WildEarth Guardians

A Force for Nature

Select Page

As many of us sit in our cars to drive up to a trailhead, campground, or river in our closest national forest, we likely spend little time pondering what kind of impact the road we are on has. But there is a large volume of scientific literature devoted to this question with much of it summarized in our paper: The Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System.

Roads have an enormous impact on many wildlife and aquatic species such as elk, grizzly bear, salmon, bull trout, pronghorn, and salamander. Our latest handout, National Forest Roads and Habitat (DIS)-Connectivity, draws from the paper to spotlight this harm and offers recommendations to reconnect habitat. These actions are increasingly important as wildlife seek food and security in an ever changing climate.

My car was third in a convoy of six vehicles turning off the main highway and onto a gravel road that wound upward through the thick forest. COVID-19 safety measures dictated that each person be in one car, so six people = six cars. Not the easiest way to go see restoration work in the Olympic National Forest but I was happy to be outdoors.

Our mission for the day was to see how the Forest Service was protecting water that eventually flowed downstream and out of the taps of nearly 6,000 households in Port Townsend, WA. Water is often lost in the debates over how public lands should be managed, even though half of the U.S. population relies on these lands to capture and filter their drinking water.

It may be surprising to some, but the National Forest System was not created solely for logging or even recreation. Way back in the 1880s, clear-cut logging in the Northeast left hillsides bare leading to erosion and flooding. As people saw clear streams that they depended on for water turn into muddy torrents, communities raised the alarm. Congress responded in 1897 with the Forest Service Organic Administration Act, reserving headwater forests for the purpose of “securing favorable conditions of water flows.” Today, national forests are the country’s largest single source of water. But is this valuable resource protected?

Water from this creek enters the Big Quilcene River, which supplies drinking water to Port Townsend, WA. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

Big cities like Seattle, Denver, Portland, and Salt Lake City often have the funds and staff time to invest in actively caring for the watersheds that supply clean water to millions of people. But smaller towns like Tillamook, OR or Port Townsend, WA have much smaller budgets. They depend on the Forest Service to safeguard the rivers and streams that supply drinking water. We were on our way to one of those important streams – hence the convoy.

In the forest, we stepped out of our cars and began finding our way over logs, past swordferns and thimble berry bushes, as we moved towards the sound of water below. We were on a hillside just above the Little Quilcene River. This water, along with the flows from the Big Quilcene River, is drawn into a pipeline that travels 30 miles to Port Townsend—completely by the power of gravity. When the water upstream in the forest is clean, then as the water exits the pipeline downstream, less effort and money is needed from the city to treat the water.

Trees, brush, and a large ditch are used to deter people from driving cars too close to a drinking water source stream. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

The “bushwhacking” we were doing was through a former road that had never been part of the official Forest Service road system but some people used any way. These incursions left behind human waste, trash, and had the potential to start fires—all of which impact drinking water quality. The Olympic National Forest received a grant last year from the Drinking Water Providers Partnership to restore this roadbed to natural conditions. On our visit, we could see wetlands reemerging and native plants spreading, creating a wider perimeter of protection around a valuable water source—a shining example of how restoration can work successfully. Thanks to the grant, the Forest Service was able to complete the work, so that this drinking water supply will be cleaner for the thousands of people downstream who rely on it.

Ensuring drinking water is clean at its source saves residents costs at the tap. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

Large and small threats to drinking water exist in national forests across the U.S. Trash and human waste contaminates critical streams. Dirt from roads muddy the water, shutting down treatment plants. And drought related to climate change reduces water availability. Instead of protecting waterways, the current administration’s singular priority is to cut trees. Ignoring the 140-year-old mandate to “secure favorable conditions of water flows” is unacceptable. We need to demand a complete transformation of the administration and agency leadership. The solutions are simple. Expanding protections for roadless areas, riparian areas, and wetlands can safeguard streams. Removing harmful infrastructure helps restore natural processes. Grounding land management actions in climate change science would ensure watersheds’ resiliency. Water is life and people in towns from Port Townsend, WA to cities like Atlanta, GA need assurance that their drinking water is protected.

