Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North Who Will Maintain Deteriorating Forest Roads?

By Shawn Perich

Last summer we wandered down a forest road that we hadn’t driven in years. Called the Blueberry Road, it begins near where the south and north branches of the Brule River meet at the Gunflint Trail, then runs parallel to the main stem for several miles downstream. I shot a bull moose back in that country in 1989. Back then, much of the area was recently logged over. The road came to a dead end in a large cutover.

Time passes and trees grow. Last summer, I had trouble locating the little logging trail where I shot the moose. Now you can’t drive a truck down the Blueberry Road beyond a turnaround where a short trail leads to the Brule River. At that point the road disappears beneath a tunnel of tag alders, kept open only by the occasional passage of all-terrain vehicles.

In the parlance of the U.S. Forest Service, the Blueberry Road is called an unmaintained road. No one fills the potholes or cuts back the encroaching alders. About the only time an unmaintained road gets any attention is when it is used to access a logging job.

Jon Olson, forest engineer supervisor for the eastern portion of the Superior National Forest, told me roads in the national forest’s road system are administrative roads, which means their primary purpose is forest management, not public use. The USFS doesn’t receive federal gas tax money to maintain its roads. It does not have an obligation maintain or snowplow roads for home and cabin owners.

And now, USFS hardly has enough money to maintain roads at all. Olson says the Superior National Forest road maintenance budget is less than one third of what it was 15 years ago. Olson and two others at the Grand Marais USFS office are responsible for maintaining 300 miles of roads. All road work is contracted out to local contractors, at least what road work they can afford.

Olson said high standard roads used to be graded five times a year. Now they are graded three or four times per year. Roadsides are not being brushed or mowed. Culverts are being replaced using money from another funding source, the Great Lakes Initiative, which provides funds to replace traditional culvert pipes with open-bottomed ones intended to improved fish passage. But the Great Lakes Initiative funding cannot be used for general road maintenance.

Aging bridges are another matter. Last fall, the USFS closed a bridge over the Temperance River, because it was no longer safe for vehicle traffic. The bridge, which has been closed to commercial traffic for over 15 years, dates to the 1920s, when it spanned the Cross River on Highway 61. The estimated cost of replacing it is over $600,000, which is more than Olson’s annual roads budget.

A bigger problem is that Olson’s work area has 19 bridges over 50 years old. In fact, much of his road infrastructure is aging. Even the gravel road surfaces are starting to disappear as the binder material that holds the gravel in place deteriorates. Much of the eastern Superior National Forest road system needs to be resurfaced.

Olson says the road issues are most acute in Cook County, the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead. Most of the county-maintained roads run north from Lake Superior, primarily the well-known Sawbill, Caribou, Gunflint and Arrowhead trails. The only state highway, 61, follows the shore of Lake Superior. Inland, the primary east-west arteries and connectors are high standard USFS gravel roads. Elsewhere in the national forest, arteries are state- or county-maintained roads. Most USFS high standard roads are short spurs that provide access to campgrounds, radio towers, boat launches or similar USFS facilities.

Olson has talked with Cook County officials about the arterial routes and the shortcomings of his roads budget. They have also discussed USFS roads that primarily service residences and summer homes. He would like to find a way for the county to assume some of the maintenance responsibility.

Declining roads budgets for national forests is a national issue and has been exacerbated by the need the cover the skyrocketing costs of fighting wildfires from the annual USFS budget. Legislation presently exists in Washington to fund large wildfires, but it seems unlikely Congress will pass that and increase national forest budgets. For this reason, the USFS is studying the status of the road systems on every national forest. Superior National Forest officials stress that this study is strictly to gather information and not a plan to close or reduce maintenance on existing roads. Doing so would require environmental analysis and public engagement.

But that doesn’t mean roads in the Superior National Forest won’t continue to deteriorate or, like the Blueberry Road, disappear beneath a shroud of brush. As that happens, folks who use those roads to hunt, fish or otherwise reach out-of-the-way places may find their driving access to the woods slowly diminishing.

“I’ve talked with ATV clubs about the need to keep our minimum maintenance roads brushed out so they have places to ride,” Olson said, because many such roads are open to ATV use.

It seems ironic that environmentalists often fight with the powers that be to prevent the construction of new roads into roadless areas, no interest group is stepping forward to convince Congress take care of the existing national forest road infrastructure. How is it that the federal budget continues to soar, but our nation doesn’t have the wherewithal to take care of the stuff that belongs to all of us?

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