Tahoe forest officials working on road plan
When it comes to roads, the Lake Tahoe unit of the Forest Service is ahead of the curve.
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has spent the past few years working to better manage its 418 miles of roads, upgrading or destroying them based on their impact on the environment and their use.
And since the local agency kicked off this effort after the 1997 Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum, the Tahoe branch of the Forest Service is years ahead of a nationwide process just getting under way.
“Because the president came here in ’97 and realized it was an issue in the Tahoe Basin, we kind of got a jump start on this,” said Colin West, engineering manager at the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “When you look over what’s being proposed, it looks really similar to what we’ve been doing since ’97.”
Nationally, the focus on National Forest land roads once was on building new ones, primarily for timber harvesting. That has changed. In 1998, 215 miles of roads were built on National Forest land compared to 1988 when 2,310 miles were built.
Now the focus is on maintaining existing roads, which can range from two-lane paved roads or dirt ones where four-wheel drive is essential.
On a nationwide level, the Forest Service has at least an $8.4 billion backlog for maintenance and reconstruction of roads, and the agency receives only about 20 percent of the annual funding needed to maintain existing road systems.
The Clinton administration last month announced a plan that would require branches of the Forest Service to prioritize their needed roadwork so that the road systems will be more affordable to manage in the future.
The plan calls for a complete inventory of roads on National Forest land, scientific analyses and public involvement.
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has done all of those things. Because roads – especially unmanaged dirt roads – can lead to erosion problems and ultimately hurt the clarity of Tahoe, a year ago officials wrapped up an Access and Travel Management Plan.
It was a culmination of public meetings and scientific analyses, and it outlines which roads should be upgraded, which could be turned into trails and which should be decommissioned – or returned to a natural condition. The plan also gave the order in which the work should be done.
In the past two summers, at a cost of a little more than $1 million each year, the Forest Service has closed about 24 miles of roads and upgraded more than 40 miles. The idea is to keep commonly used roads as long as they don’t pose too much of a risk to water quality.
Upgrades include installing culverts, physically narrowing the roads, paving and lining nearby ditches with rock.
“Most of the work is for drainage areas: where a road crosses a drainage, or when a road transverses a meadow – where the road has the potential to affect water quality,” said Billy Ellis, a Forest Service engineer who has organized much of the work.
The Forest Service closes roads by blocking off their entrances, covering them with branches or forest debris, or in some cases physically filling them in with dirt.
“The objective is in 20 years to have it look like it was never a road,” said Michael Derrig, a Forest Service hydrologist who has worked on the Tahoe road plan.
Much of the work so far has been on North Shore. This summer work will happen in a variety of places, including upgrading Forest Service roads in the the Pioneer Trail area.
Two environmental reports are coming out in April which will outline what roads will be closed in the Genoa Peak and Mount Rose areas. Public comment on those documents will be accepted all month.
On a national level, the Forest Service is accepting comments on its proposed roads policy through May 2.
The Forest Service’s national road plan is separate from, but often confused with, a nationwide roadless initiative that is also going on now. That plan is a proposal by President Clinton not to allow construction of new roads in as many as 50 million acres of public land nationwide, about 45,000 acres of which are in the Tahoe Basin and mostly already managed as roadless areas.
Comments on the Forest Service’s federal roads plan will be accepted through May 2.
Send comments to:
USDA Forest Service, CAET
P.O. Box 22300
Salt Lake City, Utah 84122
Fax: (801) 517-1021
More information on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s Access and Travel Management Plan is available from the agency’s Web site: http://www.r5.fs.fed.us/ltbmu