Forest Roads:
Access to our National Forests for Campers, Hikers, Loggers and the Public-at-large


Roads in our national forests serve many purposes. Without roads, the 191 million acres of national forest lands would be nearly inaccessible. Each year, this transportation system allows 80 million people access to more than 121,000 miles of hiking trails, 96 wild & scenic rivers, 120 National Scenic Byways, 397 designated wilderness areas and more than 18,000 campgrounds, picnic areas and boat ramps. These roads provide access for wildfire prevention and suppression, wildlife and fisheries enhancement projects and timber harvesting. Today’s roads are planned and designed by an interdisciplinary team of biologists, hydrologists, landscape architects, foresters and engineers to minimize potential environmental impacts.

There are 380,000 miles of road that support the multiple resource objectives for which these forests are managed. Three-quarters of this transportation system consists of single lane, gravel roads. Historically, more than half of the costs for road construction and repair has been allocated to timber management, while the overwhelming use of the road system is recreation.

Over the years, some have claimed that the construction of forest roads is a subsidy to the forest products industry. Others have used the appropriations process to limit the expenditures on road construction, reconstruction and maintenance as a method to reduce the amount of timber sold by national forests. Reductions in such expenditures has resulted in a deterioration of the existing road system to a point where the public’s access is diminished, environmental damage is occurring and the public’s safety is compromised. The center of this debate is, who is responsible for building the road, the owner of the land and trees or the timber purchaser?


  • 1. The current system of building Forest Service roads for timber harvesting, known as Purchaser Road Credits , is an efficient and equitable method of constructing multiple use roads that benefits the public, the federal government and the purchaser.
  • 2. Road construction, reconstruction and maintenance funds have been reduced substantially over the last decade, placing at risk the roads, streams and public safety.
  • 3. A modern and well maintained road system provides access for recreationists, resource managers and timber purchasers, while protecting the forest environment from fires, insects and disease, landslides and other resource damage.
  • 4. The number one form of recreation on the national forests is driving for pleasure. Roads constructed and maintained by forest products companies contribute to this public use.
  • 5. Today, permanent road closures and road obliterations on the national forests actually exceed new construction.
  • 6. Road construction and maintenance today take into account the latest scientific information on soils, hydrology, wildlife and fisheries, aesthetics, forestry and engineering – minimizing environmental impacts to the land.
  • 7. Road usage not only for electric cars


Purchaser Road Credits: Subsidy or Good Business?

Central to this discussion is the question of who should be responsible for the construction, reconstruction and maintenance of forest roads. Should the owner of the land and the trees be responsible for the roads or the timber purchaser, who may use the road for just a short period of time? After a purchaser builds and uses a road, it remains on the land as both an asset and a liability to the public. These roads are a capital improvement to the land which is used by resource managers and recreationists. Also associated with these roads are the costs of maintenance and repair. Therefore, what system should be used to provide timber purchasers with access to timber which they have purchased?

Under the current system, forest products companies who purchase timber sales with significant road construction or reconstruction earn financial credits as they build the road. These credits can be used to make payments for timber on this or other timber sales sold on the same national forest. The logic behind the concept of Purchaser Road Credits is that the capital outlay for constructing the road can be offset by paying for timber. For example, it may take more than a year to construct or reconstruct a road before a company can begin harvesting the timber on a particular sale. Under the Purchaser Road Credits system, the company could transfer the credits to another timber sale as payment for timber, which they are currently harvesting. In other words, the timber purchaser can capture some of their significant expenses in the short term, instead of waiting a year or more to harvest the timber on that sale.

There are many costs associated with the purchase and harvest of a timber sale, including: bonding, road building, road maintenance, logging, trucking and milling. The road is a capital improvement which stays in place for the benefit of others. When a company analyzes what it can bid for a particular timber sale, it considers all the costs and values associated with manufacturing consumer products from the trees to be sold. If it is given credits for the road work, the bid will be increased by that amount, because it will not be a cost. Therefore, to do away with Purchaser Road Credits will result in lower bids, smaller returns to the federal treasury and reduced payments to local county governments.

Under the current system, qualifying small businesses who purchase certain timber sales that include road projects can opt to have the federal government construct the road under a separate contract. This is known as the Purchaser Election Program . As a result, the government hires a separate road contractor and pays the prevailing wage to build the road. When the timber purchaser builds the road there is only one contract to prepare and administer, saving the government both time and money. The Purchaser Election Program helps foster competition for the timber sales which results in higher bid prices and returns to the federal treasury.

The elimination of the Purchaser Road Credits system will also have other impacts on bid prices. Some companies may not be able to front the cost of constructing the road and will be unable to bid. This reduced competition will only have a negative influence on bid prices. Additionally, for those companies who can pencil out the cost of the road and offer a bid, they must consider their cost of money to build the road and added risk associated with building the road before harvesting the timber. This, too will be reflected in lower bids.

