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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.

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.

The other day when my son and I were at Fort Missoula looking at the line of mountains in the distance, he innocently asked why one didn’t have any trees on it. He was pointing to where old forest roads cut stark lines across much of the mountainside denuded by heavy-handed logging. I struggled to respond. How do you tell an 8-year old about massive clearcuts, government mismanagement, and the general profiteering off of public lands? The logging scars serve as a stark reminder that we need strong legal protections to ensure forests are able to provide quality habitat for fish and wildlife and clean drinking water for nearby communities.

Yet under the Trump administration, the Forest Service has been exploiting legal loopholes to sidestep one of the country’s most important laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law on January 1, 1970 by President Nixon, NEPA requires government agencies to involve the public in meaningful ways, consider better alternatives, and disclose the environmental consequences of specific projects. Of course not everything needs such a robust process: painting picnic benches and mowing lawns all historically fit within a broad array of actions called categorical exclusions (CEs) that are exempt from most of NEPA’s requirements in order to expedite minor projects.

However, starting in the early 2000s, President Bush’s so-called “Healthy Forest Restoration Initiative” began creating new categories of categorical exclusions to push through more industrial logging and road building with less environmental analysis and citizen participation. Since then, lawmakers have granted the Forest Service over thirty different categories of CEs that allow harmful projects like logging and road building to circumvent NEPA’s safeguards across tens of millions of acres. Right now, Senator Steve Daines is pushing legislation that would establish two brand new CE categories, one allowing over 15 square miles of logging.

At WildEarth Guardians we knew the use of categorical exclusions was getting out of hand, but we didn’t know the full extent. Upon closer examination, we found that from January through March of 2020, the Forest Service proposed to categorically exclude 51 projects across more than 3.7 million acres of public lands. That’s an area larger than the state of Connecticut. We detail our findings in a recently released report that shows the Forest Service overwhelmingly uses one particular categorical exclusion that lacks any size limits under the guise of improving wildlife habitat or “timber stands.” The agency used this particular CE to propose large-scale commercial logging without adequately analyzing the impacts to the very wildlife habitat the agency is supposed to be protecting. Such actions completely undermine NEPA’s “look before you leap” approach that was enacted in response to decades of agency mismanagement and degradation of forests, watersheds, and wildlife habitat.

It appears the Forest Service is now using categorical exclusions as a blank check to authorize enormous logging projects in sensitive and pristine areas, including Roadless Areas, without involving the public or disclosing the potential consequences to species and their habitats. While our report is only a three-month snapshot, it points to a concerning trend within the Forest Service. In fact, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has called on the Forest Service to treat National Forests as tree farms, and that is exactly what the agency is doing with little regard to their importance for fish and wildlife, water quality, or recreation.

Worse, as part of Trump’s continued attack on the environment, the Forest Service is finalizing a wholesale rewrite of its NEPA rules that would establish even more categorical exclusions. Before the Forest Service creates any new CE authorities, Congress should call for an independent investigation such as the one completed in 2006 by the Government Accountability Office that looked into the agency’s use of categorical exclusions for vegetation management projects. Absent such an investigation, the Forest Service must immediately stop its abuse of categorical exclusion authorities.

Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue flew into Missoula on June 12 to sign a memorandum directing the U.S. Forest Service to essentially double-down on its continued push to prioritize logging, mining, drilling and grazing, all while limiting environmental reviews. During the campaign-style signing event, Secretary Perdue—a former agribusiness CEO whose previous political campaigns were bankrolled by Monsanto and Big Ag interests—not only bragged that “we see trees as a crop,” but also ironically compared America’s bedrock environmental laws to “bubble wrap.” Apparently it was lost on Secretary Perdue that bubble wrap protects valuable things from being destroyed.

