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Forest Service must live up to restoration promises

by Bob Berwyn

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s statement last week that Forest Service policy under President Obama will focus on restoring the health of forests and watersheds drew immediate praise from the environmental community.

For the past several months, some conservation leaders had expressed concern that management of the country’s 193 million acres of national forest would take a back seat to more pressing concerns, and that the Obama administration would be satisfied with the status quo on public lands.

The question is, what does restoration mean, exactly? It’s easy enough to say that healthy forests are important, but so far, it’s all quite fuzzy and vague, a feel-good sound bite meant to assuage environmentalists.

For some people, restoration could simply mean clear-cutting beetle-killed trees and hoping for the best. For others, it might mean taking active steps to improve habitat for wildlife and boosting water quality standards to protect streams from persistent erosion problems along forest roads.

The hard work is defining what forest restoration actually means, and then implementing policies that move the agency in that direction.There also has to be a way to measure how well the agency is living up to its stated goal. Two, three, five years from now, the Forest Service needs to able to show how exactly how many acres have been restored.

In fact, Vilsack specifically mentioned rehabilitating the crumbling road system on national forest lands, and that’s as good a place as any to start making some quantifiable progress.

It will be interesting to see how the emphasis on restoration plays out on the local level. The White River National Forest and the Dillon District are surely among the most progressive Forest Service jurisdictions when it comes to stewardship of natural resources, yet there is room for huge gains, especially when it comes to impacts from roads and other disturbances.

For Vilsack’s stated intention to become reality, it needs to be backed up with resources to make it more than an unfunded mandate. But some restoration goals could be met by shifting priorities and making sure that permitted activities on the district live up to existing standards.

Privately, hydrologists working for the White River National Forest have for years acknowledged that erosion and runoff from roads and other disturbances – including ski trails – is one of their most persistent and difficult challenges.

You don’t have to go far to see the problem for yourself. Take a bike ride up the forks of the Swan River, or a hike in Keystone Gulch and the damage is obvious. Despite standard efforts to control the pollution, in many places, sand and dirt pour off the roads unchecked, choking acres of vegetation on the forest floor and filling streams with unwanted depositions of silt.

The problem isn’t confined to national forest roads. A similar situation exists along Highway 6 on Loveland Pass, where decades worth of highway sand has been plowed off the road and left to drift down the steep embankments and into the North Fork of the Snake River, one of the most pristine tributary streams in the county.

This means the Forest Service has to redouble its efforts to work with other agencies like the Colorado Department of Transportation to check impacts to national forest lands. To give the state transportation agency some credit, they have, in recent years, built a few check dams and retention ponds along Highway 6. But overall, conditions along the North Fork are a disgrace, with huge areas of forest completely covered by deposits of highway sand, all of it moving inexorably toward the stream.

Why wait until the stream becomes even more degraded? Why not make the North Fork a showcase for proactive protection and restoration efforts?

One area where collaboration has proved fruitful is along Straight Creek, coursing down from the Eisenhower Tunnel parallel to I-70. Along this stream, local, state and federal officials have worked hard to catch sediment before it reach the water and the efforts have paid off. Water quality experts have reported slow but steady progress in improving stream conditions in Straight Creek.

The Straight Creek project could serve as a model for tackling other forest and water quality restoration efforts in Summit County. Let’s hope that the Forest Service does more than just pay lip service to Vilsack’s lofty restoration goals, and understand that the agency can’t do the work on its own.

Bob Berwyn has been reporting from Summit County since 1996, and has hiked along many miles of Summit County’s streams.


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