Press Release | February 27, 2009

US Forest Service proposes closing ORV area in North Carolina to protect water quality

In an environmental assessment issued today, the U.S. Forest Service found that muddy runoff from off-road vehicle use in the designated Tellico River ORV area in the Nantahala National Forest has caused significant and extensive damage to water quality throughout the Tellico watershed. Of six alternatives the agency reviewed to address the problem, its preferred alternative is to permanently close the Tellico ORV trail system. In a press release issued today, National Forests in North Carolina Supervisor Marisue Hilliard said: “The Forest Service is in violation of its own standards and North Carolina state water quality standards because visible sediment from the [ORV]trails is reaching the Tellico River and its tributaries in hundreds of locations.” Ten miles of Forest Service roads would remain open for access to ORV and other vehicles. The agency is accepting public comments on the proposal for 30 days before making a final determination for the long-term management of the area. Following is a statement from SELC Senior Attorney DJ Gerken: “It’s clear the upper Tellico watershed is the wrong place for a designated ORV area. After years of discussion, we are glad the agency ultimately took a hard, honest look at this problem. It’s not surprising that, faced with the mounting evidence of dirt and mud polluting streams throughout the watershed, the agency concluded the best way to meet the standards and protect water quality now and in the future is to close the system. We support that decision. “We want to thank Rep. Heath Shuler for his leadership in working with the agency to ensure this assessment was done thoroughly and in a timely fashion.” Background: SELC represents the Tennessee and North Carolina councils of Trout Unlimited, as well as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and WildSouth in a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service filed in September. 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 almost 40 miles of designated trails – not counting unmarked, illegal trails – are double what the Nantahala forest plan allows for in the Tellico ORV area. In December 2007, after SELC filed a notice of intent to sue, the agency closed all trails for the winter, when wet weather exacerbates runoff. Scientists found that water quality met state standards throughout the winter, but in early April when most trails re-opened, sediment in the Tellico River was more than twice the legal limit. Trout Unlimited, in particular, has been calling on the Forest Service for years to invest the resources needed to maintain water quality in the Tellico River. Squeak Smith, spokesman for the North Carolina Council of Trout Unlimited: “We believe it is critical that the Forest Service take an honest look at whether it can afford to maintain a ORV trail system in the Tellico watershed without undermining water quality. We believe the agency is right to be concerned about its ability to remediate and maintain this trail system in the long run.” George Lane, Chairman of the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited: “Trout Unlimited has cooperated with the Forest Service and off-road vehicle clubs for a decade now in an effort to find a solution to the water quality violations and declining trout populations caused by the Tellico ORV area. Trout Unlimited appreciates the efforts of all concerned to find a solution, but if the Forest Service cannot provide ORV access and maintain water quality, the agency must recognize that preservation of water quality is not only a legal requirement but a moral imperative. We are grateful that the agency’s environmental study, released today, recognizes that fact.” Ben Prater, Conservation Director with WildSouth: “WildSouth is pleased with the proposal and the effort the Forest Service has taken to protect the resources of the area. Our goal was never to shut down the trail system but simply to have the agency follow the law, the forest plan, and protect the resource. The Forest Service has made the responsible choice to close down the system to do that.” Barry Sulkin, a hydrologist with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: “The Forest Service’s resource professionals have prepared a quality analysis. This study documents the water quality violations we flagged for the agency last year, and confirms that the scope of the problem is far bigger than we had suspected. We are pleased that the Forest Service’s resource professionals are now involved and making sound management recommendations based on science.”

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