Forest Service: $228 million to fix roads, bridges

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON ” National forest roads and bridges in 31 states will get long-needed repairs under an economic stimulus spending plan announced by the Obama administration.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that $228 million in economic stimulus money will be used for road maintenance and decommissioning and watershed restoration in dozens of national forests.

A total of 106 projects in 31 states will be paid for as part of the $1.15 billion in economic stimulus funding awarded to the Forest Service, Vilsack said, adding that the projects should improve access to forest lands, boost public health and safety and preserve natural resources throughout the country.

“The rehabilitation of roads will improve water quality by reducing sediments in nearby streams and help to restore natural resources and habitats for fish in areas impacted by deterioration and erosion of road surfaces,” he said.

The projects announced Tuesday comprise a small fraction of the estimated $10 billion road maintenance backlog the agency faces.

More than half the money goes to five Western states ” Idaho, Oregon, Montana, California and Washington ” where the need is greatest, officials said. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Michigan also receive significant funding.

Rep. Norm Dicks. D-Wash., chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Forest Service, called the projects wise investments and good stewardship.

A spokesman for Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, also hailed the announcement. Idaho will get $44 million under the plan, by far the largest amount for any state. Oregon is next with $32 million. Montana receives $31.5 million.

“We hope this helps put Idahoans back to work in communities hard hit by the economic recession, and that the improvements made to Forest Service roads make it easier to harvest timber from Idaho forests and will improve access for hunting and recreation,” said John Foster, a spokesman for Minnick.

Minnick voted against the stimulus plan, one of the few Democrats to do so.

Choked by tight budgets and the increasing costs of the fighting wildfires, the Forest Service has struggled for years to find money to keep up its 400,000 miles of road that crisscross national forest land. Backlogs in more than a dozen states” primarily in the West ” top $100 million each, according to a report by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The group opposes construction of new forest roads ” often for logging ” while existing roads crumble. “We need to have a fix-it first approach,” said the group’s vice president Steve Ellis.

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