Heavy equipment performs work on bridge in the national forests. Photo courtesy of Trout Unlimited

If the entire Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest road system in Western North Carolina were uncoiled and arranged in a single continuous route, it would stretch from Mount Pisgah to Mount Shasta in California.

While Forest Service roads are “not a sexy issue,” the topic may be the most meaningful during the ongoing revision of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests’ land management plan, Jill Gottessman of The Wilderness Society said.

“It’s one issue that seems to cross every other issue in the forest,” she said, whether the topic is access to recreation and iconic sites within the forest, conservation priorities, timber production or water quality.

“It all comes down to having a sustainable road system in the right places,” she said. “Roads should be front and center in the planning process.”

Yet maintaining the 2,320-mile road system is among the agency’s most formidable challenges, and according to some, the Forest Service must do more to reduce its maintenance backlog before adding more roads to the system for timber and restoration projects.

Damage to streams

“Roads are essential, but they are the greatest contributor to erosion and sedimentation in the forest,” said Hugh Irwin, also of The Wilderness Society, adding that conservation values should be a priority in managing the forests’ road network.

“The large, unmaintainable road system that we have highlights the need to look objectively at slope, stream crossings, road grade and determine what risk a road would have under increased rainfall due to climate change,” he said.

“The system needs to be right-sized for what we know is coming in the future.”

In fact, more rainfall over the last decade and heavy use in one of the nation’s most popular national forests has contributed to sediment runoff, water quality issues, access problems and barriers to aquatic species, such as native brook trout and salamanders. 

Essential for access

Staff officer Barry Jones of the National Forests of North Carolina, who oversees the transportation network in each of the four national forests in North Carolina, said the road system is the “backbone of mobility and access” in the forests for millions of users.

Jones said 868 miles of the road system is open to the public during some portion of the year. The remaining roadways are decommissioned or used to manage resources, such as timber projects or fire control. “Most (of the public roads) are in really good shape,” he said. “The structural integrity of the roads is good.”

The Forest Service classifies road miles on a scale of 1 to 5.

Level 1 roads are typically put in storage, while level 5 roads are open and “provide a high degree of comfort.”

Jones acknowledged that roads must be resilient and there is funding to adapt them to greater rainfall due to climate change. 

According to Jones, in the Pisgah Ranger District, 2013 was the wettest year on record. The second-wettest was 2018. In fact, five of the 10 wettest years have been reported within the last decade.

While the impact of a changing climate may have an impact on road quality, the legacy of the road system on public lands in Western North Carolina is also accountable.

An inherited problem

The 18th-century explorer and botanist William Bartram famously described the Western North Carolina landscape as a “world of mountains piled upon mountains.”

“The rugged landscape of the region has always been a challenge to build and maintain roads,” Irwin said.

“When industrial logging came to the region in the late 1800s, their primary concern was access. They didn’t care about the damage,” he said, referring to century-old roads and rail beds that were carved into steep terrain and along streams to transport timber.

“Many of those roads became the legacy of our road system. It’s a problem we inherited.”

Road miles were also carved by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and in the postwar era, when the agency focused on timber production, which required an expansion of the road system, Irwin said.

Though some roads are in good shape, others have been decommissioned and slipped into disrepair.

Can’t afford to fix roads

Indeed, like many other public land units, the four national forests in North Carolina have a colossal backlog of repair projects. For the 2019 fiscal year, deferred maintenance surpassed $45 million.

Jones said the Great American Outdoors Act, which Congress passed over the summer, will “make a huge difference” in the backlog of road projects.

The legislation was signed by President Donald Trump in August and created the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, which will provide $9.5 billion over five years to undertake the massive pile of deferred maintenance on public land units in the U.S.

However, according to attorney Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center, the problem is simple: The Forest Service has more roads than it can maintain. 

His worry is that the draft forest plan released earlier this year doesn’t do enough to address the backlog of maintenance.

According to figures from the Forest Service provided in a draft transportation analysis in 2015, the agency had enough funding to maintain 12.5% of the road system in Pisgah National Forest and 14% in Nantahala. 

In 2015, the SELC commissioned a survey of closed roads to determine if they were adequately maintained to protect aquatic ecosystem integrity. The survey studied roads in tracts of land in portions of the forest that are relatively undeveloped with gated, dead-end roads due to low use. 

The results, said Evans, were sobering. 

In all, the group surveyed 322 stream and road intersections. Among them, 40% were in violation of “forest practice guidelines” because of erosion at the crossing or sediment delivered into the stream. The inspectors also determined that aquatic organism passage was poor and crossings of smaller streams with pipe culverts were not adequate for small fish and salamanders. 

Despite their conclusions, Evans said, the information in the survey did not inform the draft plan.

“We sent the report to the Forest Service, mentioned it in public comments and had meetings to explain it, but the (plan) spends only seven pages discussing the road system,” said Evans, adding that there are no plan components that would reduce road mileage or increase maintenance levels to ensure the system can be adequately maintained. 

He said the proposed forest plan fails to “right-size” the road system to match funding expectations. In fact, he anticipates that the road system will expand to meet the proposed forest plan’s timber harvest and timber restoration objectives. 

In the proposed forest plan, which was presented to the public in February, the agency developed a tiered approach to land stewardship. Tier 1 goals identify activities and objectives that are within the agency’s budget and capacity. Tier 2 goals outline what the agency can accomplish with the help of partners.

For example, a tier 1 goal aims to maintain 280 miles of roads annually. The tier 2 goal would reduce the road maintenance backlog by 10% annually. 