Oregon and Washington drinking water suppliers, tribes, and NGO’s are currently invited to submit applications for the next round of grant funding from the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. Information can be found here and the deadline for submission is January 8, 2020.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important to ask the question, “what does our country need most?” To that question, I answer “grown-ups.” The Cambridge dictionary defines “grown-up” as someone who behaves in a mature and responsible way. It is not unusual for a child to complain, call people names, and avoid responsibilities. But, for an adult, that behavior is unacceptable at best, and dangerous at worst.

We live at a time of declining trust in government institutions—and with good reason. Deep economic and racial injustice, political polarization, and a world wide pandemic are just a few of the responsibilities our government has failed to address.

Yet, at a time when my faith in many American institutions is declining, I still have faith in some of the good people who serve in government.

This week, WildEarth Guardians settled our lawsuit with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement elevates the protection of the Mexican spotted owl and the ancient forest habitat that the owl depends on.

The agreement brings to an end the massive legal injunction on tree-cutting on six national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. A federal judge put that injunction in place after he determined that the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to monitor spotted owl populations.

This injunction was the third issued by a federal judge since the owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1993—what has to be a record for federal judicial accountability. The decades-long conflict over national forests and spotted owls in the American Southwest is a microcosm for the loss of trust in government institutions. On all sides of the debate, there is a belief that the Forest Service has failed to be responsible in its role of managing the national forests.

Rather than doing its job—namely, performing a serious study on the health of the spotted owl—the Forest Service dissembled and whined. And when the courts prevented logging, the Forest Service placed the blame on others. Leadership at the Forest Service viewed our public lands as their own “toy chest,” with the intention of sharing their “toys” only with their friends—those with power, influence, and money.

Fortunately, there are still some grown-ups at the Forest Service. People like Elaine Kohrman, the Deputy Regional Forester, who helped navigate the challenges that arose during our negotiations. I believe this agreement could not have come about without her leadership and vision.

Elaine, and her team, saw this conflict as an opportunity to set things right and to chart a new course for the Forest Service and the spotted owl. I commend her for that. I suspect it was not an easy path she chose. She probably met with serious resistance, but she did the mature, responsible thing. She reminds me of a time when our institutions served the people—not the other way around. Her efforts, along with other public servants who care deeply about our forests, avoided further polarization and led to common ground.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a Guardian. As much as I believe in collaboration, I also believe in conflict as a necessary part of social change, whether as an antidote to power inequity or as a remedy for historic injustice.

And I still believe that when a government breaks its promises to uphold the law and protect the public interest, citizens can enforce our laws as a means to not only protect civic engagement but also the rule of law.

One of the guiding principles of how national forests are supposed to be managed is through a scientific process of ‘adaptive management.’ Adaptive management done right builds trust—done wrongly it reinforces a mistrust that can become toxic to forests, people, and agencies.

I believe our agreement decreases the likelihood of ecological damage of all future tree cutting in and outside of spotted owl habitat. Still, there is more to be done.

One of the most destructive things President Trump has done over the last three and a half years is systematically rid our government of good public servants, whether by harassment, intimidation or the despair of working for a leader who doesn’t have your back. In short, he has attempted a purge of all the “grown-ups.” The hollowing out of government  institutions has been one of the defining features and strategies of the Trump administration.

I’m encouraged to know that, in spite of these conditions, some good public servants are still hanging on. It’s easier than ever to get discouraged in these times—not only by the challenges we face but also by our imperfect government. My advice is don’t get discouraged. My advice is don’t whine, but act. We can start by acknowledging the hard work of public servants who fight the good fight.

It’s true that I believe that the settlement of this Endangered Species Act conflict will be good for threatened Mexican spotted owls and our national forests—and that matters deeply to me. But perhaps of far greater importance is that this agreement restores a small measure of faith that there are still some grown-ups who yet remain in our government.

If, like them, we can address the problems we face in a mature and responsible way, I am convinced we will overcome them all.

Earlier this year we released a report titled “The Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System,” which updated a previous literature review on this topic by adding fifty-nine new citations along with several new sections. Notably, our report demonstrates the significant harmful effects forest roads pose to fish, wildlife and the overall ecological integrity of national forests. One section regarding the intersection between roads and wildfires is particularly relevant right now for obvious reasons.

