On a crisp afternoon last October, beneath a canopy of larch, lodgepole, and red cedar, Pete Leusch led me up a trail in the heart of the Yaak Valley, the densely forested corner of northwest Montana that remains one of the wildest ecosystems in the Continental United States. A steep mountain stream coursed to our left and the broad, star-shaped leaves of thimbleberry lined the path – “A little mushy, but just delicious,” Leusch said of the berries. We picked our way around scattered clusters of elk pellets, nodded at the parallel scars that bears had etched in bark. The morning hung earthy and moist, like aerosolized mulch.
Leusch lowered his long, angular frame into a crouch to better examine a pine seedling that had thrust its head above the trail. “I’m really psyched about the way this is looking,” he said, his eyes alight beneath the knitted purple beanie pulled low over his forehead. “This is a lot better than it was in spring. Last time I was here, this was all raw.”
Without the commentary from Leusch, watershed restoration coordinator at the Yaak Valley Forest Council, it would have been impossible to tell that just a year ago, this wooded trail was a rutted logging road operated by the US Forest Service. Though the road had been officially closed for years, it had continued to inflict damage upon the stream below. As rivulets of water coursed down the adjacent slope and across the roadbed, they picked up loads of loose dirt, which was eventually deposited into the creek. Once in the watershed, the sediment could smother the eggs and spawning grounds of native westslope cutthroat and redband trout. Leusch and the Forest Service had identified the five-mile-long road as one of the most harmful in the Yaak.
That’s why the time had come to destroy it.
If interstates are this country’s arteries, Forest Service roads are its capillaries: its most minuscule, ubiquitous vessels. Although President Bill Clinton’s 2001roadless rule protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest from logging and road-building, our forests are nonetheless shot through with roads –380,000 miles of them, at last count, from paved double-laners to dirt tracks. The interstate highway system, by comparison, is a mere 50,000 miles. You could take Forest Service roads to the moon, and most of the way back.
For the wildlife that dwells in America’s national forests, of course, roads aren’t circulatory systems – they’re hatchets that chop up viable habitat by interrupting movement and aiding the incursion of hunters, RVers, and disruptive traffic. And nowhere are forest roads a bigger – and more controversial – problem than in the Yaak Valley. Combined with the nearby Cabinet Mountains, the region comprises one of six grizzly bear recovery zones in the United States, areas where the federal government has committed to rebuilding populations of endangered bears. In the Yaak, where woodland tracks all too often bring grizzlies into contact with poachers, protecting bruins has primarily meant shutting down roads. According to Kris Newgard, a hydrologist with the Kootenai National Forest’s Three Rivers Ranger District, a full 78 percent of the region’s roads have been closed to motorized access.
Gating off roads has undeniable benefits to wildlife: closures have been shown to help elk live longer, for instance (although in the case of the Yaak’s grizzlies, the closures have arguably done more to antagonize locals than bring back bears). But while putting up barriers has shut out humans, it’s done nothing to prevent dirt roadbeds from migrating, in the form of sediment, into the watershed. Even worse are the culverts that allow streams to cross beneath forest roads. Without frequent maintenance, culverts can become clogged or damaged; their eventual failure is like the detonation of a sediment bomb. Says Leusch: “The grizzly bear is a good species to focus on. But we’re saying, ‘Let’s talk more about fish.’”
To prevent aquatic disasters, the Forest Service has slowly but steadily begun to unmake its infrastructure. They’ve undertaken this unraveling through a technique called road decommissioning, a process that doesn’t just close roads, but helps nature reclaim them.
The thimbleberry-lined trail that Leusch showed me last October provides a good case study. Years back, the road had been cut into a hillside; the excised material, called fill, had been dumped on the slope below the road bed, where it lay, at risk of slipping into the stream below. In the fall of 2012, a bulldozer had trundled down the road, scooped up the fill, and, during the course of several weeks, reshaped it to match the natural contour of the slope. Culverts, too, were yanked out. Although Leusch planted a few seedlings, most of the re-vegetation was coordinated by nature itself. “When you recontour a road, the last thing you’re pulling out is that topsoil, which is full of old seeds that have been buried,” explains Adam Switalski, the head of InRoads Consulting. “Some of those seeds are still viable. It’s like a time capsule.”
