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A Look Down the Trail: A Watershed Moment
A Watershed MomentBack in August 2009, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack gave an inspirational speech about the future of the Forest Service highlighting the important link between the overall health and vitality of our forest ecosystems and the supply of clean drinking water for more than 60 million Americans.
Since then, the agency has taken numerous steps to realize the Secretary’s vision about protecting and restoring clean drinking water supplies. In early June, for example, they announced some initial results of one of those important steps, the Watershed Condition Framework (WCF).
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw on page one of the WCF document, the following quote (oftreferenced by Wildlands CPR) from Vilsack’s August 2009 speech:
“Restoration, for me, means managing forest lands first and foremost to protect our water resources while making our forests far more resilient to climate change. In many of our forests, restoration will also include efforts to improve or decommission roads, to replace and improve culverts, and to rehabilitate streams and wetlands. Restoration will also mean the rehabilitation of declining ecosystems.”The Forest Service has been working on the WCF for several years, and we applaud the effort. It includes a six-step process intended to improve national forest water quality. The first step, an assessment of the condition of all national forest watersheds, is complete. The FS announcement of the WCF on June 3 included publication of a set of maps with 6th HUC watersheds highlighted in green, yellow or red, respectively indicating high function, at risk, or impaired watersheds. The limited number of red watersheds looks good for the agency, but does raise questions about the accuracy of the assessment. It seems likely that more watersheds may be functionally impaired than show in these maps.
Now that all national forests have finished step A, they will move on to the next step, or “identifying priority watersheds” on each national forest. From there, they will develop watershed action plans to improve the condition of those priority watersheds, followed implementation, tracking and monitoring. When meeting with the agency to discuss timing, we were informed that the identification of
priority watersheds, and the development of a watershed action plan for at least one of those priority watersheds should be completed by September 30, 2011. At this point in time, the watershed action planning may prove the most important to us, because this is the stage where the agency will discuss on-the-ground road (or other) management opportunities to improve water quality.
The people who worked on the WCF should be proud of their effort, as it sets the stage for a new conversation about water quality within the national forests. Perhaps even more importantly -- at least from an on-the-ground perspective -- this is not a stand-alone effort. They are working to integrate the WCF into numerous ongoing agency initiatives, from their budgeting proposal for integrating restoration funding (Integrated Resource Restoration) to the identification of a minimum road system.
Check out our Policy Primer on pages 8-13 for an overview, including strengths and weaknesses, of the WCF specifically as it relates to roads. The Wilderness Society has also developed a more comprehensive review of the WCF as a whole.
Kudos to the Forest Service for taking watershed condition and water quality seriously. They’ve acknowledged that there will be some bumps in the road, and probably some changes with the system over time, but they’ve taken a major step towards more effective watershed management. We hope they continue with this positive trend as they identify priorities and develop watershed action plans. And to help them along, we’ve dedicated half of this issue of The RIPorter to roads and water issues — read on...