While the wildfire debate rages on during another active fire season, our report demonstrates the urgent need for the Forest Service to acknowledge the fact that forest roads actually increase wildfire risk, affect fire behavior and result in sediment choked streams when they burn, among other serious ecological impacts. Records from over 20 years found 84% of wildfires were human-caused.

Now, as part of a series of factsheets based on our literature review, we are providing this new, convenient Wildfire and Forest Roads Fact Sheet with wildfire statistics and key findings. You can also check our first fact sheet on climate change and national forest infrastructure.

The best way to manage wildfires is by allowing them to play their natural ecological role wherever possible, reintroducing fire into fire-adapted forests and ecosystems through strategically-located prescribed burns, and focusing on community protection by creating defensible space within the Home Ignition Zone, (the home and its immediate surroundings, extending up to 100 – 200 feet around structures). The Forest Service also needs to focus on true restoration by removing unneeded roads to reduce human-caused wildfires and to create larger tracts of intact forests that tend to burn in patches of varying severities. Such steps are necessary given widespread acknowledgment that the drought, heat, and wind caused by climate change are the primary drivers of western wildfires, and no amount of logging, with its associated road building, is going to “fire-proof” the forests.

WildEarth Guardians and allies have filed our opening brief in a lawsuit to require the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore proven safeguards for the protection and recovery of imperiled grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolverine, and bull trout on the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana. Our lawsuit claims that the recently revised Forest Plan for the Flathead National Forest violates the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by favoring destructive activities such as logging, grazing, road building, and motorized use over protection and restoration of these species and their habitats.

The new Forest Plan is critical because it will govern all future activities on the 2.4 million-acre Flathead National Forest for the next 15 years or more. As part of the “Crown of the Continent,” the Flathead is a haven of rugged mountain peaks, rich, thick forests, and cool, clean mountain streams, with some of the last remaining intact wilderness and free-flowing rivers on the continent. Unfortunately, outside of protected wilderness, this national forest suffers from a long history of unsustainable logging, an excessive road system, and motorized use, including ATVs and snowmobiles, that harm and harass wildlife, fragment fish and wildlife habitat, and degrade sensitive riparian areas and water quality.

“The Flathead National Forest plays an essential role in the long-term recovery of grizzly bears and other imperiled species,” explained Adam Rissien, ReWilding Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “In its recent decision overturning the de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange to ensure the grizzly bear’s long-term health and recovery. The Flathead’s revised Forest Plan fails to ensure this connectivity and thus threatens grizzly bear recovery as well as other species such as threatened bull trout and lynx.”

Read the press release.

On June 29, WildEarth Guardians joined over 200 wildlife, conservation, and environmental justice groups in supporting several provisions of The Moving Forward Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 1, 2020. The $1.5 trillion infrastructure package includes a number of provisions identified in the groups’ recent $25 billion Restoring Work, Restoring Wild request to Congress. That request urged Congress to use the opportunity of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to “revive the United States economy by investing $25 billion in new and existing conservation programs that will create hundreds of thousands of direct jobs and provide benefits to people, communities and the environment.”

Specific components of the Restoring Work, Restoring Wild request that are incorporated into The Moving Forward Act include:

An impassible culvert on the Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon. Funding for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program will enable the U.S. Forest Service to restore streams and repair or replace culverts to ensure fish passage.

  • $300 million from the National Highway Performance Program for wildlife crossing project such as the construction of overpasses and underpasses for wildlife to safely cross highways to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.
  • The bipartisan Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, which provides critical funding for states, tribes, landowners and federal agencies to identify and protect wildlife corridors.
  • A $3 billion grant program for coastal and Great Lakes resilience and restoration, as well as a separate grant program to build living shorelines to support flood resilience.
  • $50 million per year for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program, which has a proven history of success and has created many thousands of jobs while restoring fish and wildlife habitat.
  • principles of environmental justice and generally maintains the integrity of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

The Moving Forward Act is a forward-looking effort to revive the economy and create good jobs while also addressing climate change, improving drinking water and air quality, and protecting fish and wildlife habitat. Instead of returning to “normal,” Congress has an opportunity—indeed a duty—to step up to safeguard the environment, workers and the public, and create more resilient ecosystems, public health benefits, and quality of life improvements in communities throughout the United States. The Moving Forward Act is a good first step.

