Friday, August 18, 2017

“It’s always an adventure…”

This is how Shiloh characterized our dilemma as our caravan of four cars came to a halt.  We were stopped in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (WA) by a sinkhole on the dirt road we were driving.

“Looks like our survey work starts here” he said as our group of 11 volunteers (and 3 dogs) stepped out of our cars and gathered around the sinkhole.

It was a sunny warm day in this forested part of Southwest Washington.  We didn’t know each other but we all shared a desire to be outside doing something for the public lands we enjoy.  But this adventure had a unique focus….we were going to collect information on some little used forest roads.  With over 4,000 miles of roads on this forest alone, Forest Service staff simply can’t keep track of all the road problems.

We broke into 4 teams and Shiloh showed us on iPads what information to record.  We were looking for obvious problems – like the sinkhole – but we were also looking for the “ticking time bombs”.  These are the culverts that usually are not visible because they run underneath the road.  Culverts are important to move water from one side of the road to the other but if they plug up – it’s like a cork as the water builds up and finally explodes the culvert and road apart.  Not only does this create an expensive problem to fix, but people can’t use the road (often for years) and the downhill river or creek gets polluted with too much road material (dirt, sand, fill).

In our team, Paul quickly became the culvert sleuth.  He scampered down roadsides, moved ferns away, peered under leaves from salmonberry bushes and found culverts that were partially buried from winter weather and lack of maintenance.  “30% blocked” would come echoing out of the culvert as Paul estimated what he saw.  We’d measure the road width, the diameter of the culvert and eyeball how much dirt/fill was on top of the culvert.  Some looked good but many needed to be fixed.

But with only about $980,000 per year for road maintenance, tough decisions need to be made. Should the Forest Service prioritize the roads that most people use?  Should they prioritize roads for logging trucks?  What about the old roads that damage salmon or slash through protective corridors for elk, bear, cougar and the elusive pine marten?  What about those tens of thousands of hidden culverts?

Several hours later we gathered again at our vehicles satisfied that we had contributed important data.  “How many miles did we survey today?” I asked Shiloh before heading out. 

“3.1 miles” he said.  “Only 3,997 more to go.”

Shiloh Halsey is Conservation Science Director at Cascade Forest Conservancy, one of the many partner organizations that WildEarth Guardians works with.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tantalizing waters - treating risky forest roads.

Almost in the center of Douglas County Oregon sits a town of nearly 2,000 people called Glide. A unique phenomenon occurs in Glide and nowhere else in the world – two rivers collide head-to-head into each other. The Little River flows up from the south and the Umpqua River, flowing from the east, takes a sharp bend and meets the Little River at almost a straight angle.  Swirling eddies and rapids in the crystal blue waters are mesmerizing. 

Colliding waters, Glide, Oregon
But we are not here to (only) watch two rivers collide.  Cathy, from the Geos Institute, and myself, from WildEarth Guardians, came to learn how the Umpqua National Forest is working to keep the river clean and clear.  More than half of the residents of Glide depend on drinking water drawn from the Umpqua River.  Investing in measures that keep water clean at the source is a common sense strategy for keeping water treatment costs down and protecting public health. Though the upstream forested lands with towering Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock seem like great water protectors, it is the thousands of miles of roads criss-crossing the forest that can cause the greatest risk to Glide’s drinking water. The Umpqua National Forest attempts to maintain 4,706 miles of old roads on a budget of under $800,000 per year, which is less than 20% of what is needed.  As roads are neglected, the chance of a culvert plugging and tons of road fill washing downstream increases dramatically.  When a culvert fails, it sends a burst of sediment rushing into the stream.  The amount of sediment or suspended materials in the water is known as turbidity and over this past winter, the town had to shut down the water treatment plant 5 times because the turbidity was so high it clogged up the treatment plant water filters.
Landslides are common from old roads.
As members of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, Cathy and I were also here to see how grant monies are used.  The Partnership has two main goals:
  • Restore and protect the health of watersheds, which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefitting aquatic and riparian ecosystems, including the native fish that inhabit them.
  • Support local partnerships between drinking water providers, landowners, and restoration practitioners.
The Umpqua National Forest was awarded grants in both 2016 and 2017 to reduce risks to drinking water.  Glide’s Source Water Assessment rated road building, maintenance and road use as increasing the risk for turbidity in drinking water due to increased erosion and slope failure.  Glide and the Umpqua National Forest are working together to meet these goals.
Removing old culverts reduces risks to drinking water.
Cathy and I met Mark and Joe from the Forest Service at their offices in town, within sight of the North Umpqua, and proceeded to head upriver.  After driving for many miles, Mark parked the vehicle at the end of a road facing a rusted, flattened culvert.  We stepped out to see last year’s work in the Fox Creek drainage of the North Umpqua River.  On just under 2 miles of road, 8 cross-drains were removed, 4 stream-crossings were restored and risky road-fill was pulled back.  Native seed and slash were used to control erosion where soil was exposed.  At first glance, I admit it was not a pretty sight but a closer look showed native grasses sprouting and ferns filling in.  As we clambered down to the first stream-crossing, we learned that one crossing had 2,900 cubic yards of fill perched on top of an old culvert.  That’s about 200 dump trucks full of soil and clay!  By removing the culvert, re-aligning the slopes, and reconnecting the stream, the risk of all of that sediment flushing down to the Glide was virtually nil.
This old culvert marks the start of reclaimed road.

