Forest Service analyzing Gifford Pinchot road system

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter



The Gifford Pinchot National Forest will complete a plan by October 2015 to help it address an annual $4.2-million road maintenance shortfall.

Garth Smelser, deputy forest supervisor, told a public meeting last week the Pinchot has 4,100 miles of roads and 115 bridges maintained by a combination of a small road crew and contracts with private companies.

Half the bridges will have exceeded their design life in the next 10 years.

Annual road and bridge needs are $5.1 million and the budget in 2013 was $950,000.

Road atlas available

Copies of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s 2014 Motor Vehicle Use Map are available free of charge at the forest headquarters, 10600 N.E. 51st Circle.

The 99-page “map’’ is actually an atlas.

The black-and-white document shows which trails and roads are open to high-legal vehicles, motorcycles only and wheeled vehicles 50 inches or less.

Copies also are available at ranger stations in Trout Lake, Chelatchie and Randle.

Failing roads and bridges put public safety at risk and unmaintained roads can degrade natural resources, Smelser said.

All national forests are in the process of completing a travel analysis.

“We have to do this,’’ Smelser said. “This is very important across the agency.’’

By Sept. 30, 2015, the Gifford Pinchot will have a report that’s really a set of recommendations for future management of its roads, he said.

Those recommendations then will be used by the Forest Service as it does planning for timber sales and other management activities.

Smelser said no changes will come immediately upon completion of the travel analysis by Sept. 30, 2015, but later as projects are under taken.

“This process only changes management years into the future in specific project planning,’’ he said.

Those projects will go through environmental reviews where comments on changes to the roads would be evaluated.

“We haven’t talked about closing roads,’’ he said. “We’re talking about strategies to invest….Closing roads often is not the best use of money.’’

Gifford Pinchot staff members heard a wide variety of comments at the public meeting in Vancouver last week.

Several members of the public commented about the potential for converting unneeded roads to trails.

But Tom Linde of Carson, a former Gifford Pinchot National Forest employee, pointed out that the forest’s policy is to close a mile of existing trail for every new mile added.

Smelser and Sue Ripp, Gifford Pinchot partnerships coordinator, affirmed there is a practice in place to not allow the net trail miles to increase.

Ruth Tracy, soil and water program manager for the Gifford Pinchot, said the forest also lacks money for trail maintenance.

Jim Anderson of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington said the analysis also needs to consider roads that were damaged by flooding.

He specifically mentioned Panther Creek road No. 65 between the Thomas Lake No. 111 trailhead and the junction with Wind River road No. 30.

There were several comments from the public about the reduction in timber sales in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The forest once sold 400 million board feet of timber and now sells about 30 million board feet annually.

Smelser said the agency is given a budget to prepare timber sales and does its best. Sale volume is increasing at about 5 percent a year.

“The progression that you’re looking for is happening,’’ he said.

State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, was among those advocating more logging.

“It’s not ecological devastation to do a timber harvest,’’ Orcutt said.

While logging levels in the 1950s and 1960s were too high, today’s sale volume is too low, he said.

Jerry Sauer of Camas asked why the Gifford Pinchot National Forest does not use independent contractors for road maintenance.

Smelser said the Gifford Pinchot is one of the national forests which has maintained a small road crew on staff. Those crews can respond quickly to emergencies, he said.

Managers at national forests which no longer have road crews often lament the loss, he said.

Orcutt also said the Forest Service is transitioning national forests toward wilderness values.

As American society ages, roads rather than trails will be more important to maintaining public access, Orcutt said.

Smelser reiterated that it is the job of the Forest Service to balance the competing interests in the national forests.

“For every passionate opinion here, there’s one on the other side,’’ he said.