Report analyzes U.S. Forest Service restoration initiatives and water quality in our forests

Road washout along Lightening Creek on the Idaho-Panhandle National Forest

Photo by Brad Smith, Idaho Conservation League

Roads may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about water quality in our national forests, but the two are inseparable in a forest system that encompasses 380,000 miles of road.

If not properly maintained, these roads will fall apart bleeding large amounts of dirt into America’s rivers. This dirt runoff degrades stream quality and destroys fish habitat.

In a new report, we examine the relationship between two U.S. Forest Service restoration initiatives that were launched in 2010 and deal with water quality: the Watershed Condition Framework and the Travel Analysis Process.

The Watershed Condition Framework directly focuses on watershed restoration through the development of Watershed Restoration Action Plans, which identify a suite of restoration activities, like obliterating an unneeded road or reclaiming an abandoned mine,  that will improve the health of a watershed. The completion of Travel Analysis results in identifying an efficient and sustainable network of roads, including a list of unneeded roads that can be decommissioned, for each of the 155 national forest and grasslands.

In order to assess how well the forest service is integrating the Travel Analysis Process with the Watershed Condition Framework, and more generally how well they have linked the overarching relationship between water and roads, we reviewed thirty-nine Watershed Restoration Actions Plans developed by the agency for forests in the western United States.  

We found that only two of the thirty-nine Action Plans reviewed include language that directly links the idea of a more sustainable road system with improving a watershed’s condition. We also found that a majority of the Action Plans identified roads a key stressor impacting watershed condition and that road-related projects were usually included in the suite of restoration activities to help restore a watershed’s condition. While this is a good start, it is impossible for the public to determine whether the road-related projects will “add up” to actually improve a watershed’s condition. Lastly, our report includes important region specific findings for four forest service regions (Southwest, Intermountain, Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest).

While we applaud the forest service for the implementation of the Watershed Condition Framework and the Travel Analysis initiatives, we recommend that the two be better linked, and that link be better explained, not only aid in the restoration process but also to inform the public. 

Our national forest waters provide habitat for an extensive variety of aquatic species, and provide one in five Americans with drinking water. As a result, it is imperative that watershed health is properly sustained, and addressing roads is a vital part of that process.