It’s not only drinking water that is better protected with this type of work.  Fish benefit as well.  When a road washes out, that material clogs spawning gravels.  The Umpqua River is a beloved fishing destination and home to coho, Chinook and steelhead.  Thirty-three miles of the North Umpqua River is fly-fishing only territory and is considered one of the most beautiful and difficult places to catch steelhead.  Keeping the river waters clean and clear for fish and fishing is also a goal of the Forest Service.
Fixing stream crossings is critical to reduce risks.
With limited funding to fix the thousands of miles of road wending through the Forest, Mark knows that they have to prioritize their efforts. Later this summer field crews will be using a combination of GIS analysis and field surveying, following a tested protocol called Geomorphic Roads Analysis and Inventory Package (GRAIP), to look at 250 miles of roads in the Steamboat Creek subbasin so as to pinpoint the locations that pose the greatest risk to water quality.  
More drainage was created here to move water.
GRAIP will allow Mark and Joe to identify the areas with the highest potential for erosion and road failure which gives them the information they need to prioritize road segment treatments, whether that’s better road maintenance, storm-proofing, culvert removals or upgrades, road decommissioning or road storage.  Focusing on the real problem spots is a common sense and cost-effective way to ensure erosion risks are truly reduced for fish, the Glide Water Association, and everyone who lives and recreates in this beautiful place.

As the tour ended near one of the many rapids on the Umpqua River, we thanked our hosts.  I couldn’t bear leaving the area so soon, so I set-up my tent next to the river and enjoyed a few more hours being mesmerized by beautiful waters.
Plants help improve water drainage.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why you can find great beer in small towns....(hint: it's the water...)

As the snow blankets the mountains for winter, I think back on some of the sunny days this fall.  In September, I traveled to Eastern Oregon for work.  It's there that I found myself sipping a Pallet Jack IPA at Barley Brown's brewery - simply enjoying the sun and autumn evening - without putting much thought into the primary ingredient of the beer - water.  Me, and my fellow brewery companions, just enjoyed our beers.  Having won many awards, Barley Brown's is known for its beer.  Located in historic Baker City, Oregon - locals and travelers converge to raise pints and swap stories.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I put on my "work hat" and began listening to Michelle Owen and Jake Jones, staff from Baker City, and Robert Macon and Kelby Witherspoon, staff from the U.S. Forest Service, describe the drinking water watershed that the connection was made in my head.  Seems silly given that I was in Baker City as a member of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership.   The partnership was formed to help restore and protect the health of watersheds which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefiting aquatic and riparian ecosystems.  One way we achieve this is through an annual grant program.  Baker City applied for, and received, a grant to help purchase and install fencing in their ongoing effort to protect their drinking water source area.  It’d seem obvious that I would consider water while drinking beer, but like most people, I often take clean water (and good beer) for granted.

