorize a logging project and the roads to go with it in the Ninemile Creek drainage. It was found the Ninemile area has many more miles of road than the Forest Service was aware of, and grizzly bears have poor survival rates in areas with a lot of roads. So grizzly advocates sued to get the Forest Service to deal with the roads.

Many of the roads are closed to the public, so the Forest Service says it doesn’t have to count them. But closing them doesn’t keep the public from using them. A citizen-science survey conducted by the Swan View Coalition in 2004 found that roughly 68% of closed roads showed evidence of use because of ineffective closure methods. That’s why wildlife advocates want the Forest Service to decommission unneeded roads, rather than just closing them off.

“Shedding the costly excess of logging roads built over a half a century ago and putting people to work fixing the roads and trails we do need is a common-sense solution for wildlife, fish, clean water, and communities,” Weirenga said.

In another section of the Act dealing with the Highway Trust Fund, Congress set aside between $60 million and $80 million a year for five years for a wildlife-crossing pilot program. The program will provide grants for highway projects that build underpasses or overpasses to reduce the risk of wildlife collisions and improve connectivity for wildlife, such as bears, mule deer, antelope and elk.

That money is sorely needed because crossing structures, particularly overpasses, can be expensive. Many groups in Montana have advocated for such structures crossing Interstate 90 in several places, but federal and state budgets haven’t had the money until now.

“This bipartisan legislation includes the largest federal investment in wildlife crossings in our nation’s history, and provides critical resources for other programs like the Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trail Remediation Program to help support healthy habitats and connectivity for fish and wildlife on public lands and water,” said Mike Leahy, National Wildlife Federation director of wildlife and hunting and fishing policy.

“The construction of wildlife crossings will reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and is a key conservation strategy to help wildlife survive impacts from climate change and development.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration report titled “Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Reduction Study,” more than a million wildlife-vehicle collisions occur every year nationwide, amounting to a total cost of more than $8 trillion.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.