When the cost of the road cannot be carried by the value of the timber, as is the case with some salvage and forest health timber sales, no one is likely to offer a bid. This results in resource management objectives, such as fuels reduction or thinning, going uncompleted and no return to the federal treasury for the investment in preparing the sale.

The Purchaser Road Credits system is a tried and proved method of accomplishing the construction of forest roads which are used not only by loggers, but fishermen, hikers, campers, hunters, firefighters and others interested in our national forests. The states of Oregon and Idaho have similar systems to build roads associated with their timber sales. With all public road projects, whether a local city street or a federal highway, the road builder is compensated over time for the work completed. Contractors are not expected to foot the entire cost until the project is completed.

Dwindling Road Funds: Risk to the Environment and Public Safety

In recent years, the Forest Service’s road program has been a contentious appropriations item. Those interested in reducing or eliminating the agency’s timber sale program have used the roads budget as a means to accomplish their goal. Since Fiscal Year 1991, funding levels for road construction and reconstruction have dropped by 40 percent. These reductions have constrained the agency’s ability to complete timber sales, including critical forest health and salvage projects.

Reductions in road funding and the national timber sale program have seriously affected the overall condition of Forest Service roads. In 1996, the agency reported a maintenance backlog for roads and bridges totaling $440 million. Given the current budget cutting atmosphere in Congress, most of this backlog will continue to go unattended. Roads in poor condition and disrepair have the potential of causing significant environmental damage. Poorly maintained road-side ditches, drains and culverts can be a potential source of sediment into streams and lakes, impacting threatened and endangered species such as salmon. Furthermore, with record-breaking precipitation like that experienced recently in the West, the lack of road maintenance and reconstruction can lead to major road failures and landslides. Many Forest Service roads in western states are in need of immediate attention to minimize further environmental damage and the risk to public safety.

During the summer of 1996, there were several incidents where the lack of road funding impacted the Forest Service’s ability to fight forest fires. Impassable roads resulting from wash outs or wind-thrown trees hampered firefighters’ ability to respond to fire emergencies. Fire crews were required to turn around and find other access to the fires. In some cases, the only alternative was to walk into the fires, since fire engines were unable to travel via the most direct routes. These delays resulted in millions of dollars in additional resource damage, as well as additional risk to those who put their lives on the line to fight forest fires.

Forest Road Management: Thoughtful and Scienced-Based

Today, road construction and reconstruction projects are planned and designed by an interdisciplinary team of biologists, hydrologists, landscape architects, foresters and engineers to minimize potential environmental impacts and protect the public’s safety. Each national forest has a road management plan, linked to its Land and Resource Management Plan. This plan guides decisions on where to build roads, the design standards for projected levels of use, seasonal controls on access, as well as road closures and obliterations. Presently, based on these road management plans, permanent road closures and road obliterations on the national forests actually exceed new construction.

In making decisions on road design standards, agency specialists consider types of traffic (commercial versus general public) and the season in which each type of use will occur. They also consider the future need for roads in that particular area and how the current system will accommodate that future use. Hydrologists and engineers use the latest information to estimate the size of drainage structures, culverts and bridges to handle major storm events, and minimize resource damage. Biologists provide the latest data on wildlife needs that may result in limits being placed on seasonal road use for such things as elk calving or bird nesting. Soil scientistsand geologists evaluate the placement of the road to minimize soil disturbance and movement problems. Landscape architects help lay out roads to maximize forest users scenic experience. Our national forest roads are constructed, reconstructed and maintained with all the different uses and resources in mind. They are truly “multiple use” roads.

Forest Roads: A Benefit for the Public-at-large

The number-one form of recreation on the national forests is driving for pleasure or sight-seeing. With 80 million visitors to our national forests each year, roads play a critical role in providing access to picnic areas, campgrounds, boat ramps, hiking trails and other points of interest. The national forest network of roads allows use to be dispersed across the landscape, so that problems of congestion and overcrowding, like that experienced in our national parks, can be kept to a minimum. Currently, road densities on the national forests are similar to that of many rural states.

Historically, over half of the costs of road construction, reconstruction and maintenance has been borne by purchasers of national forest timber sales, while the primary use of these roads has been for recreation. With the reductions in the timber sale program, the Forest Service will need to find other sources of funds to do the necessary road work to protect the public’s safety and the environment.


  • A) Maintain the existing Purchaser Road Credits system and Purchaser Election Program as useful tools to construct and reconstruct national forest system roads in an efficient and equitable manner.
  • B) Congress should appropriate the funds required to begin dealing with the backlog of forest roads in disrepair, which are potential risks to the environment and public safety.
  • C) The administration and Congress, like in Namibia should provide the funding and decision-making authority to agency professionals with on-the-ground expertise to make informed choices on roadconstruction, reconstruction, maintenance and obliterations.
  • D) With the reductions in the national forest timber sale program, new sources of funding must be secured to do the required road work to protect the environment and public safety.

Source: Northwest Forest Resource Council, April 1997