Missing from the secretary’s statements was any recognition that America’s national forests, 193 million acres in all, are actually diverse ecosystems that are home to hundreds of imperiled fish and wildlife species, and contain the last remnants of wildlands in this country that millions of people cherish. The secretary failed to mention how numerous communities rely on national forests to provide clean drinking water, or the fact that intact forests do more to remove atmospheric carbon than do stumps. In fact, national forests have a crucial role to play as part of global, natural climate change solutions.

Returning to the past, when resource extraction and exploitation ruled the land is hardly a blueprint for the future. Yet, this is exactly what the secretary ordered and what the Trump administration has been pursuing from Day One. In fact, Perdue’s memorandum comes on the heels of two recent Trump Executive Orders allowing industry and federal agencies to waive compliance with long-standing environmental laws that safeguard fish and wildlife. These orders follow Trump’s wholesale rolling back of rules requiring federal agencies to involve the public, take a hard look at the environmental consequences of its actions, and consider alternatives.

A recent Journal of Forestry article demonstrates the rationale for these rollbacks and attacks is baseless. Even without further “streamlining processes,” the Forest Service approved over 80% of projects between 2005-2018 by categorically excluding them from environmental analysis. The same study also showed that less than 1% of all projects were challenged in court.

Of course, this administration and industry proponents would never let facts change their story, especially when it plays on people’s fears and hopes. For years, those opposed to public land protection keep weaving nostalgic hints of returning to the good ole days when the mills were humming and the logging trucks filled with big trees, all the while knowing economics and automation make this impossible. At the same time, they use fear of wildfires as cover for industrial logging, sidestepping the reality that climate change and the historic drought gripping much of the West increases wildfire risks far more than cutting trees will ever address. The wildfires we see today matches what climate science tells us. If we truly want to see fewer large-scale wildfires, then we need to stop burning fossil fuels and do more to preserve intact, mature forests. Further, it is hubris to believe, and irresponsible to purport, that timber harvest will prevent wildfires. No one talks about hurricane-proofing the Gulf Coast, or tornado-proofing Oklahoma, but the Forest Service suggests if given enough latitude it can reduce forest fires – though the degree of which is left to the public’s imagination and that’s the point.

Ultimately, Secretary Perdue and the Trump administration believe national forests are little more than crops and the best, highest use for public lands is to exploit them with more logging, grazing, mining and drilling. The fact is, national forests and public lands are complex, living ecosystems with inherent value that deserves our moral consideration. These public lands are homes to grizzly bears, mountain goats, elk, trout, salmon and a whole host of other iconic wildlife species. Their survival depends on us, and we need to be better environmental citizens with our non-human neighbors.

America does need a “modernization blueprint” for the future of national forests, one that re-envisions their purpose so we can move beyond viewing forests simply as sources of lumber. In the 21st century, we need to strengthen forest protection, maximize the ability of national forests to serve as part of natural climate change solutions, and heal the scars left from decades of exploitation through true restoration, which cannot be done with a chainsaw.

TAKE ACTION! Tell Secretary Sonny Perdue to protect, not destroy, National Forests.

On August 17, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to take necessary steps to ensure survival and recovery of Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

This ground-breaking decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Native Fish Society, and Advocates for the West in 2018.

Western rivers, including Oregon’s Willamette, are strangled by dams that generate unnatural flows, block fish migration, and impact water quality. Dams on four key tributaries of the Willamette River block 40 to 90 percent of fish spawning habitat leading to a perilous decline in wild fish. Modifying dam operations to prioritize fish passage is vital to ensuring native fish and ecosystems can thrive.

The judge’s ruling holds the Corps responsible for the destruction caused by a century of dam building. The court affirmed what we knew all along—the Corps and NMFS must act to protect a living Willamette River and ensure wild fish recover and persist for generations to come.

Stay tuned for a ruling on the remedy to these egregious violations of the ESA. Briefing is to commence in the coming weeks and we will be back in touch with an update soon.

Your actions and financial support are vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction. You helped make this victory possible. Your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.

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.