The Road Density Dilemma
Road density is an important consideration in natural resource management because high road densities can lead to negative impacts on fish and wildlife populations. Road density is reported as kilometers of road per square kilometer of land. High road densities can increase vulnerability of wildlife to hunting during hunting seasons. Lots of roads in an area can lead to high levels of recreational motor vehicle and human activity that can disrupt wildlife while they are trying to use their winter, natal or pre-natal habitats. Human activity in regions with high road densities can push wildlife away from valuable foraging habitats and mortality from vehicle collisions can increase in areas that have more roads. High road densities reduce the productive capability of the land and can affect migration behavior and movement patterns of wildlife. Roads increase the spread of invasive weeds into the back country and areas with high road densities can increase the effectiveness of natural predators when they are hunting. High road density is also correlated with impacts to some types of fish and aquatic habitats. Roads can create fish migration barriers when culverts are used instead of bridges, increase erosion into spawning habitat and water temperature can increase near stream crossings when the riparian vegetation cover is removed.
Running Out of Room
A new research paper titled: Effects of habitat quality and access management on the density of a recovering grizzly bear population highlights the negative impacts roads are having on grizzly bears in a study area in B.C. including displacing bears from high quality habitats. The study shows human use of roads reduces the density of grizzly bears but closing roads increased bear density in the closure areas by 27% compared to areas with no road closures. An easy to read synopsis of the new research paper can be found here.
The Cumulative Problem
In British Columbia, resource roads are created by many industries including: mining exploration, oil and gas development, utility corridor construction, forest fire suppression and logging. In most places in B.C., timber harvesting creates the most amounts of roads on the land base. When science is telling us that high road densities can impact fish and wildlife why aren’t more roads being closed or reclaimed?
The reasons more roads are not being reclaimed include:
- There are no legislated objectives for road density that ensure road building doesn’t adversely impact fish and wildlife.
- There are no legal requirements for wildlife scientists to be involved in providing advice to natural resource management decision makers in B.C.
- There are no legislated objectives for fish or wildlife populations in B.C.
- There are no landscape-scale wildlife management plans that prioritize areas needing intensive access management .
- Wildlife managers do not have statutory authority to implement motor vehicle restrictions to protect fish, wildlife or habitat values. Restricting the use of motor vehicles on resource roads has to be legislated by government.
- Cumulative effects of road construction across the various resource industries are not regulated under a single legislation framework. Every industry has different legislation it needs to follow with respect to managing access and wildlife values.
How Does the Timber Appraisal System Affect Whether Logging Roads are Reclaimed?
The timber appraisal system in B.C. is essentially an accounting manual that guides the forest industry on the amounts they can claim as deductions against the price they have to pay the province for cutting crown timber. The higher the “deductions” that get factored into the valuation of timber the lower the amount the timber royalty (stumpage) will be that a forest company has to pay the province.
Every year the major forest companies in the province submit annual costs incurred during forest management including costs for logging, road building, reforestation and road management. These costs are analyzed and compiled by government statisticians in the timber pricing branch to produce average costs for each given Timber Supply Area (TSA) in the province. These cost deductions are called stumpage or appraisal allowances and there are specific allowances for the different activities related to timber harvesting including: logging on different slopes types, choice of harvesting systems (conventional vs. cable logging), road construction on different slope types and the amount of rock encountered during road building as well as the reforestation method that will be used (natural vs. planting).
Some timber appraisal allowances are calculated by lumping several forest management activities into one appraisal allowance category. Road management is an example of a lumped stumpage allowance category. Road management includes an average all-found cost for grading, drainage management, grass seeding, snow plowing, road signage and access management which includes road deactivation. In fact, in B.C.’s interior the allowance given for road management has to cover 25 different forest road management activities. There is a financial disincentive for forest companies when it comes to reducing road density because road deactivation costs are lumped into this general road maintenance category. If road maintenance ends up costing more than the appraisal allowance then a forest company can potentially lose money logging a particular area if they also reclaim all their roads.