To be sure, not all road decommissioning projects are so intensive. Since 1995, Newgard says, the Forest Service has decommissioned 204 miles of roads in her district, a full 8 percent of the road network. Many of those miles, however, have received lesser treatment – for instance, road “ripping,” whereby a bulldozer simply tears up the vestigial roadbed. The Forest Service’s count also includes roads that have become thoroughly re-vegetated without any intervention at all. Still, says Newgard, “In terms of restoring soil function and vegetation, a full recontour provides the best long term results.”
The problem – as is typical for a cash-strapped federal land agency – is funding. A single mile of road recontouring costs the Forest Service around $10,000 in contracted labor. Take out a culvert, says Newgard, and you tack another $4,000 on to the price tag. “That can really bring up your cost per mile.”
That’s where Leusch and the Yaak Valley Forest Council come in. Back in 1999, the Forest Council (not to be confused with the Forest Service) created a new body called the Headwaters Partnership, a coalition of local organizations and agencies dedicated to restoring fish habitat throughout the Yaak. Since then, Headwaters has cleared more than 40 culverts, surveyed hundreds of miles of streams for sediment impacts, and helped implement 40 miles of decommissioning. It’s also injected some much-needed funding into decommissioning efforts. This year, for instance, the Headwaters Partnership will foot the bill on a 3.5-mile, $34,000 project. The day that I visited the council’s snug, dimly-lit headquarters – a space that looked more like a trapper’s cabin than the office of a NGO – was, by coincidence, smack in the middle of the October 2013 government shutdown, an event that underscored the risks of relying solely on agency funding in this era of fanatical austerity. “These partnerships are looking a lot more appealing right now,” Leusch said.
Not only has the Forest Service benefited from Headwaters’ involvement, so has the surrounding community. The Yaak was once a timber-based economy, but shifting lumber markets have shuttered sawmills, and the median household income in the surrounding towns is just half the national average. With the mills closed, says Robyn King, executive director of the council, “We have to think about what new jobs in the woods are going to look like.”
King, a 30-year Yaak resident whose twang betrays her Alabama roots, envisions the creation of an economy based on restoration and sustainable forestry. Already, Headwaters has functioned as a regional stimulus package, providing opportunities for local contractors and seasonal surveying jobs for citizens. King says: “Our longer-term goal is to build a restoration workforce.”
Although road decommissioning is often focused on assisting aquatic life, Adam Switalski has proved its value for terrestrial animals, too. Beginning in 2006, Switalski, then a staff scientist at Wildlands CPR, set up an array of camera traps along roads in the nearby Clearwater National Forest, in Idaho, where the Forest Service had decommissioned hundreds of miles of roads. The results were stark: Bears used fully recontoured roads far more readily than roads that had simply been gated off, probably because the shrubs, like thimbleberry, that flourish on recontoured roads provide cover and food. “You’ve turned a wildlife sink, where bears are being shot, into high-quality habitat,” Switalski says.
In subsequent camera trapping efforts, Switalski found that mule deer, elk, and moose also favored recontoured roads. And when herbivores come back, the carnivores follow. In his Missoula office, Switalski showed me grainy photos of wolves, lynx, grizzlies, and mountain lions traversing decommissioned roads in the Yaak. The upshot, Switalski concludes, is that the Forest Service could exponentially improve carnivore habitat and connectivity throughout the country with a relatively minimal amount of restoration. “If you reclaimed just one percent of road infrastructure per year for the next 25 years, you would increase available wolf habitat by 60 percent,” he says.
When your road infrastructure is sprawling enough to wrap 15 times around the Equator, though, reclaiming even one percent annually is no small endeavor. The only way to complete the Herculean task: one tiny bite at a time. Back in the Yaak, Leusch pointed out a spring tripping down the slope and across the new trail. Where the metal cylinder of a culvert had once stood, now lay only slick pebbles and moss. “My observation has been that this should be an easy thing to do,” Leusch said. He hopped over the trickle. “Roads aren’t forever.”