I grew up in Southampton, New York, which has a population a little under 60,000 but swells to three or four times that on summer weekends. The town occupies 758 square kilometers of land – almost exactly the same as the five boroughs of New York City – and has about 725 kilometers of paved roadways.
New York City has a much larger population – about 8.5 million people live here, and on busy days the number of people in the city is probably in excess of ten million. But its road network is only thirteen times larger than Southampton’s; the NYC Department of Transportation manages about 10,000 kilometers of road. The US Interstate Highway system is another order of magnitude larger: It comprises around 75,000 kilometers of asphalt and concrete.
By contrast, there are roughly 600,000 kilometers of “inventoried” Forest Service roads in the US National Forest System – in addition to maybe 96,000 kilometers of roads “created by repeated public use, that are not managed or maintained by the agency or considered part of the forest road system.” Which is to say that there are the equivalent of roughly nine US Interstate Highway Systems, paved mostly in gravel, in our National Forests.
The Forest Service – a branch of the Department of Agriculture whose original purpose was to “furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of the people of the United States” – classifies their roads into five buckets based on their method of construction and maintenance needs. And the agency seems to be highly tuned to the lifecycle of their road infrastructure, and the fact that it is considerably shorter than the ecosystems it provides access to. Roads are built, used, “put into storage,” and decommissioned; the forest lives on.
The National Forest system emerged from the Organic Act of 1897, and in the early days explicit provisions were made for ad-hoc road-building on the part of settlers living in or near forests. It wasn’t until 1916 that the Forest Service began developing infrastructure on its own accord, and to this day a large portion of the roads in US National Forests are constructed by third parties (mainly forestry companies executing timber contracts) rather than the Forest Service itself.
It may be difficult to see it this way today, but in the early twentieth century access to high quality wood was an urgent concern. In addition to its many civilian uses, airplanes were made of wood well into the 1920s – including basically all of the planes flown in World War I. And the availability of high quality timber had a big effect on the early aircraft industry. At the time, an ideal material for an airframe was Sitka spruce, which has an exceptionally high strength-to-weight ratio and grows along the Pacific coast from northern California to southern Alaska – including Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. While much of the lumber there was difficult to reach (a 1902 Department of the Interior report observed that the Olympic Peninsula was one of the most heavily forested regions in the country, but that its rivers were largely unsuitable for driving logs) the forests were nonetheless enticing enough to convince a young William Boeing to drop out of Yale and move to the Olympic Peninsula to enter the lumber industry. A few years later he would move downstream from the lumber business, relocating to Seattle and founding the companies that we now know as Boeing and United Airlines.
The outbreak of World War I – and the depletion of forests in the upper midwest – resulted in rapid infrastructure construction on the Olympic Peninsula. This included Spruce Railroad No. 1, a logging railroad which employed 8,000 men, half of them soldiers, working at a frantic pace for fourteen straight months. Soil and weather conditions were hostile, and the project’s cost ballooned to $30,000 per mile ($607,333 per mile in 2023). Its ahead-of-schedule completion occurred just a few weeks after Armistice Day, though, and as a result it carried no logs for wartime production.
Thus it wasn’t until 1931, when US Highway 101 completed its loop around the entire peninsula, that logging operations could penetrate into the inner portions of the Olympic National Forest. It did so largely via stub roads, which were built by the Forest Service along river valleys on the perimeter of the forest. Think of the peninsula as a roughly square landmass with sides 100 kilometers (60 miles) long. The Olympic Mountain Range forms a blob in the middle of the peninsula, and Highway 101 encircles the mountain range, and every 5-10 kilometers around the perimeter an unpaved road pokes up into the mountains, branching off a few times before it dead-ends into wilderness.
As it happens, I rode some of these roads by bicycle a few weeks ago, and they left me with the sense of having comfortably inhabited a system which, at least on paper, was not designed for my needs. According to the Forest Service’s own Guidelines for Road Maintenance Levels (and a conversation with Marjorie Hutchinson, the Engineering Staff Officer at the Olympic National Forest) I was mostly on Maintenance Level 3 roads – roads where “user comfort and convenience are not considered priorities,” but nevertheless “are passable to prudent drivers in passenger cars during the normal season of use.”
It was not until 1960, when Congress passed the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act, that the Forest Service had an explicit mandate to serve recreational users like myself; before then, the forests’ only stated purpose was to produce wood. Still, the amenities offered by NF-2909, NF-2849, and NF-2844 (among other gravel-surfaced collector roads I traced through my trip) were decidedly spartan. My presence on them was permitted, and to an extent it was even expected. But I got the distinct sense that my use was transient, and that the systems around me were operating on much longer timelines and mostly oblivious to my presence.
Under the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, the Olympic National Forest has a target output of around 20 million board feet of lumber per year – enough to build on the order of a thousand homes. That’s down from about 300 million board feet in the early 1990s, and 500 million board in the 1920s – numbers that Marjorie Hutchinson characterized as “not sustainable.” All of which is to say that logging traffic in the Olympic National Forest is a relatively slow operation today; there were no lumber sales in 2023, and I saw no immediate evidence of wood being harvested while in the forest.
Marjorie told me that all the roads they develop have an intended 50-year lifespan – a surprising statistic, given that concrete roadways might only last 40 years, and asphalt often fails after 15. But the Forest Service does something that’s rarely seen elsewhere: They decommission roads, revegetating their surfaces and even recontouring the slopes they lie on. This 1998 report indicates that decommissioning is primarily done on old, outdated roads that were never engineered for continued use, but Marjorie indicated that some lumber sales still require temporary roads that are then decommissioned after the harvest. She also referred to maintenance level 1 roads as “in storage,” meaning that their entrances have been blocked and their maintenance limited to controlling drainage and mitigating runoff.
The result, to me, was a feeling of comfortable impermanence. The roads I traveled on will probably exist as long as I live, but they are ultimately subject to changing societal needs and ecological conditions. Which, it turns out, was totally suitable for my needs.
- I know it seems pedantic, but I really do use metric units in my normal life – on my bike computer, on my phone's weather app, and even on home construction projects. That said, I decided not to convert the Forest Service's lumber output targets from board feet to cubic meters (or stere – a non-SI metric unit that I was not previously aware of), as it is my understanding that "board foot" is kind of specific to the North American context and not something that can be translated directly into SI. If anyone out there has a good SI-compatible way to measure large quantities of lumber, please send it!
- I was curious to see auction documents for the part of the Olympic National Forest that I rode through, but Marjorie was working remotely due to wildfires and couldn't provide me with one. Nevertheless, these documents from a 2022 sale in the southwest corner of the forest were interesting to browse through, and give a decent sense of how the Forest Service specifies roads, drainage structures, and fill disposal areas. Somewhat related, this chapter on the commercial development of the Olympic Peninsula provided me with a much richer understanding of the lumber and mining industries there, and the surprising fact that one of the most wooded areas in the western US was mostly spared from deforestation.
- An interesting paper describing a deep learning approach to classifying and assessing gravel roads from video and still imagery.
- If you're interested in planning bike trips on gravel, I recommend using Ride with GPS – with the OSM Outdoor layer enabled – to plan your route. Also, bikepacking trips are seriously awesome.
- In honor of TW's excellent piece on sharpening from last week, I'm considering hosting a sharpening party at the New York Industrial Collective workshop in Brooklyn in the next few weeks. If you're interested, reply to this email and I'll be in touch.
- Did you know that a "double" shot (of alcohol) is not always equal to two single shots? Or that the sizes of both single and double shots are not at all standardized, and vary by country and local regulations? I did not; the Wikipedia page for shot glass has much more detail.
p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here's what we're doing about it.