Although the tier 2 goal reduces the backlog, Evans said the tier 1 benchmark should be more ambitious in addressing the backlog and represents the status quo.

The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership — a collaborative group that provided comprehensive feedback to the Forest Service on the proposed plan — suggested that the tier 1 objective should reduce the road maintenance backlog by 25% and increase the tier 2 objective to reduce the backlog by 50%.

Currently, the agency uses a management process to set priorities, plan, budget, monitor and evaluate the condition of roads.

Jones of the USFS said contractors are employed on a rotating cycle to repair and maintain roads, and the Forest Service uses a database to track conditions. Each road, he said, is on a regular inspection cycle.

The Forest Service, Jones told Carolina Public Press, will complete a “travel analysis report” within three years of approval of the forest’s land management plan. The management plan is expected to be finalized in late 2021.

The travel analysis is intended to identify a “minimum road system” that can be maintained within the agency’s anticipated budget and resource objectives. The process is intended to inform the Forest Service on altering road management objectives, which roads to add or decommission and future maintenance responsibilities.

Evans said Pisgah and Nantahala are the only national forests in the U.S. yet to complete a travel analysis report. In 2015, the agency tabled the analysis to focus resources on the forest plan revision that began in 2012.

“The Forest Service dove headfirst into planning and based its management objectives on the road system we currently have rather than the road system we should have,” Evans said. “This effectively locks in a future road system that will not be financially sustainable to maintain.”

Promising partnerships

In the future, however, the Forest Service will rely on other sources of funds and expertise to address road maintenance. One promising partnership is with Trout Unlimited.

TU cold water conservation manager Andy Brown has trained several dozen volunteers to survey streams and road intersections in the national forests to identify places where roads are eroding, where there is significant sedimentation or where culverts to allow streams to flow underneath roads have failed.

Obstructed culverts can create a substantial barrier to species that migrate to breeding grounds or to higher-elevation streams seeking a cooler climate, for example.

TU has focused efforts on two large landscapes, Sky Island in Pisgah National Forest, which includes watersheds southwest of Asheville, and the Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River watershed near Morganton.

Brown said heavy rains can burden metal or concrete culverts with fallen tree limbs, gravel, sand and other debris. 

“Trout and salamanders need to move through the stream system to access higher-elevation headwater streams to spawn, to escape hot summers and to hide from predators,” he said. “The more places you can get to hide, the better off you’ll be. The more habitat you have, the greater your ability for native and wild trout to thrive and grow to a healthy size and population.”

TU, with other partners, has funded the design and replacement of culverts with a bottomless arch structure that allows streams to flow through and provide a wider path for organisms and debris, such as branches from dead hemlocks, to pass during heavy rains. The bottomless structures are designed to last 50-75 years and are more durable than traditional culvert structures.

“For native brook trout this is critical and urgent,” he said.

Since the project began in 2014, the partnership has completed 13 culvert replacement projects. In all, the Forest Service has contributed $1.25 million, and TU has raised $1.2 million.

Closed roads limit access

Of course, a well-maintained road system is also vital for human transportation.

Graham County economic development director Sophia Paulos said access to places within Nantahala National Forest is a significant concern among residents in the rural southwestern county.

“When roads are closed because of lack of funding or maintenance, it denies people access to places they remember going to as kids — bear-hunting spots, fishing streams deep in the woods and old homesites,” she said.

“When they are denied access because a road isn’t maintained, it’s disheartening and is the ultimate example of people’s frustration with the agency.”

She also said the local search-and-rescue departments are responsible for evacuating injured users or to find lost hikers. 

“When roads are closed, we can’t get to them,” she said. “What’s more frustrating than that?”

Roads also provide access to timber harvesting for economic extraction or for ecological restoration. Though the timber industry is diminished in scale, it’s still a meaningful part of the rural Western North Carolina economy. 

The forest products industry in the North Carolina mountains contributed over $3.4 billion to the state economy in 2018, according to N.C. State University’s extension service.

For timber companies, restoring or building new roads adds significantly to the cost of cutting lumber. 

“In places where there is a poor network of roads, the delivered price of timber isn’t enough to justify bidding on a project,” said Rob Elliot, the western vice president of the N.C. Forestry Association, a nonprofit organization.

“We acknowledge that the USFS is underfunded, and the current budget is not enough to support maintenance.” 

While conservation groups, such as Trout Unlimited, play a critical role in the stewardship of roads and their environmental impact, so too does the lumber industry.

“In general, the industry wants the same thing as other national forest stakeholders: an efficient and well-maintained road network that allows for (cost-effective) timber harvests and forest restoration projects without negative impacts to water quality and the soil,” he said.

“We want good, sustainable forest management to occur, whether that involves reopening closed roads or creating new ones.”

Yet, industries in Western North Carolina that rely on timber as a primary input, such as paper, wood processing and furniture, typically rely on timber from sources other than the national forest. Elliot said that over the last several decades, annual timber harvests in Nantahala and Pisgah declined significantly.

“We’ve figured out how to survive, but it’s to the detriment of the forest itself. The forest’s health has declined as management has declined,” he added.

“The lack of economically and environmentally sustainable timber projects makes accomplishing broadly supported forest management objectives to manage wildfire, improve wildlife habitat or to achieve other ecological goals more difficult to implement.”

Designing timber projects that all forest stakeholders can agree on is challenging, but Elliot said that a well-maintained road system is a critical factor.

“There is a global demand for sustainably harvested southern Appalachian hardwoods, and if we’re smart stakeholders, we can work together with the Forest Service to design functional projects that support the local economy and the health of the forest,” Elliot said. 

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.