As our vehicle left historic city hall and headed up into the surrounding mountains, I began to listen, learn and see what a gift the community of Baker City really has.  Being one of only three unfiltered water systems in Oregon, the water is both amazingly pure and also highly vulnerable. We traveled up-valley, passing by the ranch of longtime residents The Fosters who have a strong relationship with the City, community and the land.  As we continued driving upwards, we left the grassy slopes behind and entered the ponderosa pine forests.  Crossing into the Forest Service lands, we could see Elk Creek trickling along at the bottom of the valley slope.  Being early September, water flow in the creek was fairly low.

We were heading up into the watershed so I could see what was accomplished and report back to other Partnership members.  Baker City draws water from multiple diversions off of small streams draining off the surrounding 9,000+ foot mountains in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.  Three years ago, the City experienced a cryptosporidium outbreak, which was a big alert to the community that more is needed to protect this irreplaceable resource.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness. It comes from human or animal sources and is not what anyone wants in their drinking water.  To avoid this kind of problem, other cities that have unfiltered water systems err on the side of caution and have closed their watersheds to people and cows – both potential sources.  Baker City, however, is trying to carefully balance the desires of its community, which includes: access for grazing, access for hunters and protections for the community’s pure water.  By fencing high priority areas, the City hopes to keep cattle away from entering the more vulnerable areas. 

Fences in National Forests are problematic across the West.  They can be barriers for wildlife.  But then they can also keep cattle out of streams.  At WildEarth Guardians, we take down fences and we also install fences. 

As our truck continues to bump uphill, I ask Jake, who has been with the City for over 25 years, when the fencing project would be done, he responded that fencing is never “done”.   It’s ongoing with about 10% of the fencing needing to be repaired every year in addition to installing more fencing.  Fencing can break due to animals (i.e. elk, cattle), weather (snow, ice) and humans (cutting fencing).  The watershed is big – 10,000 acres – so it’s impossible to fence it all.  This is why the work needs to be focused.

When we finally reach our destination, we step out of the vehicles to see a neat line of fence on one side of the road and a wobbly, tilting, fence line on the other side.  The new fence has traditional barbed wire lines stretched between posts while the bottom line is barb-free so smaller animals can move through.  Fencing can solve some problems by keeping cattle out, but can cause other problems for wildlife.  Since this is National Forest land, there are specific requirements that should be followed to minimize impacts to wildlife. Most of Baker City's watershed is not fenced, but in specific places, it can help keep cattle away from the community's drinking water.

Jake points out the different posts that hold up the fencing.  The wooden posts are built locally and the City tries to purchase as many of these as possible.  One of the City’s greatest challenges is capitalizing on new areas of economic growth.  Supporting local micro-businesses is one way.  A distillery has also just opened in town, benefiting from the great quality of the water flowing down the hills.  City staff know that keeping the water clean and pure is not only good for the health of the community but is also tied to economic growth.

The Drinking Water Providers Partnership grant monies supported the City in buying supplies and helped the City finance part of the labor and contractors for fencing.  The Forest Service and Baker City worked together on the project with support from The Fosters, who are one of the two grazing permittees.

Other communities received grants for different types of projects.  One town removed an old bridge that was leaching wood preservative into the river.  Another town planted riparian vegetation to help trap sediment and keep water temperatures cooler. And yet another town decommissioned roads to prevent sediment (i.e. turbidity) from entering the water supply.  One thing Baker City has going for it is that most of the watershed is categorized as “Inventoried Roadless Area”.  The liability of an oversized and deteriorating road system that is so common in national forests is significantly less here.

My work often is focused on restoring public lands that are degraded. But I also work to protect valuable places where the ecosystem is functioning fairly well.  Surveys show that Oregonians value clean drinking water so we work hard to ensure that water remains protected and clean.

After taking some photos, we return to our vehicles to follow the road back to town.  When I ask why Baker City is a great place to live and work, Jake says: “It’s a postcard every day.”

And now I know one big reason Barley Brown’s beer is so good – it’s the water.  With an award winning brewery and a new distillery attracting visitors from across the state, the City has strong economic incentives to ensure the watershed is well-protected.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Clean Water Denied.

