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Major Stride Towards a Sustainable Forest on Mt. Baker Ranger District

January 25, 2017
Marlies Wierenga, (503) 278-0669 mwierenga@wildearthguardian.org
In This Release
Public Lands  
Additional contacts:
Tom Uniack, Washington Wild, (206) 663-1992, tom@wawild.org
Andrea Imler, Washington Trails Association, (206) 965-8558, aimler@wta.org

Everett, WA—The U.S. Forest Service recently finalized a decision for the Mt. Baker Ranger District’s Nooksack road system that balances recreation, tribal and community access, salmon and water quality protection and economic realities. Road decisions on national forests can be controversial. Yet the Mt. Baker Ranger District staff successfully navigated numerous stakeholder concerns by carefully listening, seeking to understand, and ultimately making modifications to its decision.

The Forest Service faces complex challenges. Over the past 20 years, Congress has slashed Forest Service road maintenance budgets 80%, ignoring the needs of this crumbling infrastructure. Washington’s forest road system is vast – three times larger than the state’s highway system. Brutal winter storms in the Pacific Northwest have washed out road sections, cutting off access to beloved recreation areas such as Canyon Creek and Wells Creek while public land use by hikers, campers, climbers, skiers and mountain bikers keeps increasing. Add in Tribal treaty rights guaranteed by the Federal Government, the Forest Service’s need to protect imperiled salmon and bull trout populations as well as clean drinking water for communities such as Lynden, and a clear solution seems out of reach.

“More and more people are heading outdoors and onto trails. They need a sustainable road system to access places they love.” said Andrea Imler, Advocacy Director at Washington Trails Association. “We appreciate District Ranger Erin Uloth’s thoughtful approach to move the Forest Service forward to meet the growing use of our public lands for hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and others who get outside.”

Weather events in 2015 and 2016 eliminated access on 1/3rd of the road miles in the Nooksack watershed – including many top recreation destinations. The Forest Service’s recent road decision aims to proactively direct limited dollars towards maintaining key roads, and ensure those roads are more resistant to storms. At the same time, the agency will remove unneeded roads that are harmful to water quality and salmon habitat. Most of the unneeded roads have been closed for years but are still damaging rivers and streams. This is complicated but important move towards finding a balance.

“This decision is a triple win,” said Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest Conservation Manager at WildEarth Guardians. “Decreasing the gap between the cost of failing infrastructure and declining funds from Congress is a win for the Forest Service and taxpayers. Focusing resources on the roads we all use improves access and is a win for the public. And removing unneeded roads is a win for struggling species such as Puget Sound Chinook salmon and bull trout.”

The draft decision took to heart many of the recommendations outlined in a comment letter submitted by 18 conservation and recreation organizations in March of 2016. Between the draft and final decision the Forest Service increased the miles of high risk roads to be decommissioned to reduce aquatic impacts while also prioritizing maintenance for roads that access recreation destinations (i.e, trailheads, campgrounds, etc.) and considering some road-to-trail conversions. The group letter can be viewed here.

“This decision proved that you can in fact prioritize maintenance of roads providing access to key recreational opportunities while at the same time addressing watershed risks from old failing legacy roads,” said Tom Uniack, Executive Director at Washington Wild. “The result is a decision that is supported by both local recreational user groups and conservation organizations and hopefully will provide a model for other plans on other districts.”

The Nooksack Access and Travel Management plan is partially based on findings from the Mt. Baker Sustainable Roads Strategy completed two years ago with extensive public engagement. Nationally, all forests are expected to maintain an appropriately sized and environmentally sustainable road system that is responsive to ecological, economic, and social concerns. With this decision, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is taking one step forward in achieving this goal. A similar plan is underway for the Greenwater watershed of Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest located east of Mt. Rainier.

A copy of the Forest Service decision is available here.