Wilderness and Water Mix Well

Water loves Wilderness. That seems obvious when you compare two maps of the United States – one showing healthy watersheds, and another showing protected lands.

In a new report, we examine watershed health in Wilderness, Roadless and Roaded Areas of the National Forest System.

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service released a national map depicting the condition of all 15,000 watersheds located in the 193 million-acre National Forest System. Pieced together by specialists in every national forest, the Watershed Condition Classification Map was the first nationwide assessment of its kind.

Naturally, we were curious to find out how well America’s treasured wild lands fared in the assessment.  So The Wilderness Society performed a computerized map overlay analysis to investigate the spatial relationships between watershed conditions and land designations. 

We took the Forest Service’s maps of the three watershed condition classes -- High, Moderate, and Poor watershed health – and matched them with maps of three land categories -- Wilderness Areas, Roadless Areas, and all other National Forest System lands. 

We found a striking correspondence between watershed health and protected lands.
Specifically, 80 percent of the Wilderness land is located in the healthiest watersheds, while 18 percent is in moderately healthy watersheds.

The Roadless Areas came in second place, with 64 percent of the land in the healthiest watersheds.

The remaining national forest lands were a distant third, with just 38 percent in top watershed condition.

For each land management category, this chart shows the percent of its area in each of the three watershed condition classes.

Everyone needs good, clean water, and the National Forest System produces lots of it.  In fact, the majority of the water in the western U.S. flows from the national forests.  One in five Americans get their drinking water mostly from the national forests.

Wilderness and Roadless Areas are exceptionally valuable because they protect healthy watersheds that produce top-notch water and fish habitat.

As we celebrate and enjoy National Fishing and Boating Week this week, let’s appreciate our superb Wilderness water.

View the report and map

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