Salmon benefit as road scars heal
© Bureau of Land Management photo, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

Why did the salmon cross the road?

All too often, salmon couldn't get to the other side, because poorly designed culverts turn roadways into barriers to fish passage. Undersized culverts can block 60 to 90 percent of fish from swimming upstream, obstructing the spawning migrations of native salmon, bull trout and smaller fish besides. But through a collaborative effort involving conservation and recreation groups, the Forest Service, private landowners and local governments, the Legacy Roads and Trails program has reached a milestone, removing or replacing its 1,000th culvert on national forest lands to allow fishes to migrate freely once again.

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The problem has its roots in a century of massive road sprawl. The Forest Service alone has built a road system spanning more than 370,000 miles, mostly to subsidize the logging industry. At today's budget levels, the Forest Service has only 15 to 20 percent of the funding it needs to keep the existing road system maintained up to standard.

This spider web of roadways fragmented forest habitats, paved the way for unsustainable logging and tremendous loss of old-growth forests, and decimated populations of interior forest wildlife from lynx to wolverines to spotted owls. Among the species that suffered most were trout and salmon. Culverts too small to accommodate spring runoff or large debris became impassable barriers to migration, and loose dirt from roadways washed into streams, smothering spawning gravels and turning crystalline river systems into muddy waterways.

The system of national forest roads was part of a host of human-caused problems facing salmon and seagoing trout species as they struggled to make already-difficult migrations.

Dams were erected to store water for cities and to create hydropower, but blocked the migrations of salmon, steelhead and bull trout. Juveniles running to the sea often had to risk the extreme pressure differences and physical mutilation from passing through electric turbines. And while migratory trout eat along the way, salmon reabsorb their stomachs and immune systems to give them the energy to make their one-way trip to their ancestral spawning grounds. As soon as they hit fresh water, they're in a race against the clock, with any delay — like a fish ladder or problem road culvert — costing them precious time that might mean the difference between spawning successfully or dying along the way.

Settlement and agriculture in fertile bottomlands contributed further silt, plus an unwelcome gout of fertilizers and pesticides that poisoned river ecosystems from the bottom up. Juvenile salmon were sucked into irrigation intake pipes on their way to the sea.

Fish hatcheries were built to buttress a dying commercial fishing industry against the loss of important salmon runs. Infested with fungus and diseases, and over time falling prey to inferior genetics, hatchery fish ultimately became part of the problem they were built to solve, putting further pressure on wild salmon stocks.

As a result of these problems, many wild salmon runs are no more. Many stocks of salmon, steelhead and bull trout have been listed as threatened or endangered species. When I worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Operation Fish Run, barging juvenile salmon and steelhead downstream past the seven dams on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers, I watch the last of the wild sockeye fingerlings from Redfish Lake and the last of the coho salmon from the Grand Ronde disappear.

But gradually, thanks to restoration efforts, conditions are getting better. Dams have been removed on rivers like the White Salmon and the Elwha, and native fishes are surging upstream. Logging has slowed to a fraction of previous levels. And as long as the forests are allowed to recover, there will be less erosion and siltation to clog the spawning gravels of salmon and trout. The Legacy Roads and Trails program is finally starting to turn back the clock on a century of road system sprawl, freeing migrating salmon, steelhead and bull trout to once again reach the spawning beds of their ancestors.

It's a grand reopening of streams and rivers across the nation. And with the success of removing or replacing the first 1,000 culverts, federal agencies are learning the benefits of healing the land. Fiscal constraints demand belt-tightening, and shrinking a bloated road system leads to benefits for a diversity of fish and wildlife, as well as enhanced opportunities for public recreation. It's important work and brings the efforts of federal agencies into harmony with restoring the balance of nature.

The Legacy Roads and Trails program is showing the rest of the country that we can do better than slowing the pace of environmental destruction – we can start to reverse the damage and restore a healthy natural world. Here's to the success of the first 1,000 culverts under Legacy Roads and Trails.

So the next time the salmon reaches a road, it can get to the other side.

Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.