Read the press release.

The U.S House of Representatives announced this week that the Moving Forward Act designed to improve green infrastructure and reduce climate impacts includes a provision called “The Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program.” Incorporated from legislation previously introduced by U.S. Representatives Kim Schrier and Derek Kilmer from Washington state, this much-needed program will address aging and obsolete Forest Service transportation infrastructure to improve fish migration, water quality, imperiled species habitat, and future resilience to storms.

The U.S. Forest Service manages a massive road and trail system, including more than 370,000 miles of roads, 159,000 miles of trails, hundreds of thousands of culverts and more than 13,000 bridges. Twice as many miles as the national highway system, the Forest Service road system demands considerably more maintenance attention than current funding allows and every year the deferred maintenance backlog grows. The Forest Service currently reports an astounding $3.2 billion road maintenance backlog. In addition to the official road system, the National Forests are haunted by a ghost system of tens of thousands of miles of abandoned and obsolete roads, a legacy of the big timber era.

“The Forest Service not only has a responsibility to uphold Clean Water Act standards set by the states, but also for the 3,400 communities that rely on national forests as drinking water sources,” said Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians. “This program gives the Forest Service a real tool to meet this responsibility. We thank Representatives Schrier and Kilmer for leading this effort to protect clean water.”

Read the press release.

The small crew of women met in the parking lot of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge at 9:00 AM sharp. They were armed with gloves, buckets, and trowels. Their mission: removing invasive plants from a newly established prairie dog colony.

The crew consisted of Lindsey Sterling-Krank and Jenny Bryant from the Prairie Dog Coalition; their volunteer Hannah Reeves; Pam Wanek, a prairie dog relocator; and Taylor Jones with WildEarth Guardians. The prairie dogs were recent transplants from a construction site in Parker, Colorado. The newly established colony was thriving; pups were up and about, and sentries chirped warning calls at the approach of humans. But the prairie dogs still needed a little help transforming their section of Rocky Flats back to healthy native prairie. And the crew was here to provide that help.

Dalmatian toadflax is very pretty, with yellow flowers resembling snapdragons. It was imported from Eurasia for its looks—then it went wild. It is one of the many nonnative plants crowding out natives in grasslands hammered by livestock grazing and other human uses.

The best way to get rid of Dalmation toadflax is simple hand-weeding. The crew waited until after a spring rain, and then quickly sprang into action to remove the weeds before they went to seed and spread. Removing this invasive plant makes room for native plants and flowers, restoring the grassland to its natural state.

Prairie dogs are a keystone species of the grassland—they trim vegetation, providing habitat patches for flowering plants and ground-nesting birds like mountain plovers. They turn the soil, increase water absorption, and redistribute nutrients. Their burrows are home to many other species including burrowing owls, snakes, salamanders, rabbits, and insects. And as a prey species, they provide sustenance to a wide variety of animals including black-footed ferrets, coyotes, badgers, swift foxes, bald and golden eagles, and ferruginous hawks.

But sadly, there are few places left where prairie dogs truly fulfill their keystone role. Human-caused threats stemming from crop agriculture, livestock grazing, energy development, residential and commercial development, prairie dog shooting, poisoning campaigns, and plague (an introduced disease) have caused the five species of prairie dogs to disappear from an estimated 87 to 99 percent of their historic range, depending on the species. With them went the black-footed ferret, now one of the most endangered animals in North America.

Restoring prairie dogs to their keystone role is a long-standing goal of both Prairie Dog Coalition and WildEarth Guardians, though the two groups work toward that goal in different ways. WildEarth Guardians has focused mainly on policy and law. The group tried for many years to get black-tailed prairie dogs listed under the Endangered Species Act. They also analyzed and graded state policies regarding prairie dogs for a decade. Prairie Dog Coalition’s main focus has been relocation of prairie dogs away from sites where they are in danger of being poisoned or bulldozed to protected sites like wildlife refuges or national grasslands. The two groups recently came together to create a guidance document for communities interested in implementing humane prairie dog management plans. Since most species of prairie dog are not protected under federal or state law, cities, towns, and municipalities can play an important role in prairie dog conservation and avoid unnecessary killing of prairie dogs by including prairie dogs in their planning processes. Good planning facilitates relocation projects like the one that saved the prairie dogs now thriving on Rocky Flats.

