New Forest Service Rule Good Step for Water Quality and Fish; More Needed

An example of an eroding National Forest route. Eroding sediment pollutes streams and damages fisheries”  This wording is important because we do not know if the photo is of a system or nonsystem route. 

Vera Smith, TWS

The Forest Service today finalized a new rule designed to advance small watershed restoration projects in National Forests.

By utilizing an expedited review process allowed under the National Environmental Policy Act called a categorical exclusion, the Forest Service can now speed up approvals for projects that restore aquatic health.

Qualifying under the new rule are projects that will restore natural conditions and not result in significant environmental impacts – e.g., replacing clogged culverts, obliterating illegally created off-road vehicle routes.

The new rule is a good development.  In particular, it will allow the Forest Service more easily to tackle the ghost network of unauthorized off-road vehicle routes that blanket parts of our national forests and threaten water quality and fisheries.  The Forest Service estimates that there are at least 60,000 miles – but possibly many more - of unauthorized routes in national forests.

However, the new rule could have and should have gone further to address the tens of thousands of old system roads that are no longer used, needed, or open to the public. These old roads, like their unauthorized counterparts, pollute our forest streams, damage fisheries, and desperately need management attention.

The Wilderness Society commends the Forest Service for finding ways to improve water quality and aquatic health by making sure that projects to obliterate unauthorized and damaging off-road vehicle routes can move forward more quickly.  It is time now to apply similar good thinking to find ways to address thousands of miles of unneeded, closed roads that continue to damage our streams and critters and that await decommissioning.