NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Controversy Over Forest Service Roads

March 2, 2000

Roads running through U.S. national forests are a source of contention between the timber industry and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other. Environmentalists despise roads for carving up wilderness areas, while others see them as a resource and a source of recreation.

But one thing is clear. They are aging and crumbling. The U.S. Forest Service reports that between 1990 and 1998, about 10,000 miles of road were lost to use by passenger cars due to lack of maintenance. It says the network would require billions of dollars to restore to good working order.

  • There are more than 380,000 miles of these roads -- surpassing the length of the interstate highway system.
  • In addition, there are more than 60,000 miles of unofficial "ghost roads" carved out by logging trucks and recreational vehicle users.
  • The Forest Service is in the midst of adopting a new policy, which would emphasize maintenance over building new roads.
  • It claims that its present funding levels provide it with enough money to maintain only 20 percent of the roads -- some of which were built 50 years ago.

The new emphasis on maintenance also involves the removal or "decommissioning" of roads the agency views as unnecessary. That is sure to upset dirt-bikers and bring praise from environmentalists.

Sources: Traci Watson and Patrick O'Driscoll, "Forest Service Road System is Aging Burden," and "Proposal Curbs Roads in National Forests," USA Today, March 2, 2000.


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