We know that water is life.  Maybe that is why people are so drawn to water.  Almost 75% of outdoor recreation is near streams, rivers, and lakes. But when we are in our homes, filling a glass of water from the sink, we rarely think about where that water came from or what it took to keep it clean.  We may be camping or fishing next to the “source” in a forest but then lose the connection to our taps when we are at home.  Little do we realize that one reason millions of acres of forest lands were first protected by our politicians was to “secure favorable conditions of water flows” (1897 Organic Administration Act).

75 years after the Organic Act, a bi-partisan Congress overrode President Nixon’s veto and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) became law. The law’s objective is to protect water by preventing pollution to our waterways by targeting the sources.  The open sewers and fiery rivers may now be in the past - thanks to the Clean Water Act - but thousands of rivers and lakes are still far from being swimmable, fishable and drinkable.

Oversight and enforcement of the Clean Water Act ultimately lies with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  States, cities, businesses, industries, land managers, tribes all have accountability but ultimately EPA is responsible to protect human health and the environment.

This is why we go to EPA when we see our waters polluted.  But when it comes to dirty runoff from forest roads (stormwater), EPA simply turns away.  In 1999, when national stormwater regulations were revised, EPA ignored stormwater from forest roads that were polluting streams. Two conservation organizations, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Center, took them to court.  In 2003, when the Ninth Circuit Court directed EPA to look at forest roads, EPA failed to act again.  And now, 17 years later, EPA once again was directed by a Court to act. But EPA decided that water is protected enough.

Dirty water entering a forest stream.
Photo credit: Crag Law Center

Tell that to the small coastal community of Arch Cape, Oregon where sediment from forestry practices upstream continually clog up their drinking water filtration system. In a letter to the Oregon Board of Forestry, the town declared:
The current Oregon Forest Practices Act needs to be amended, in order to enable water suppliers to be able to meet this basic duty that the public entrusts them with.” (Arch Cape letter to Oregon Board of Forestry)
Yet, EPA argues in its decision notice to do nothing; that “states frequently revise their forest roads management guidance/regulations” and called out Oregon as a positive example: “Oregon Board of Forestry increased the riparian zone buffer width for fish-bearing streams in 2015 (Oregon Riparian Rule, 2015)”. Yes, the rules were revised but it was the first time since the 1990’s! That’s not “frequent”. And the rule revision did not address forest road runoff, nor did it include all forest land in the state.

Ironically, EPA’s recent decision nationally runs contradictory to it’s own agency action in Oregon. In March of this year, EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) withheld $1.2 million in grant funds because Oregon failed to control water pollution to protect fish, wildlife, and public health. For 18 years these federal agencies have said that Oregon’s poor forest practices create water pollution and harm fish, but it wasn’t until this spring that they finally took stronger action and penalized the state. In their reasoning, the two agencies specifically call out forest roads:
As a result, NOAA and EPA cannot determine, and the State [Oregon] has not made information-based representations specifying, the extent to which voluntary efforts have addressed the sedimentation problems and landslide risk posed by the legacy road network.” (NOAA/EPA Decision Rationale)
Forest to Faucets” is literal. 50-75% of the U.S. population relies on forest lands for good quality water. But when EPA keeps turning away from its responsibilities to uphold the Clean Water Act, communities are then tagged with the bill to spend millions to clean-up the dirty water. Clean water denied.

What will it take to truly value and protect clean water?

Photo credit: High Country News

Friday, April 8, 2016

For National Forest Roads, Less is More—Time to Make It That Way

Hiking Horseshoe Bend Trail, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The trill of a bird melody floats on a breeze between towering old growth, carrying my steps along Horseshoe Bend Trail in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Each trek like this is a day-cation, the national forests by wild haven. Even in 1899, Theodore Roosevelt recognized the importance of the wild to the human spirit. He wrote: "Spring would not be spring without song birds, any more than it would be spring without buds and flowers." 

Acting on his desire to conserve wilderness, Roosevelt created the federal forestry bureau that led to the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. The extensive grazing, logging, and extractive uses condoned by the Forest Service today might well surprise Roosevelt. Indeed, the magnitude of these destructive activities on our national forests surprises many Americans. Equally surprising is the number of roads that are part and parcel of the destructive activities: the Forest Service manages 372,000 miles of system roads.