The project was a success—the crew removed a truckload of Dalmation toadflax. Weeding the vast expanse of prairie by hand may seem like a daunting task, but every bit of work is a step closer to a healthy, whole native grassland. With the prairie dogs keeping vigil behind them, the crew left at the end of the day with the satisfaction of knowing they’d made a tangible difference, even just for a small patch of prairie. Sometimes you have to be like a prairie dog; pick your small patch of ground, nurture and defend it, and know that together, you make up a great ecosystem of helping hands making it easier for nature to heal itself.

The entrance to the prairie dog relocation site on Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Taylor Jones, WildEarth Guardians.

 

A few examples of the subtle beauty of prairie wildflowers. Photo by Taylor Jones, WildEarth Guardians.

 

This baby rattlesnake is just one of the many animals that call the prairie dog colony home. Photo by Pam Wanek.

 

Dalmatian toadflax, the invasive Eurasian plant we were focused on removing. Photo by Taylor Jones, WildEarth Guardians.

Lindsey Sterling-Krank of the Prairie Dog Coalition with a truck full of invasive Dalmatian toadflax. Note the COVID-19 safety procedures in place. Photo by Jenny Bryant.

National forests and grasslands spread across almost 10% of the United States. They are held in trust for the American people—but are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Unlike national parks, extractive activities like logging, mining, drilling, and livestock grazing are allowed on national forests. Yet these activities have left a legacy of deep scars on the landscape, pollution in the air and water, and continue to cause harm. Some of the biggest problems across these lands and waters stem from a crumbling road infrastructure—built for the logging boom in the 1970’s and now a disastrous liability, particularly under a changing climate.

It is critical that changes be made now to restore national forests and ensure they are more resilient. WildEarth Guardians developed this handout to share with all, which provides an abbreviated summary of the impacts from climate change related to transportation infrastructure as well as recommendations for adaptation. More details, as well as all references can be found in Section II of “Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System.”

The Forest Service faces many challenges with its vastly oversized, under-maintained, and unaffordable transportation system. With over 370,000 miles of system roads and more than 137,000 miles of system trails, the network extends broadly across every national forest and grassland and through a variety of habitats, ecosystems and terrains. An impressive body of evidence demonstrates the harmful environmental consequences to water, fish, wildlife, and ecosystems as a whole from the agency’s vast road and trail system.

In 2014, The Wilderness Society conducted a comprehensive literature review of published articles documenting the impacts from forest roads and trails in a report titled, Transportation Infrastructure and Access on National Forests and Grasslands: A Literature Review. Since its release, the report’s findings and supporting documentation have been an invaluable tool for the conservation community helping bolster comments on Forest Service projects and plans, and by providing supporting evidence in efforts to help educate the public and decision makers.

Road failure on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

Since the literature review’s initial release, the body of evidence demonstrating the harm from forest roads and motorized use continued to expand. Most notable is the list of reports and articles demonstrating that not only is the Forest Service’s transportation infrastructure highly vulnerable to climate change, but also that roads exacerbate climate change’s harmful effects to other resources. In addition, recent articles explain that protecting and expanding intact forests could be an important part of global efforts to promote natural climate change solutions. Returning roads to nature would restore the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Expanding roadless areas would increase the ability of forests to remove excess carbon from the air. In addition, the intersection between forest roads and wildfires is an important dynamic, and several reports find a correlation between human ignitions and road access.

In order to capture the evolving science, WildEarth Guardians updated and revised The Wilderness Society’s 2014 report. Our paper, now titled The Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System, adds fifty-nine citations to the original review and features several new sections. Notably, our report discusses the agency’s failed efforts to reduce road impacts and how the Forest Service can make the system more sustainable.

The full report is available on the WildEarth Guardians website.