- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Hard-packed roads that were identified for removal in 2007 are now being churned up and restored to a natural state across Lewis and Clark National Forest, with the aim being improved vegetation growth and water flow.

Obliterating the roads involves overturning soils and re-contouring road cuts.

Much of the current work is occurring in the Little Belt Mountains.

Carol Hatfield, district ranger for the forest’s Belt Creek and White Sulphur districts, said she’s received 20 to 30 calls and visits from people wondering why roads the roads are being removed.

Some of those roads lead to favorite hunting spots.

“They were upset, really upset, and they don’t understand what the heck we’re doing out there,” Hatfield said.

The Forest Service is taking the public feedback seriously, and making some changes in the road removal work to accommodate access, Hatfield said.

There are important reasons for the work, she said.

The roads being removed are, in fact, not officially part of the road system, and the new travel plan OK’d in 2007 identified them for decommissioning, Hatfield said. That work is occurring a little at a time each year, she said.

Most of the roads being obliterated are short stretches of former logging roads. Others roads in line for removal were created by users over time and are not part of the official road system.

Hatfield added that the work is part of broader, national efforts by the Forest Service to improve watersheds and restore areas where old roads and trails are causing sediment pollution and interfering with the natural hydrology of the forest.

The compacted roads don’t allow run-off from snowmelt to naturally filtrate into the ground to recharge groundwater, and also increases run-off and sediment into streams, said Stan VanSickle, a civil engineering technician with the forest.

Work to remove them began in 2008 and has continued each year since. Hatfield believes she might be hearing more about the work because some of the roads being removed now are used to access popular hunting areas.

Hatfield says she understands the frustration.

“It’s so fresh right now,” Hatfield said of the road obliterations. “It’s a big deal.”

The work involves using a backhoe to scarify, or break up, roads that have been compacted over time. A full obliteration also involves recontouring the landscape to its natural slope.

On Wednesday, Shane Tew of BSE Excavating of Townsend was using a backhoe to break up a compacted 6/10ths of mile of trail off of Lamb Creek 76 miles southeast of Great Falls, leaving a trail of overturned dirt.

As the scoop bit down through the hard ground, meeting rocks and roots, it made a crunching noise.

“The reason why the road is being removed is that it is no longer part of our system, nor do we have the money to maintain all of the roads that we consider non-system roads anymore,” Hatfield said.

“Therefore, we’re removing it from the system,” she added. “Most of the roads that are being removed are compacted, and therefore not allowing any snowmelt or water run-out during the spring to filter through the soil and allow for vegetation to grow back onto the road prism.”

In 2007, Lewis and Clark National Forest OK’d a new travel plan.

In that plan, certain roads were decommissioned, meaning they no longer were needed by the Forest Service.

Most of the roads were once used to access timber units for logging.

“We just don’t log like we used to,” Hatfield said.

It’s these roads, officially designated as “non-system” roads in the 2007 travel plan, that are now are being removed.

VanSickle, the civil engineering technician, said there’s 900 to 1,200 miles of non-system roads alone in the Jefferson Division of Lewis and Clark National Forest, which includes island mountain ranges to the south and east of Great Falls.

Many are short, old roads that were made solely for the purpose of hauling logs out from a timber unit, said Dave Cunningham, a spokesman for the forest.

The Forest Service is targeting 40 miles of road for removal or restoration each year for the next three years.

In 2014, about $230,000 was allocated for the removal of 55 miles of roads in three locations in the Little Belt Mountains, one in the Dry Fork of Belt Creek area and two near Lamb Creek, a tributary of Sheep Creek.

“It is basically restoring our ecosystem - not to 100 percent of the way it was - but at least to where we can get vegetation growing back onto the hillside where roads were put in and they left a compacted road prism,” Hatfield said.

The purpose of removing the roads is to reconnect the natural hydrology of the forest, VanSickle said.

In the forest, snow melts and becomes water, VanSickle said. It’s used for drinking, crops and livestock and fisheries.

Historically, prior to roads being constructed, the water would infiltrate the ground and slowly percolate over time through the watershed.

“And as water becomes a more and more limited resource, the more of that that can go into the ground, the better for future use, rather than having it run off and end up in the ocean in one growing season, we can now use that like a bank,” VanSickle said. “Over time, we’ll have that water available.”

When the “hard pan” of the compacted roads is removed, the ground acts more like a sponge with the water following a slow, natural hydrological path to streams and ground water, he said.

The Forest Service nationally has the largest infrastructure of roads in the nation, he said, but it’s not being maintained to standard.

This year in Lewis and Clark National Forest, 5 percent of the roads were graded, he said. Ideally, 50 percent should be graded.

Money that’s used to remove the old roads is a special allocation and cannot be used for regular road maintenance, Hatfield said.

Full obliteration work involves digging up compacted roads 2 feet deep and overturning the dirt. The road cut is then re-contoured to the natural slope of the landscape. And slash or small trees and limbs are placed on top of it.

An old “jammer” logging road off Lamb Creek Road, for example, was fully restored in October. It leads up a steep incline. On Wednesday, the smell of freshly turned dirt was in the air, and the ground looked like a freshly tilled garden. Slash was scattered on top. The ground was spongy.

It wasn’t an easy uphill walk.

In response to complaints from recreationists, the Forest Service has reduced the amount of slash placed on top of the overturned soil, Hatfield said. The slash is meant to reduce runoff and erosion.

“We’re learning as we go,” Hatfield said. “The other part, we’re trying to take into consideration the public’s feedback.”

The Forest Service also has come up with a modified treatment in response to complaints from the public. Instead of full obliteration, a small path is being left behind on some of the obliterated roads that people can walk on or use a game cart. A place at the mouth of the roads also is being left where vehicles can be parked.

In the case of some snowmobile routes, the roads are being scarified, but not re-contoured, so snowmobile travel can continue. That was the case Wednesday at the road where BSE Excavating of Townsend was working.

“We’re just trying to find that middle ground between motorized users and restoration,” VanSickle said.

___

Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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