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Influx of federal funding helps Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest work through maintenance backlog while making the Forest more climate resilient

Before and afterthe replacement of a culvert at Kingstone Creek.
Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest Service Photo
Before and afterthe replacement of a culvert at Kingstone Creek.

It’s been three years since the Great American Outdoors Act was passed, pumping millions of dollars into the National Forest system.

Locally, the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest has received more than $6.5 million for tackling 18 deferred maintenance projects.

Mark Beuning admits they’re not the flashiest projects. As the Technical Services Staff Officer on the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest, Beuning has overseen many of the projects in the forest that have been funded by the Great American Outdoors Act.

Those projects have included road improvements, culvert and bridge replacements, and trail work.

“Public lands are for the public to enjoy and use and reap the benefits of them through the economic stimulus. The public definitely benefits from them. Whether that is their enjoyment of the land for hunting, fishing and just simply taking a walk or fishing or through the economic benefits that the forest provides the area. One of those examples would be through selling timber products,” said Beuning.

The Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest is the single largest producer of merchantable timber across the 154 national forests in the system.

Maintenance backlog

As a whole, the Forest Service agency said its backlog had grown to nearly $6 billion in 2020 when the Great American Outdoors Act was passed.

Beuning says the projects they have been able to accomplish wouldn’t have been possible without the funding.

Those projects include:

STRUCTURAL REPAIRS AT LOST LAKE DEVELOPED RECREATION SITE: Addressed Lost Lake cabin dining hall foundation, decks, and exterior stairs, providing safe access to the dining hall, which is the focal point of this recreation area that sees more than 3,000 visitors per year.

BRIDGE REPLACEMENT ON FOREST ROAD 144, MILEPOST 5.3 OVER THE SPRINGSTEAD CREEK FOR RECREATION AND VEGETATION MANAGEMENT ACCESS: Ensures sustainable recreational access to hunting, gathering, and dispersed camping for years to come as well as support of vegetation management program. USDA FS Partnered with the Town of Fifield, which contributed nearly $77,000.00.

REHABILITATION OF BRIDGE ON FOREST ROAD 187, MILEPOST 1.8 OVER THE BRUNSWEILER RIVER TO IMPROVE ACCESS TO MORGAN FALLS TRAILS AND VEGETATION MANAGEMENT: Provides sustainable access to vegetation management vehicles, as well as to the Morgan Falls/St. Peters Dome recreation area and increased opportunities for other recreational activities like fishing, hunting, gathering, hiking, and dispersed camping.

FOREST ROAD 2123 RECONSTRUCTION AND MCCASLIN STREAM CROSSING REPLACEMENT: Addressed the reconstruction needs of FR2123 (ditching, improving drainage, and resurfacing) and replaced an aquatic organism passage barrier stream crossing. Provides access to Ada Lake and Boot Lake recreation areas, which are signature recreation sites on the Forest. The area is used for hunting, gathering, fishing, camping, and hiking. The road also supports timber hauling operations, a part of the important forest products industry in Wisconsin. The project also involves the replacement of the crossing at McCaslin Brook, which serves seven miles of aquatic habitat in the Class II native brook trout stream. Completed in partnership with Trout Unlimited, which contributed nearly $25,000.00.

NORTH COUNTRY NATIONAL SCENIC TRAIL: BRUNSWEILER TRAIL BRIDGE REPLACEMENT: Provides a new bridge that is longer to allow for a wider channel. Its sustainable design and materials will support hikers for years to come. The North Country Trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails that draw hikers from around the world who contribute to the economies of rural communities that the trail traverses.

FIRST SOUTH BRANCH OCONTO SNOWMOBILE TRAIL BRIDGE REPLACEMENT: Restored safe access for modern trail grooming equipment which will support winter lodging, restaurants, fuel, and other locations on the forest. The connectivity provided contributes to important local tourism during winter months.

KENTUCK CREEK (FOREST ROAD 2176) STREAM CROSSING REPLACEMENT: Restored aquatic organism passage; access to the Kentuck Lake Recreation Area; hunting, gathering, fishing, dispersed camping, hiking, and other recreational opportunities. It will also support future forest vegetation management projects.

Buening says that infrastructure that was in the worst condition was prioritized as well as those that provide the greatest benefit to the public.

The projects at contracted out to small businesses.

The Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest is still waiting on some more funding requests before the funding from the Great American Outdoors Act is scheduled to end in 2025.

“There are multi millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance that is still not addressed on the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest across all the different infrastructure needs roads, culverts, bridges, developed recreation sites, trails, dams. There's a lot of there's still a very large need out there,” said Buening.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding

The Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest is also getting some funding assistance thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure law that was passed in 2021.

The law set aside funds for the Forest Service agency that can be used accelerate projects under the Good Neighbor Authority.

The Chequamegon Nicolet got $184,000 to replace four culverts this summer, three of which are in Forest County.

Chris Ester is the Forest’s Watershed Program Manager who oversees the projects.

“These four culverts were just known issue culverts. They were deteriorating metal culvert structures, that over top two that were at a pretty high risk of failure. Some of them were getting pretty near sort of the status of being a public safety hazard. As well as you know, being issues for the aquatic resources, and sedimentation fish passage issues, so they're just known issues and we were able to get this funding,” said Ester.

Ester says there’s an endless amount of culvert work needed on the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest because of the high number of them.

“It's just a very, I guess, underappreciated infrastructure. We have over 10,000 culverts on the National Forest, 3,000 of them cross streams. These are places that fish need to pass. They're places that are pretty significant investments,” said Ester. “They're important for the stream in the road. People don't really realize that they're there until maybe they're washed out, which happens if we don't address the deferred maintenance backlog and if we don't properly size them.”

A priority with the culverts and other maintenance work being done now is making sure it lasts.

Considering climate change

Because of climate change, the Forest Service is preparing bigger flooding more frequently.

This means making the culverts larger to handle even bigger floods than the state has experienced.

“The 2016 flood gave a great case study for us. We had replaced 17 crossings prior to that 2016 flood which was a catastrophic flood. It was anywhere between two and four times the size of the 500 year flood,” said Ester. “It turned out that 16 of those 17 culverts that we had replaced using our Forest Service standards for design did survive that flood. That flood was even significantly larger than what those culverts were designed to handle. We took that as a bit of a test case of our design method, and it passed.”

Ester says that makes him confident the culverts they’re installing now will last 75 to 100 years.

He and Buening also noted that it’s more economical to consider climate change in its maintenance projects.

“There's been lots of studies that have looked at and determined that one culvert designed properly that's going to last its full lifespan is going to be significantly less lifecycle cost than a culvert that might have been replaced in kind or installed to a lesser standard that's going to have more maintenance and more fixing from failure,” said Ester.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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