What Triggers a Forest Company to Have to Reclaim its Roads?
A forest company receives an allowance for road maintenance whether they do any road reclamation or not because access management is factored into the general road maintenance appraisal category. There should be legal mechanisms to ensure companies are reclaiming roads at least to the degree equal to what they were given in their road maintenance stumpage allowance. The only trigger, however, that obligates a forest company to reclaim roads is whether they identified it in their Forest Stewardship Plan (FSP). A Forest Stewardship Plan is a document that broadly defines where timber harvesting and road building are going to take place each year. If road reclamation is identified in a forest company’s FSP the commitment to reduce road density becomes a legal obligation that the forest company has to uphold. Some forest companies are trying to reduce their operating costs so they do not commit to doing much or any road reclamation in their FSPs. Newly constructed roads simply get left and added to the cumulative road density of the area that was logged. Wildlife managers are then left with few options to protect wildlife and habitat values in highly roaded environments. Sometimes it is a struggle for wildlife managers to get the government to consider passing legislation to restrict motor vehicle use in sensitive wildlife habitats. Often politicians don’t see enacting new motor vehicle restrictions for wildlife management as a priority topic to be discussing in the legislature. In other cases, politicians distance themselves from making these types of decisions because of the controversy surrounding road closures created by interest groups that want to be able to drive on new roads especially roads that allow them to get to high alpine vistas.
In some areas of the province where other values and social pressures are high, forest companies may be forced by social license to fully deactivate roads after logging is finished. In Timber Supply Areas (TSA) where forest companies are forced into doing higher amounts of road reclamation the average road maintenance costs reported to the government statisticians are higher. The statisticians convert those higher costs to a higher stumpage allowance. Once a forest company receives a higher stumpage allowance for road deactivation there is more incentive for the forest company to deactivate roads after logging is completed. The more roads that are deactivated the higher the cost allowance is the next time the allowances are calculated. Consequently when the allowances go up the easier it is for forest companies to commit to road reclamation. It is a kind of positive feedback loop. But without firm legislated objectives governing road density the whole process of reducing roads on the land base needs to be initiated by conservationists demanding that more road reclamation take place in a particular area of concern.
The Future Problem
Timber supply is tight in the province and competition for fibre is intense. There is no overarching legal mechanism requiring forest companies to maintain or reduce road densities below thresholds that scientists tell us are better for wildlife populations. Because of timber supply shortages in some parts of B.C., forest companies are building roads to every merchantable patch of timber they can find which is pushing them into areas they never would have traditionally tried to access. The result is more roads are being built in the high mountainous and remotest regions of the province where many of the more sensitive wildlife species live including mountain sheep, mountain goats, caribou and grizzly bears. LiDar (an air-borne mapping system) is emerging as a new technology that cost-effectively identifies patches of merchantable timber in remote hard to get to areas. New techniques for cost effectively logging on very steep slopes are also emerging. New types of logging equipment are being designed that could potentially replace human operated equipment with unmanned robotic drones that are guided through the forest by GPS and computer programs. In the absence of legislation that is more protective of fish and wildlife the long-term outlook for forest roads in B.C. is a trend of increasing road density and increasing negative impacts to fish and wildlife.
What can you do to help turn this around?
- Meet with your elected officials and tell them B.C. needs legislation to limit the cumulative effects of roads on fish and wildlife.
- Report people who ignore mandatory road closures put in place to protect wildlife. Report abusers using the Provincial Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) hotline at 1-877-952-7277 or use the BC Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Reporting app that can be installed on your smart phone.
- Get together with other like-minded conservation stakeholders and become involved in reviewing Forest Stewardship Plans. Advocate to forest companies and government officials where access management is needed to protect sensitive fish and wildlife populations.
The public has the power to give or take away social license. Advocating for reduced road densities can be done in the board room. Taking away social license can be done in the voting booth.