Given this history of abusing and fragmenting our national forests, restoring a balance with natural ecology through rewilding is essential. A critical step in creating that balance is reducing the miles of roads. Returning expensive and deteriorating forest roads to the wild through road decommissioning reconnects wildlife and fish habitats, restores water quality, and improves forest resiliency in the face of climate change. Reducing the number of forest road miles also relieves the Forest Service’s financial strain to maintain its mammoth road system on its miniscule budget.

The Forest Service’s own rules actually require a rewilding of sorts—in 2001 the agency directed a paradigm shift away from road-building and towards forest restoration. To do quality restoration, the agency first needs to understand the problems, which is why the 2001 rules required an analysis. My previous blog explained this “travel analysis process” and advocated the agency rewild much of its over-sized road system (Rethinking Our Roads: Less Really is More).

Left: under-sized, overgrown culvert directing a stream under FS Road 39 (credit: Marla Nelson). Right: washout on FS Road 31 (photo credit: U.S. Forest Service). Both in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

In 2010, the Forest Service’s Washington Office directed forests to complete a travel analysis and prepare a report that includes: (1) an analysis of all system roads (maintenance levels 1 though 5); (2) a map displaying roads likely needed and likely not needed; (3) an explanation of the map, including a financial analysis of long-term funding expectations; and (4) a list of roads likely not needed. Most forests drafted travel analysis reports by the September 2015 deadline.

Based on our initial reviews, the quality of the reports varies widely. We are currently working with The Wilderness Society on a big picture assessment of the reports, identifying forests that prepared reports that truly lead to good forest restoration, and those that need improvement.

What’s Next: the Minimum Road System

In technical terms, unlike the National Environmental Policy Act, which is purely procedural, the travel analysis process is a “substantive duty” meant to produce real outcomes. In simple terms, travel analysis is meant to close the gap between the agency’s small roads budget and the high costs of maintaining its deteriorating road system.

The Forest Service’s next steps will be the most important: it is where the rubber hits the road, and the agency will start making on the ground progress. Now that forests have completed travel analysis reports, each National Forest must consider the information in the reports and identify the minimum road system it needs for safe travel and to protect forest lands. The agency must propose actions, subject to NEPA, to implement the minimum road system. Restoration projects at the subwatershed scale or larger provide the perfect opportunity. Ideally, in the not too distant future these projects will produce a National Forest road system that is economically and environmentally sustainable.

Time for YOU to Get Involved!

Because restoration projects are “final agency action,” the Forest Service must complete an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. This means that the Agency must provide multiple opportunities for public involvement—through notice and comment.

Never commented, or don’t know what a comment is? No problem. A comment is a letter to the agency, in this case the Forest Service, outlining what you think of the project and suggesting changes or things to consider. A comment may be positive, negative, or both. The important thing when drafting a comment is to read—yes, read—the agency’s proposed action and draft environmental analysis. If the analysis is super long, as it often is, a skim will also do. Bottom line, informed comments make more sense and are more persuasive.

Search for projects with open comment periods in the Federal Register (type “Forest Service” in for the agency) or go to your favorite forest’s website and look for a “Schedule of Proposed Actions.” Look for large-scale restoration projects or road-related proposals. Check out the Forest Service projects that we are actively engaged in.

Once you have identified a project, WildEarth Guardians is here to give you a boost. We have prepared a comment template to get you started reviewing the project. Contact me for a copy.

Need For Change

Even in his day, Roosevelt observed: "the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation." More than 100 years later, continued harm from grazing, logging, extraction, and the roads built for these activities has only exaggerated the need for the Forest Service to change its approach.

It is beyond time for the agency to prioritize protecting wildlife, clean water and wild places over destructive activities. In the context of forest roads, now really is the time to make your voice heard. Urge the Forest Service to reduce the size of its road network. Not only will this help reset the historic imbalance, but it will also provide hope for more resilient forests as we step into the future. This is good news for songbirds, our forests, and hikers like you and me.