I found it difficult not to compare the thing in front of me to some kind of unclassifiable dinosaur clawing its way through the landscape. But it was just a track hoe, a 50,000-pound excavator with huge treads and a 50-foot arm from which a big bucket depended like an enormous fist. The operator sat in the cab and yanked levers as the critter growled down the ancient logging road, its bucket swinging from side to side to knock over trees like Godzilla slapping down office buildings.
Anne Connor grinned at my openmouthed awe. "On a stretch like this," she said, "he can clear a quarter-mile an hour." That seemed to please her. We were on the side of a mountain in Idaho's Clearwater National Forest. With me were Connor, a civil engineer with the U.S. Forest Service, Ira Jones, director of watershed programs for the Nez Perce tribe, and Emmit Taylor, Jr., a watershed project leader for the tribe. With impetus and funding from the Forest Service and the Bonneville Power Authority, these three were joining forces to turn history on its head.
They were killing roads — though "obliteration" and "decommissioning" are the preferred terms. This is not an activity for which Uncle Sam has been noted. Quite the opposite, in fact — a truth that had come through with particular force earlier that day when I drove through portions of the Clearwater. The brow of just about every mountain I saw was scarred by tier upon tier of roads.
It had all been part of the most ambitious logging program in Forest Service history. After World War II the agency, citing the national demand for housing, began to convert much of its 180-million-acre domain into clear-cuts made accessible by roads. By the mid-1990s, there were some 383,000 miles of official forest roads, plus at least another 52,000 miles of "unclassified" roads, many of them created unofficially by fast-moving logging and mining companies, or by recreational ATV drivers.
"Roads have been identified as the major impact on the forest environment," a hydrologist at Montana's Kootenai National Forest wrote in 1995. Many of those built during the first frenzied decades of the logging boom were simply abandoned. Maintenance budgets were inadequate even to keep stable roads in good condition, and thousands of miles were unstable. Culverts plugged up with debris. Roads sagged. Rainfall washed increasing levels of sediment down mountain slopes, clogging rivers and smothering fisheries. Occasionally, huge chunks of deteriorating roadbeds collapsed, sending an avalanche of mud, rocks and trees crashing into some hapless stream.
By the 1980s, it was clear to many that something had to be done, but for years not much was. Then in 1997, the Forest Service's new chief, Mike Dombeck, asked for an increase of $22 million in his budget to remove 3,500 miles of roads, which Dombeck characterized as only a fraction of those eligible for closure. "It was an excellent start," observes Bethanie Walder, director of the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads, in Missoula, Montana. "But if you don't address the potential hydrological impacts of every road, no matter how stable it seems, you're just creating time bombs."
The Clearwater is one of the most thoroughly roaded of all the national forests and, at the same time, the one with perhaps the most vigorous obliteration program. Nature had helped, Anne Connor told me. For years, road obliteration had been low on the Clearwater's budgetary totem pole, but in the mid-1990s rainfall greatly exceeded normal levels. Nearly a thousand landslides resulted, and more than 500 of those fiascoes were road-related.
"I can remember thinking in my early years that if one road failed, the debris would be stopped by the road below," Connor said. "After the floods, I knew that just wasn't true. You get a failure on the top road, and it just slams through the whole series and takes every other road right on down the line."
Connor began an inventory that soon identified nearly 2,000 miles of road-obliteration candidates. Most were old "jammer" roads, primitively engineered tracks that had been hurriedly gouged into the mountains from the 1950s to the '70s for timber harvest. Trees were cut from the slopes below each road, then hauled up by cable for loading onto trucks. Because the cables of that time were short, it took a lot of roads to strip a single slope of its timber. The roads were so closely packed that, in at least one of the worst areas, there were 60 miles of roads in a single square mile, taking up a full third of the total land base.
By the time of my visit, crews had obliterated 225 miles of roads in the Clearwater. A messy business, I learned. First, in order to gain access, you go in with the track hoe and wipe out all the trees on the roadbed, as I had just seen happen — bad moment for an old tree-hugger like me. "You have to remember," Emmit Taylor told me as some good-looking trees were knocked over by the big machine, "we're talking about a hundred-year recovery plan here. So sometimes you have to sacrifice 30-year-old trees to do the job right."
Once the road has been cleared, the track hoe reverses itself, pulling up dirt and woody debris from the road's downhill, or cliff, side and piling it against the other side. This partially recontoured roadbed is then seeded, and shrubs are transplanted, for revegetation. At every stream crossing, the machine rips up even more of the roadbed and rebuilds the site to mimic a natural watercourse. Rocks, straw bales, downed trees and other vegetation are manipulated into place to help control erosion. It all happens swiftly and noisily, and if the immediate effect is to create an area as ugly as a war zone, recovery is astonishingly fast.
Later that day, Connor and her fellow road-killers showed me one they had obliterated less than a year earlier. I saw hardly a sign that there had ever been a road. Everywhere, grasses abounded, and tiny sprouts of ponderosa pine and white pine poked their heads above the artful rubble.
Emmit Taylor had done much of the work here, and his obvious pleasure in showing off the results put me in mind of something Dombeck said back in 1998, around the time he first proposed a controversial road-building moratorium that now affects millions of acres of forest land. "In fifty years, we will not be remembered for the resources we developed; we will be thanked for those we maintained and restored for future generations."