Unknown to most anglers, a very important trout conservation event occurred in April 1997. Pennsylvania’s Dirt and Gravel Road Maintenance Program was enacted into law as Section 9106 of the PA Vehicle Code.
Since 1998, this little-known program has funded dirt road maintenance projects in 65 counties, with a fair share right here in Centre County. All of these projects collectively serve to keep thousands of tons of sediment from entering some of the state’s best trout streams.
Sediment is one of the largest stream pollution problems in Pennsylvania. It fills in stream channels — smothering trout eggs and destroying aquatic insect habitat. The negative effects of sedimentation are felt from the tiniest headwaters all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Center for Dirt and Gravel Roads, funded by this legislation, is headquartered at Penn State University, but the program also has other ties to Centre County. In fact, it happened largely through the efforts of several county men who identified and quantified the problem, took the issue to Harrisburg, and then carried it through the legislature.
This story began not in 1997, but seven years earlier when members of the God’s Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited became concerned with the large amount of sediment entering streams in Potter County. They invited members of the state TU Environmental Committee to Big Moore’s Run to discuss the sedimentation problem, and of course, do a little fishing. God’s Country TU president Pete Ryan describes how that meeting played out.
“As luck would have it, shortly after introductions, discussion of the problems and several cups of coffee, it started to rain — a hard, steady rain. So we decided to take our investigation to the field,” Ryan related.
The group visited a number of streams and watched first-hand as thousands of gallons of muddy water washed off of the dirt roads into the wild trout streams of northcentral Pennsylvania.
“After the field trip, three things were irrefutable: It rained hard; the fishing in Big Moore’s Run and everywhere downstream in the First Fork drainage was ruined for that day; and this was as a result of sediment running off of roads and into streams in the headwaters of the First Fork,” Ryan stated. “The three visitors were flabbergasted — they couldn’t believe that Potter County had to put up with such sedimentation.”
Those three TU Environmental Committee members happened to be chairman Bud Byron, a retired insurance salesman from Philipsburg (now deceased), Ed Bellis, a retired PSU biology professor, and Bob Carline, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist stationed at Penn State. A strong group it was. According to Ryan, they all vowed to do something about this pollution problem.
“It is one thing to say that you will tackle a problem,” Ryan said. “It is quite another to wrap both arms around the problem and stop it in its tracks — but that was Bud Byron. If it were not for the knowledge, energy and drive of these three people, nothing would have happened.”
During the next four years, this trio of volunteers, along with other supporting members, made progress with PennDOT and various Harrisburg officials. Their successes included the 1993 formation of the Task Force on Dirt and Gravel Roads. This unfunded group was to study and devise maintenance standards and techniques for correcting the excessive sedimentation problems. The task force was made up of individuals representing 15 various groups — federal, state and local agencies, private enterprise, and volunteer environmental organizations.
By 1995, Byron and the others realized that if funding legislation were to pass, the full scope of the problem needed to be identified.
As related by Ryan under the leadership of Bellis, who took over for Byron, PSU graduate students produced a map of every dirt and gravel road that ran adjacent to or crossed an exceptional value or high quality cold water fishery. Volunteers from local TU chapters were trained in the erosion/ sedimentation evaluation techniques developed by Bellis, and they surveyed their local streams.
“The survey was completed by the fall of 1996, and the results were shocking — over 700 ‘sediment hotspots’ were identified statewide,” Ryan observed. The problem was even bigger than most had thought.
That survey and the success of the task force helped to attract attention in Harrisburg. Legislation was drafted and sponsored by another very-familiar local name, Senator J. Doyle Corman.
In April 1997, after much work and many years of effort, the General Assembly passed the bill that was signed into law by Governor Tom Ridge, as Act 3 of 1997. The legislation provided $5 million annually to improve and maintain dirt and gravel roads: one million for the Department of Conservation and Natural Recourses’ Bureau of Forestry — the largest owner of dirt roads — and $4 million to be distributed by local conservation districts.
The program established “a dedicated … fund providing a streamlined appropriation to the county level to fund safe, efficient and environmentally sound maintenance of dirt and gravel roads. ...” Dirt and Gravel Road Field Operations Specialist Tim Ziegler noted, “Project successes have been real and recognizable.”
The Dirt and Gravel Road Maintenance Program has helped to fund over 2,300 projects in local municipalities in order to eliminate steam pollution caused by runoff and sediment from unpaved roads. Nearly 7,000 people have attended over 200 two-day training sessions. More than 7,500 new drainage and stream pipes have been installed, 568 miles of driving service aggregate has been placed, and over 190 miles of road ditch and banks have been stabilized. All of this occurred in addition to the work done by DCNR to maintain and improve over 2,250 miles of public State Forest Roads.
“By some accounts, the DAGRMP is the most efficient taxpayer-sponsored program in Pennsylvania and could be a model for governmental programs everywhere,” Zeigler marked. “The project now averages $1.45 worth of project work done for every $1 of grant money.”
One of the beauties of this program is that it combines environmental education and improvement with sound maintenance practices. Because of the “required training” aspect of the way the program is run, road professionals work and learn side-by-side with conservation professionals, and both benefit. Streams are protected and road professionals learn cost-saving, environmentally responsible ways to maintain roads.
The very successful Dirt and Gravel Roads Program celebrates its 15th birthday this year.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the PA Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.