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The United States Forest Service: The World’s Largest Socialized Road-Building Company


The old joke goes that if all economists were laid end to end, they still couldn’t reach a conclusion. However, if you did the same to all the roads the Forest Service plans to build and reconstruct by 2030, you would reach the conclusion that such activity is ludicrous, and you would travel to the moon and back and circle the earth four times.

More Roads Than the Interstate

As implausible as this may seem, the numbers do not lie. So far, the Forest Service has constructed 343,000 miles of road on our national forests. This alone is eight times the entire mileage of the United States Interstate Highway System. Think about that the next time you’re driving cross-country on I-80, or heading for Florida on I-95. . . .

Most timber sales lose money. As a state-sponsored bureaucracy, the Forest Service arranges timber sales not to make money, but to expand its budget. Consequently, timber that would not be logged if subject to market forces is cut and sold at the taxpayers’ expense. If below-cost timber sales are the lifeblood of the Forest Service, the roads are the arteries which bring the necessary sustenance to its heart.

The Forest Service maintains these roads are not only necessary for timber activity, but also for recreation. In the majority of forests, however, the existing roads are more than adequate. Thus, the recreational value of adding extra miles is minuscule or negative. Further, a simple trail can provide recreational access at a fraction of the cost. But as the mileage of roads has increased, the mileage of maintained trails has decreased. From the 1940s to 1984, the mileage of trails fell by 31.5 per cent, even though the number of hikers and other recreational users increased tenfold.

A Threat to Wilderness

Vast areas of roadless terrain are needed to preserve threatened species such as the grizzly bear, and to provide habitat for other large species like elk and moose. However, only 50 million acres of roadless area are left, and the 50-year plan of the Forest Service is a serious threat to that remaining wilderness.

The 50-year plan calls for the construction of 262,000 miles of new roads and the reconstruction of 319,000 miles of existing roads. At the present average cost of building or reconstructing roads, $43,000 per mile, the total cost of this undertaking is nearly $25 billion. However, since these figures represent 1987 dollars, and the Forest Service has consistently exceeded yearly road building projections, the actual cost will be much higher.

Imagine the Ford Motor Company building a new plant to produce cars they know have to sell at a loss. Such behavior wouldn’t last in the private sector, but it is exactly how the Forest Service acts. They build roads into timber stands for sales they know the taxpayer will have to subsidize. In the private sector, capital investments are only made if their future income streams have a positive net present-value. In the public sector, such calculations are often irrelevant to the decision-maker’s welfare. The important difference in the above comparison is that while Ford must use its own money, the Forest Service gets its funds from you and me.

However, exorbitant economic costs are only one argument against unnecessary road building. Environmental costs are also high. They are magnified when traversing roads are built into the high, steep and fragile backcountry of the Rockies and Alaska.

Primary Cause of Erosion

In constructing roads, large amounts of soil, sand and rock are displaced. The result is a tract of earth loosely compacted, devoid of vegetation, and subject to erosion. It is a rule of thumb in forestry engineering and forestry hydrology that 90 per cent of all erosion traceable to timber management is caused by road building. This erosion and subsequent siltation muddy and fill trout streams, fisheries, irrigation systems, and decreases the quality of water.

For example, during the 1960s, the Payette National Forest in Idaho was heavily logged and roaded. Inside the national forest flows the South Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho’s best salmon fishery. In 1965, heavy rains caused massive mudslides that destroyed the fishery and surrounding land, at a loss of over $100 million. Fourteen years later, the land is finally making a comeback, but the Forest Service plans to resume harvesting timber.

Taxpayers and the Environment

. . . . Most taxpayers are unknowingly subsidizing the destruction of their environment. Ironically, at a time when the electorate is demanding fiscal restraint and environmental quality, the government is showing careless disregard for both.

The United States Forest Service is already the largest socialized road-building company on earth, and soon its activities will reach the moon. Unfortunately, it is not the only federal agency which abuses and exploits the resources it is supposed to protect. Excessive road building is one small example from one bureaucracy that point to a larger crisis in the public stewardship of our natural resources.

This article appeared in the January 1990 issue of FREE Perspectives on Economics and the Environment, the newsletter of the the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment,. Reprinted by permission.

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    Mr. Peterson was a project associate for The Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, Seattle, Washington.