Coalition Suggests Forest Watershed Corps

The Legacy Roads Restoration Initiative recently proposed a program to create a $500 million Forest Watershed Restoration Corps within the National Forest Service. The corps could be funded as part of the Economic Stimulus Package being planned by Congress and President-elect Obama's Transition Team and would restore ecologically damaged forest watersheds while creating 3,500 high-skill, family-wage jobs per year in rural communities.

The funding would be invested in the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative – a program first funded in 2008 to protect and restore clean drinking water, fisheries, and aquatic habitat by reclaiming unneeded roads, restoring fish passage, and performing critical maintenance on needed Forest Service roads.

The proposal was announced in conjunction with an oversight hearing on green jobs and economic stimulus in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Dec. 10.  Nearly 100 individuals and organizations from around the country, including retired Forest Service officials, labor unions, and conservationists, have endorsed the program.

"This year, with the onset of the recession and job losses skyrocketing, the coalition saw an opportunity to tackle two problems with one solution," said Wildlands CPR Executive Director Bethanie Walder. "President-elect Obama's economic stimulus package is not only a chance to create high-skill green- collar jobs with long-term economic benefits, it will also protect valuable resources — our forest watersheds and fisheries — from degrading."  The jobs proposed for the Forest Watershed Restoration Corps would go to local workers in rural, resource-dependent communities.

“Many of the green-collar jobs currently being discussed would provide much-needed urban jobs and focus on reducing our carbon footprint.  This proposal is a great companion to those programs – it would provide rural jobs with an emphasis on restoring our public lands and water so they are more resilient to climate change,” said Dennis Daneke, representative with Carpenters Local 28 in Missoula, Mont.

According to the Forest Service, more than 60 million Americans, in 3,400 communities, get their drinking water from Forest Service watersheds.

“The first, and most important, step towards protecting clean drinking water, productive fisheries, and critical wildlife habitat is to take care of the crumbling road system,” said Emily Platt, Gifford Pinchot Task Force executive director.  “National forests in Washington alone have a $300 million backlog just to meet minimum clean water standards.”

The Forest Service is estimated to have a $10 billion road maintenance backlog. The new Forest Watershed Restoration Corps would invest $250 million annually for two years reclaiming roads that are no longer needed, fixing culverts, and performing critical maintenance on needed roads to ensure long-term access for resource management and the public.

"Part of this country’s crumbling infrastructure includes over 380,000 miles of decaying Forest Service logging roads” said Randi Spivak, Executive Director of the American Lands Alliance.  "Roads need maintenance, and maintenance costs money. Decommissioning unneeded roads will save millions, if not billions of taxpayer dollars in the long run."

One of the main obstacles to accomplishing the road decommissioning work has been a lack of funding for the needed studies and planning.

“Eight years ago, the Forest Service determined that its road network was nearly twice as large as it needed to be, and that they should decommission up to 186,000 miles of roads by 2040," said Walder.  "Here we are, nearly a decade later, and they’ve barely begun the needed planning and restoration work."

In addition to improving habitat and water quality, the proposed Forest Watershed Restoration Corps would provide 3,500 direct high-skill jobs per year in rural, resource dependent communities. Unlike the original civilian conservation corps, which relied heavily on manual labor, the road remediation work requires excavators, bulldozers and on-the-ground inspectors, and dedicated engineering skills – the very same skills used in originally building the roads.

The funding will also create staffing opportunities within the Forest Service to implement the program.  The $10 billion backlog will take decades to remedy, but this program will take a critical first step toward solving the problem.

“These are exciting times, when people can get past the polarization that has challenged public land management for so long.  After all those jobs versus the environment debates, it turns out that the color of money and the color of environmental restoration are one and the same: green,”  said Daneke.

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