In 1891, Congress authorized the creation of Forest Reserves, now called National Forests. Forests were to be conserved to assure a permanent national timber supply; to preserve scenic and wilderness areas for recreational use by the public; and to safeguard the steady flow of streams that supplied water for domestic, farm, and industrial use.
Federal participation in forest road construction began when Congress passed the Federal-Aid Road Act in 1916. This act appropriated $10 million ($1 million per year for 10 years) for the "...survey, construction, and maintenance of roads and trails within or only partly within the national forests when necessary for the use and development of resources upon which communities within and adjacent to the national forests are dependent...".
It was not until the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921 that two types of forest roads were defined:
- Forest Development Roads - those forest roads that are needed primarily for management of the national forests
- Forest Highways (FH) - those forest roads which must serve the national forests and also serve the communities within and adjacent to the national forests
During the first 50+ years of the program, most of the funds were expended on routes which were of primary importance to the States, Counties, or communities within or adjacent to the national forests. Most of those routes were of statewide importance and were then, or later became, State Primary Highways.
The 1978 Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) changed the direction of the Forest Highway Program (FHP) by redefining Forest Roads, Forest Development Roads, and Forest Highways:
"The term "forest road or trail" means a road or trail wholly or partly within, or adjacent to, and serving the National Forest system and which is necessary for the protection, administration, and utilization of the National Forest system and the use and development of its resources.
"The term "forest development road and trail" means a forest road or trail under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service."
"The term "Forest Highway" means a forest road under the jurisdiction of, and maintained by, a public authority, and open to public travel."
A primary effect of these new definitions was increased FHP emphasis on local roads with less emphasis on State Highways. This was possible because requirements that such routes be "...of primary importance to the States, Counties, or communities... and on the Federal-Aid System" had been eliminated.
Although many miles of roads have met the requirements for FH designation, funding for their improvement has remained in short supply. Congress had authorized an amount of $33 million for each year from 1955 to 1982. These funds were made available to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for expenditure in the various States according to an apportionment formula based on the area and value of the national forests in each State.
The 1982 Surface Transportation and Assistance Act (STAA) increased the annual funding for FH from $33 million to $50 million. This act also directed FHWA and the Forest Service (FS) to jointly develop new regulations for the administration of the FHP. These regulations, which were issued on March 11, 1982, contained specific requirements for the designation of FH routes and for the selection of projects for FH funding. In addition, the 1982 STAA changed the method of distributing the funds, specifying that:
"On October 1 of each fiscal year, the Secretary shall allocate the sums authorized to be appropriated for such fiscal year for forest highways according to the relative needs of the various elements of the National Forest system as determined by the Secretary, taking into consideration the need for access as identified by the Secretary of Agriculture through renewable resource and land use planning, and the impact of such planning on existing transportation facilities."
This temporarily changed the distribution of FH funds from an apportionment formula to an allocation based on needs. To assist in implementing this change, FHWA undertook an inventory and needs study in 1983 to determine the costs to improve the newly designated forest highways in each State.
In addition, various task groups made up of FS and FHWA personnel identified other factors which could be used to determine FH fund allocation. These were: value of forest resources, recreational visitor days (RVDs), volume of timber harvested, and acres of national forest. FHWA and the FS to develop a new formula to be used in allocating funds used these factors along with costs from the inventory. This formula was used in allocating Federal Fiscal Year (FY) 1984 FH funds.
Before this new formula was formally adopted, a provision was added to the 1982 STAA that required the FH funds to be allocated using the old Area/Value formula for sixty-six percent of the annual authorization and the new FHWA/FS formula for the remaining thirty-four percent. This provision was used to allocate FH funds in FY 1985 and FY 1986.
The 1987 Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA) increased the annual FH authorization from $50 million to $55 million for FY 1987 through FY 1991. These funds were allocated the same as in FY 1985 and FY 1986, using the old Area/Value formula for sixty-six percent of the annual authorization and the FHWA/FS formula for the remaining thirty-four percent.
The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) combined FHP and Public Lands under the Public Lands Highway Program. Sixty-six percent of these Public Lands funds was allocated for use on Forest Highways using the same formula as applied in FY 1987 to FY 1991. This formula used the Area/Value formula for sixty-six percent of the funding and the FHWA/FS relative needs formula for the remaining thirty-four percent.
The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) did not alter any of the allocation formulas for sixty-six percent of the Public Lands funds but did increase the amount of funding for FH. The annual FH authorization for FY1998 through FY2003 was $162.4 million.
The remaining thirty-four percent of the Public Lands funds are designated as discretionary Public Landís funds. There is no legislatively prescribed formula for the distribution of these discretionary Public Lands funds.
The annual Public Lands authorization for FY1998 through FY2003 was $86.3 million.
To be eligible for discretionary Public Landís funds, a proposed project must be:
- A forest road under the jurisdiction of and maintained by a public authority and open to public travel.
- A highway through inappropriate or unreserved public lands, non-taxable Indian lands, or other Federal reservations under the jurisdiction of and maintained by a public authority and open to public travel.
Approval of discretionary Public Landís projects is at the discretion of the Secretary of Transportation and has been delegated to the FHWA. The discretionary Public Lands program is Administered by the State Highway Agency. Projects are proposed by the State and sent through the FHWA Federal-Aid Division Office. The list is then forwarded to FHWA Headquarters in Washington, DC. At FHWA Headquarters FHWA staff prioritizes the projects. Recommendations are made to the Federal Highway Administrator who makes the final selection and approves the projects for funding.
Discretionary Public Landís funds do not require a local match although supplemental funding of projects is encouraged. These funds are available for preliminary engineering and construction but not for Right-of-Way (ROW) acquisition.
A call is issued each year by FHWA, usually in late spring, for project proposals for the following year. The letter initiating the call for projects usually indicates the criteria to be addressed by a project proposal.
TEA-21 also legislated the following program changes:
- Allowed Public Lands funds to be used for the State/local share for Federal-Aid Highway funded projects. (IM, NHS, STP, CMAQ)
- Reduced the administrative takedown to 1.5%.
- Placed an annual limitation on Public Landís funds.
- Provided full obligation limitation for future fiscal year carryover funds.
Because of the legislative and regulatory changes over the past decade, there is now more county involvement in the program as the forest needs generally are on those local roads connecting the Forest to the main State highways. With these changes, the objective of the FHP has been clarified, i.e., to construct or improve roads serving the national forest and its resources and which connect the national forest to the main State transportation network.
The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) authorized funds for Federal Fiscal Years (FY)2005 through 2009. It continued using the allocation formula established under ISTEA. The annual Forest Highway authorization under SAFETEA-LU in 2009 was $200 million. The annual Public Lands Discretionary authorization in 2009 was $100 million.
SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009. It has been extended nine times while Congress works on a reauthorization. The current extension expires June 30, 2012.