Determining the Best Method of Road Decommissioning based on Vegetative Succession

Jacinda Thomas Clair Thomas, M.S. March 2007

Lake County Resources Initiative Chewaucan Biophysical Monitoring Team 25 North E Street Lakeview, OR 97630

Introduction Vegetation on decommissioned roads differs in specie type and density to that of vegetation off decommissioned roads. It is assumed this is due to compaction. Observations showed that vegetation on scarified, sub-soiled, and blocked roads differed from each other, even when the percent cover was similar. Plant diversity on blocked roads appeared to be less. Could vegetation diversity and density be used to determine a “best method” for decommissioning roads? Background Compaction in roads is caused by machinery such as skidders, feller bunchers, de-limbers, as well as hard-hoofed animals. Clay soils tend to compact easily while pumice souls and soils high in organic material tend to resist compaction. Concerns surrounding soil structure arise from compaction’s effect on compressing and reducing the number of air and water spaces in soil. Compaction results in greater surface flow and less absorbance of water, causing increased erosion and higher peak flows as well as lower base flows in associated streams. Brittney Price found that subsurface water channels changed according to levels of compaction on roads. (“The Effect of Soil Compaction on Subsurface Hydrology with respect to Maintained and Non Maintained Roads,” ISEF, March, 2005. A soil profile is composed of several layers: litter; organic material, and humus make up the “O” horizon; sand, silt, and clay from the topsoil or “A” horizon; the “B” horizon contains silts and clay; and the lowest layer, the “C” horizon is composed of boulders, bedrock, and more bedrock. Compaction affects the soils profile, ped structure, temperature, moisture, erosion, and plant cover. The Bestcha report states “Roads are associated with a variety of negative effects on aquatic resources including disruption of basin hydrology and increased chronic and acute sedimentation.” (Bestcha, et al. “Wildfire and Salvage logging, Bestcha Report. March, 1995). The existing road system on the Fremont Winema National Forest was designed and constructed primarily to accommodate logging systems that required a significantly denser road network than is required by the systems commonly used today. Furthermore, funding for road maintenance is insufficient to sustain the existing road network. Consequently, the Forest Service rarely builds new roads and instead has begun to close and decommission many roads in order to restore hydrological function and reduce maintenance costs. The Fremont Winema National Forest has road densities ranging from 2.9 miles per square mile in the Paisley Ranger District to 2.4 miles per square mile in the Lakeview Ranger District. (Upper Chewaucan Watershed Assessment, p R2, 1999) The Lakeview Ranger District completed transportation plans for the North and South Warner Mountains and Thomas Creek Watershed (location this research project) and identified 120 miles of road slated for decommissioning. (Lakeview Federal Stewardship Unit 2001-2002 Annual Report).

The roads chosen for this study are secondary logging roads built for the sole purpose of accessing timber for harvest. The roads chosen for analysis are not maintained, dead end spurs created when timber harvest was at its peak, 20-25 years ago. These roads often cause more erosion and sediment delivery to streams than primary, managed roads. Secondary logging roads, as true of all roads, interrupt the hydrology of a watershed by collecting water in barrow ditches on the upper side of the road. The collected water is funneled through culverts or over water bars creating ephemeral creeks greatly modifying water availability for plant use below roads. We need to reduce the number of roads in our forests and find the best way to decommission them. There are three solutions to help promote vegetation recovery on decommissioned roads: block the road entirely and leave it to its own recovery; scarify the soil by using 4-6 inch teeth to break the surface crust; and subsoil the road with teeth 18-24 inches, ripping up layers of soil. It is commonly assumed that ripping forest soils is the best way to prepare for vegetation recovery. This is demonstrated by the overwhelming use of sub-soiling to decommission roads and skid trails. During this study, we observed and photographed many sub-soiled sites where vegetation and soil structure has not recovered for 20 to 25 years. Richard Hart found that “sub-soiled areas, while initially releasing compaction, ultimately become more compacted than their immediate surroundings. The furls formed by the rippers become beds for invasive plants. Loss of effective ground cover is also dramatic.” (Richard Hart. “Assessing The Use of Sub-Soiling Within the Upper Chewaucan Watershed. LFSU report June 4, 2004). The Chewaucan Biophysical Monitoring Team commonly found large rocks on the surface, mixed soil horizons, and exposed roots where diseases could be established. The Fremont Winema National Forest Resource Advisory Counsel recommended that the general use of sub-soiling be eliminated. (WFNF RAC minutes. June, 2004). Because of the Fremont Winema National Forest Resource Advisory Committee’s recommendation to discontinue the use of sub-soiling, for this study, sub-soiling has been ignored. This research project focuses on two methods of road decommissioning: blocking and scarification. The two methods are compared with respect to soil characteristics, including compaction, and vegetative recovery of these roads. The question of which method, blocking or scarifying, is best for road recovery is addressed with recommendations to the Fremont Winema National Forest for decommissioning roads.


