Aquatic Organism Passage Program Overview
The Forest Service is recognized as a national leader in road crossing techniques that ensure aquatic organism passage, or the ability for fish and other aquatic creatures to move up or downstream under roads. The agency also assists in projects to allow for passage at irrigation diversions and small dams. Restoration work accomplished under this program occurs on forest highways, roads, and irrigation diversions in cooperation with state and county transportation agencies, landowners and a wide range of interest groups.
Assessments confirm the ecological importance of providing passage through road-stream crossings for all native aquatic and riparian species over all of their life stages to provide for robust communities and resilience to climate change stresses. Restoration work accomplished under this program occurs on forest highways, roads, and irrigation diversions in cooperation with state and county transportation agencies, landowners and a wide range of interest groups.
For over 20 years the Forest Service has improved the technology and methods applied to provide unimpeded passage for fish and other aquatic species at road-stream crossings. Several types of funds have been used to accomplish the work, including fund sources from Forest Service engineering, fisheries and wildlife, and partner contributions. The most common funding sources are Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Restoration program (CMLG), Forest Service engineering funds (CMRD), Forest Service fish and wildlife funds (NFWF), and outside sources such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Fish Passage program and individual Tribal fisheries programs. On average, the Forest Service restores between 600 and 1,000 miles of aquatic habitat on Forest Service lands and adjacent private lands per year, depending on funding.
Total funds expended to upgrade and improve road-stream crossings were over $45 million in Fiscal Year 2011. These improvements increase ecological connectivity and improve watershed condition, while also protecting infrastructure to withstand flooding and modified stream run-off due to climate change. Since 2005, when Public Law 109-59 was passed and established aid for Federal Highways through the Safe Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), $10 million per year specific to that funding source has been dedicated for aquatic passage improvement at road-stream crossings on national forests. Over 1,000 miles of habitat have been restored since 2006 by aquatic organism passage (AOP) projects funded through this federal highways program.
Major partners in aquatic organism passage efforts include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Wildlands CPR, Trout Unlimited, many state and local agencies, and other supportive non-governmental organizations.
Regional and Forest assessments of road-stream crossings indicate that at least 20,000 road-stream crossings potentially block access for aquatic species (i.e. fish, salamanders, frogs, crayfish, and aquatic shrews). Given over 375,000 miles of system roads within the national forests and 400,000 miles of fish bearing streams, this aspect of restoration will continue to be important into the foreseeable future. Project selection is dependent on available funding, and covers the environmental planning, feasibility, design, engineering review, and construction, all of which may take up to five years depending on the complexity of the project. The Regional Offices and National Forests work in cooperation to determine the best use of available funds and to prioritize the projects. The average cost for a project is approximately $60,000, with some that are significantly higher.
Several projects to monitor the effectiveness of AOP work are underway, using a variety of techniques including genetic results, physical stream measurements, fish tagging, and fish surveys. The intent is to identify cost-effective techniques to help document success of AOP projects.