Conservation groups take legal action to defend trout streams, water quality in Tellico area
Conservation groups from two states today took legal action to protect water quality in the Tellico River area in the Nantahala National Forest. Intensive off-road vehicle (ORV) use over the years in the Tellico area – the most heavily used ORV areas on public lands in the Southern Appalachians – causes severe muddy runoff in the watershed, one of the last strongholds for native brook trout in the region.
The groups filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit brought by ORV user groups against the Forest Service in May. The conservationists are seeking to defend the agency's limited and temporary trail closures to protect water quality.
“We believe the Forest Service did the right thing to try to get a handle on this problem. The law required the agency to take emergency action to arrest the continued impacts to the Tellico River caused by excessive ORV use. We have argued that agency should have done even more. With the matter now forced into court, we want to ensure that all issues are on the table,” said DJ Gerken, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing Trout Unlimited, WildSouth, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
By the Forest Service's own estimate, some 74,000 tons of sediment have washed off the ORV trails into streams over the years, a primary factor in decline of native brook trout in the area. The agency has met with stakeholders on several occasions, including last fall when discussions led to an announcement in December of the closure of all trails for the winter, when wet weather exacerbates runoff, and closure of 4.4 miles of the most eroded trails for up to a year. The agency found that water quality met state standards throughout the winter, but that sediment in the Tellico River was more than twice the legal limit when most trails re-opened in early April. In May, the ORV user groups sued the Forest Service for closing trails.
“We were willing to accept the Forest Service's action to staunch the worst of the pollution and to engage in collaborative planning to find long term solutions. Unfortunately, it is now clear that the 4-wheelers will not accept even modest changes to address water quality problems. We have no choice but to fight for water quality in court,” said George Lane, Council Chair of the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited.
For years now, these conservation groups have called on the Forest Service to address impacts to water quality and trout habitat caused by overuse and improper maintenance of the Tellico ORV Area. The almost 40 miles of designated trails – not counting unmarked illegal trails – are double what the Nantahala forest plan allows for the Tellico. Last year, they gave notice of their intent to sue the Forest Service if the agency did not take action to address these problems and to comply with its own management plan for the Tellico area. The conservation groups demanded that the Forest Service close half the trails, all of the problematic trails, and take any other action necessary to bring the area into compliance and protect water quality.
“The Forest Plan is the product of years-long process with extensive public involvement. It's critical that the Forest Service respect the integrity of the plan by complying with the standards for ORV use. The law requires nothing less,” said Chris Joyell, Strategy and Communications Director with Wild South.
Muddy runoff in the Tellico watershed is devastating one of the last, best habitats for brook trout, a native species in decline in North Carolina and Tennessee. The Tellico area, located in the Nantahala National Forest in the headwaters of the upper Tellico River, is one of the largest and most heavily used ORV destinations on public lands in the Southeast. Intensive use has turned many ORV trails into massive ditches, some more than seven feet deep. In wet conditions, these eroded trails send muddy water directly into nearby creeks and streams, degrading quality and destroying habitat for brook trout and other aquatic life.