More than 58 million acres of roadless areas on the National Forest System still are lacking permanent protection from the federal government. These unprotected but still wild forests are critical refugia for wildlife, are valued recreational assets and are vital for our Nation’s drinking water supplies. For too long these wild forests have been battered by the political winds. We believe roadless forests deserve lasting security as a critical buffer against climate change and significant producer of pristine water. Although President Clinton issued an administrative rule that offered some degree of protection for roadless forests, that rule has been the subject of legal actions and remains unenforced. In the meantime, WildEarth Guardians has identified an alternative line of defense for these wild forests that re-asserts their value in protecting pristine water supplies. One additional strength of our approach is that it does not require action from Washington D.C. but rather from local citizens and state government.
Protect the Best
Using the federal Clean Water Act, WildEarth Guardians is leading the way to encourage western states to protect their very cleanest waters in roadless and wilderness forests as “Outstanding.” We started our campaign in New Mexico and we’re now initiating campaigns in Colorado and Arizona. The “Outstanding” waters designation is one component of the Clean Water Act’s anti-degradation policy, which is a cornerstone of this critical environmental law. This elegant assertion of a state’s right to clean waters that flow from federal forests can be implemented across the west and offers permanent protection from any activity that would pollute the waters of wild forests.
Once designated as Outstanding, pollution to a waterway is explicitly prohibited. This protection for waters in roadless forests will raise the bar significantly on what human activities can be permitted by the U.S. Forest Service. Oil and gas development activities that pollute our waters would either not be permitted or would have to demonstrate they can do business without contaminating waterways. Likewise, logging and road building, some of the greatest causes of sedimentation in western rivers, would face a new barrier that creates a mandate on protecting clean water. In areas that are currently ungrazed by domestic livestock it would be much less likely that these lands could be returned to grazing.
Our strategy is grounded in the firm belief that clean waters and wild forests are inseparable. Some of our nation's most pristine wild places are found in Wilderness and roadless areas of our federal land system. Largely undisturbed, wilderness and roadless areas are not only a serene and beautiful refuge for wildlife and humans but streams flowing from them are among our most pure. These waters support our communities and economies downstream. Watershed protection is one of the primary reasons Congress reserved or authorized the purchase of National Forest System lands. Watershed health and restoration is also one of four emphasis areas in the agency’s Natural Resource Agenda. As the U.S. Forest Service heads into a new era of planning for the uses and protections of our National Forests, it will consider seriously the their role in producing clean, abundant water for Americans.
The National Forest system contains watersheds that are important sources of public drinking water and we believe the strength of our Clean Waters, Wild Forests initiative is that it frames roadless protection from the value of securing municipal water supplies. In fact, roadless areas within the National Forest System contain all or portions of 354 municipal watersheds contributing drinking water to millions of citizens. Inventoried roadless areas make up one-third of all National Forest System lands, or approximately 58.5 million acres and are found within at least 30% of the nation’s major watersheds providing innumerable social and ecological benefits. Maintaining these areas in a relatively undisturbed condition saves downstream communities millions of dollars in water filtration costs.
Healthy watersheds capture, store, purify and deliver water over time, protect downstream communities from flooding; provide unpolluted water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses; maintain abundant and healthy fish and wildlife populations; and support outdoor recreation. The Outstanding waters designation can help protect all of these water related values of roadless forests for future generations.