Forest Roads

Often the greatest cause of pollution from forest management activities is poorly designed, constructed and maintained roads. Poor roads can increase erosion and alter the flow of water over and through the ground.

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They can also result in loss of fish and terrestrial migration pathways, destabilize stream banks and increase sedimentation of waterways, degrade habitat, and trigger landslides. But if some forethought is put into road planning, you can not only protect water quality but save money and time by extending the life of your roads, lowering your vehicle maintenance and reducing your travel time.

The decisions you make during the road planning stage will affect construction cost, long-term maintenance needs, efficiency, water quality and wildlife habitat. So taking some time with planning will serve your woodland well.

There are three general types of forest roads: temporary, permanent seasonal and permanent all-season. When you begin planning your transportation network it is important to consider the purpose of each road and what type of terrain, soil type and water characteristics will match best with the type of road. Here are some best management tips to consider when planning and designing forest roads:

  • When possible, use existing roads. Only relocate roads if access can be improved and environmental impacts lessened. You can reconstruct an existing road if it will improve water drainage and safety, but disturbing stable road surfaces is often not advisable.
  • The best road locations and designs drain water off the road, into well-drained, vegetated soils that capture runoff of water and sediment. Roads should not be located near streams, lakes or wetlands.
  • Minimize the number of stream and wetland crossings. If crossing wet soils cannot be avoided, identify the optimum location for these crossings before locating the rest of the road. Roads should approach a crossing at the least gradient possible.
  • Design roads to follow natural contours.
  • Road grades should not exceed 10 percent, but ideally they should be less than 5 percent grade.
  • Minimize the length, width and number of roads. If you are building roads and skid trails for a timber harvest, consider both the immediate harvest need and your long-term objectives as a woodland owner. Roads are expensive to build and maintain, and often disrupt soil, water dynamics and wildlife habitat.
  • Obtain the necessary permits. Storm water permits may be required when constructing roads. Check with your local and state environmental resource agencies.

With your planning and permitting finished, it’s time to start construction. Best Management Practices can also guide this phase of the project to protect your woodland water. Some of these practices are:

  • Time your road construction for dry seasons. Wet soils are prone to rutting and compaction.
  • Avoid road construction when fish are spawning. Added sediment in water can bury fish eggs. Poorly timed road construction can wipe out an entire generation of reproduction for your woodland fish.
  • Store road construction waste and debris away from streams and wetlands, and any other place where this material can erode and run off into waterways.
  • Employ the appropriate soil stabilization techniques after construction, keeping in mind that native plant regeneration, where possible, will give you the double benefit of soil stabilization and wildlife habitat. 
  • Use gravel on the surface of roads that have steep grades and/or a high likelihood of erosion.
  • Employ sedimentation capture techniques, like silt fences and hay bales, to capture soil before it can reach waterways or wetlands.
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