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Addressing Road Problems in Olympic National Forest (WA)

Posted: 01/18/2003
by Thomas O'Keefe

Over the past few years, many of us who enjoy paddling on the Olympic Peninsula have witnessed the slow but steady degradation of the road network. Now that the peak of logging activity has passed with the removal of much of the timber and new requirements to protect spotted owls, we are left with a road network that has seen very little maintenance over the past decade. Convenient access to the Sitkum was lost, followed by Matheny Creek and Sam’s River, and most recently the Upper Dosewallips. Aside from the lost access, however, the influx of sediment and debris associated with the road failures has resulted in severe degradation of aesthetic qualities of these rivers and their aquatic habitat.

Forest Road failure in Sam's drainage
While the impacts of a new clear cut are often the most visually dramatic result of logging, it’s often a poorly engineered road network that is responsible for the worst damage. There are two primary reasons for this. First, many forest roads are constructed using side-cast techniques where half the road is cut into the hillside and this fill is then pushed to the outside of the slope to form the other half of the road. Over time, organic material in the fill breaks down and the outside edge of the road begins to fail. The second source of impact is poorly engineered road crossings. The cheapest and quickest way to build a road crossing is to throw in a culvert and then backfill with dirt. While this system is effective most of the time, problems occur during big winter storms. If a culvert becomes partially blocked or the flow of water exceeds the design size, water starts to dam up behind it. The result is catastrophic failure of the road. When the “dam” breaks, the mass of water and debris can scour out the channel for miles downstream, destroying key habitat, filling in pools, and otherwise making a rather large mess (Matheny Creek is a good example of this).

Debris flows are a natural occurrence on our region’s rivers (they are an important source of spawning gravel for instance), but the problem is the high frequency and intensity of these events in areas with poorly engineered roads. If you drive the South Fork Hoh road, there is a section where every single road crossing failed during past winter storms with the result that it looks like someone took an earth mover down to scour out the channel. In some cases this increased sediment can raise the elevation of the river bed with the result that the channel can no longer convey the water it once did. While this is a temporary condition as the river searches for a new equilibrium state, the short-term impact is increased frequency of over-bank flood events. Studies have shown that this is likely occurring in the Skokomish. While the overall discharge of flood events has not increased over time the cross-sectional area of the channel has declined as it has filled in with the increased sediment supply. The result is a river that more regularly overflows its channel. In most cases, all these impacts are most severe 10 to 20 years after intense logging and that’s what we’re seeing on the Olympic Peninsula.

Channel scouring after debris flow
Ironically, while the private timber industry has made significant strides in the past few years in improving their road networks (it was quickly incorporated into the cost of doing business in order to comply with ESA requirements and limit the frequency and cost of road repairs), funding has been slow in coming for our public lands. While the situation on state lands remains bleak (check out the Clearwater drainage), the situation finally changed over this past year on Olympic National Forest land with Federal funding to address the problems with their road network. The great news is activities are already in progress. The first approach being used is to decommission some roads (typically spur roads that went into old yarding sites) by pulling out the culverts, ripping the road, and replanting. The second approach is to improve existing roads by pulling culverts and replacing them with bridges or moving the road slightly to pull it away from known trouble spots.

Recently, the Olympic National Forest issued a comprehensive Access Travel and Management (ATM) Plan for public comment. This is a significant step in the right direction. Those who value continued access will find that activities already completed or planned will once again return access to the Sitkum and Matheny with roads that are greatly improved and designed to protect aquatic resources. Removal of spur roads and some of the most chronically problematic roads on steep slopes will result in a reduced road network that can be more effectively managed and maintained by the National Forest. The plan represents a fundamental shift in philosophy from a road network designed primarily for quick and efficient timber harvest to a road network that provides public access and protects aquatic resources. Once the initial capital expenditures are made, maintenance costs should also be significantly less. It won’t happen overnight, but creek runs like Matheny will one-day return to their former beauty.

Road Restoration
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American Whitewater filed comments supporting the efforts of the Forest Service in addressing their road maintenance backlog. While the official public comment period is over, positive feedback directed towards the Olympic National Forest Supervisor and our Congressional delegation is always helpful. There will be future opportunities for public comment as individual projects are initiated. Keep your eyes open for these opportunities by checking the Olympic National Forest news releases.
Thomas O'Keefe
3537 NE 87th St.
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 425-417-9012