350 300 250

Soil Compaction at 3 inch Depths in Decommissioned Road Areas 310.4
On Blocked On Scarified Off Blocked Off Scarified


200 150 100 50 0

92.8 39

Compaction varies greatly, as expected, on and off roads; from 1.5 to 2 times more compact on roads than surrounding landscape. However, compaction also varies greatly between blocked and scarified off road samples where compaction should have been similar. Decommissioned off road samples were 3 times more compacted that scarified off road samples. This was not expected since we had chosen sites based on soil type, slope and aspect. An analysis of variance indicated that the difference was indeed significant and could not be ignored. A possible explanation for this may be the criterion used to make a decision on blocking or scarifying a road. Roads are often blocked rather that scarified if the forest service feels that the road may be needed in the future. This could indicate that the blocked roads were more important having a greater volume of traffic resulting in higher compaction. The blocked roads often had landings associated with them. It is possible that the blocked road-side areas (off road samples) were more highly compacted due to the increase of road use. Reflecting back on the project, taking off road samples farther from the road, 6-9 meters, rather than 03 meters would have provided a statistically comparable control between blocked and scarified roads.

40 35

Soil Characteristics in Decommissioned Road Areas

Depth (cm)

30 25 20 15 10 5 0

On Blocked On Scarified Off Blocked Off Scarified



Soil depth on blocked roads was ½ that compared to all other samples on and off decommissioned roads which were relatively the same. Rhizome depth showed the same pattern as soil depth, being ½ the depth on blocked roads compared to all other on and off decommissioned roads. Soil temperature was similar in all conditions. Variance was insignificant and could have been due to the time and day. Moisture readings were also similar in all soil samples. Despite anomalies with compaction, decommissioned roads are indeed recovering as indicated by the establishing vegetation. There were several decommissioned roads where it was difficult to identify the said road.

Vegetation Cover On and Off Decommissioned Roads
200 percent cover 150

100 50 0

Blocked Road

Scarified Road

It was discovered that scarified roads recover 1.8 to 2 times quicker than that of blocked roads based on plant cover. Analysis of variance showed the difference was statistically significant; F = 0.00132. This was interesting because plant densities on both types of decommissioned roads were similar, however with closer analysis became apparent that the median width of the plant species on scarified roads was twice as great resulting in the greater percent cover.

Number of Plant Species On and Off Decommissioned Roads
50 40 30 20 10 0 On>Off On=Off On<Off
Block ed A r ea s Sca r ified A r ea s

Species richness was 10 times greater on scarified roads than on blocked roads.

Exclusion of Plant Species On and Off Decommissioned Roads
6 0% 5 0% 4 0% 3 0% 2 0% 1 0% 0% Off r oa d on ly On on ly Sh a r ed Block ed A r ea s Sc a r ified A r ea s

1 00%

Exclusion of Plant Species On and Off Decommissioned Roads
49% 8% 31% 43% 1 8% 51% Sh a r ed On on ly Off r oa d on ly

80% 60% 40% 20% 0%

Blocked Areas

Scarified A reas

Pioneering species exclusive to blocked roads were only 33 percent of the total species of the transect, while pioneering species exclusive to scarified roads comprised 31 percent of the total transect. In scarified road areas, 31 percent of the plant species (pioneer species) were on the road exclusively and 23 percent of all plants were greater in number on the road. Comparatively, in blocked road areas, only 3 percent of the plant species were found exclusively on the road and 33 percent of all plant types were greater in abundance on the road. Pioneer plants are able to grow 1.8 times more quickly in scarified soils. This is probably because scarification loosens topsoil creating more air and water spaces, without disturbing the lower horizons. Fewer pioneering plants were found off road meaning more off road plants are now growing on the road. Eventually, other plants found exclusively off the road will move in and the percent of shared vegetation will increase. As this occurs, the pioneering plants will be shaded out by the bigger plants. Conclusion Scarifying is the best way to decommission most forest roads.