Addressing Watershed Health in the Forest Service Planning Rule

The management of water resources in National Forests and Grasslands continues to be an important topic in the development of the new planning rule, and was discussed at last week’s National Roundtable.  While the meeting presentations were intended to focus on the more general topics of forest restoration and resilience, some participants at the meeting wanted to speak specifically about water. 

There is substantial interest in this topic.  The importance of water and watersheds as a unifying principle in the planning rule was discussed previously on this blog.  The Forest Service’s inability to address watershed restoration was also previously discussed, as well as problems integrating scientific information with observed watershed conditions. 

The planning rule website contains some of the initial concepts proposed to be included in the rule for addressing watersheds:

  • Each Forest Supervisor would assess existing conditions and trends of aquatic systems, riparian systems, connectivity, wetlands, floodplains, and the flow processes.  The roles and contributions of each forest would also be determined.  Watershed vulnerabilities and risks would be identified.
  • Each Forest Plan would be required to address the maintenance or restoration of water resources, including protection for lakes, public water supplies, shorelines, source waters, streambanks, streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water from detrimental changes in water temperatures, blockages of water courses, and deposits of sediments.
  • Monitoring would be implemented to evaluate watershed health and status, trends, and risks associated with public water supplies and source water protection areas.

Earthjustice and Pacific Rivers Council released a concept paper last week with additional suggestions about what the planning rule should do.  The proposal suggests that the planning rule should require forest plans to establish riparian reserves, prioritize protection and restoration of key watersheds with the highest aquatic integrity, establish measurable watershed conservation objectives and indicators of aquatic ecosystem integrity that are directly linked to management standards and monitoring, describe road removal objectives and road density standards, provide for connectivity and watershed processses, and integrate monitoring of watershed integrity into project design.

A new General Technical Report from the Pacific Northwest Research Station released in June also lists several planning actions that should be considered to protect watersheds from population pressures, land uses, and rapid climate change.  It suggests that planning should set priorities for watersheds and specific effective protection measures, based on predicted vulnerabilities to climate change and other stressors.   Scenario-based planning should be used to design contingency plans based on plausible events or impacts.   The document also lists considerations in protecting watersheds from energy development, fire and fuels projects, infrastructure development, recreation, water use and diversions, timber harvest, and livestock grazing.

Some researchers have also outlined a “no-regrets” strategy to watersheds and planning for potential hotter and drier conditions.  Based on scenario planning, a Forest Plan could establish baseline protections and make sure that watershed systems are better able to adapt to whatever comes along. 

In a search for a streamlined, easy-to-implement planning rule, the specifics of watershed management may be left out of the proposed text.  However, there is strong support for water planning as a central feature of the rule.  One watershed program manager told me that the rulewriters should avoid making the same error that many in the Forest Service do, assuming that the concept of restoration only appeared on the scene when foresters started writing about it in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Watershed restoration has a much longer history in the agency and the scientific community, and is one of the foundations for why the Forest Service came into existence.  Watershed maintenance and restoration could be the cornerstone of the philosophical underpinning of the rule.

3 thoughts on “Addressing Watershed Health in the Forest Service Planning Rule”

  1. We need “right-sized” stream buffers and better guidelines for protections. More than once, I have seen buffer boundaries that are actually outside the watershed! Yes, those 300 foot buffers actually extended “protections” over the top of the adjacent ridgetops.

    We also need more inclusive definitions of stream classes. On many of my fire salvage projects, I’ve seen where hydrophobic soils have caused some “scouring”, bumping ephemeral streamcourses into the intermittant class, and pushing intermittant streams into a higher classification, as well. Since a big part of a salvage sale is to reduce fuels, some of the thickest fire-killed fuels occur within those stream buffers. Endlining at the extreme limits of the equipment causes its own problems with erosion. Of course, skid trails must continue to be excluded, especially on steeper, more erodable ground.

    I’ve also seen green timber sales that seek to reduce live fuels within stream corridors, and the fad of super-wide stream buffers make those efforts more difficult. Modern feller-bunchers are light upon the land, and can do much beneficial fuels reduction work, with minimal and mitigated damages.

    I also have to bring up the Let-Burn fires, yet again, as those fires sometimes end up with a chimney-effect in those watersheds, causing accelerated and longterm damage. I rather doubt that the “studies” done, in MMA’s, samples the true erosion potentials of every streamcourse.

  2. Thanks for another great post, John!

    I agree that protecting and restoring watersheds should be the foundation of 21st century FS management and was in that group at the first national roundtable. Ironically, I got involved in watershed indicators and BMP’s through the much-maligned EMS process, where this was identified as something very important for the FS to do and to watch both impacts of other activities on watersheds, and how overall watersheds are improving or not through an integrated monitoring and adapting process. Oddly, many of us were working on this when the rule got enjoined.

    Nevertheless, the extent to which different pieces of watershed management should be a requirement in a forest plan versus a nationally coordinated program and focus is unclear to me.

    Also, as a result of many meetings with hydrologists, I have the feeling that they already know and have prioritized many of the topics that others want assessed and prioritized. I think they even have funding requests for activities they believe are needed. These activities have not been funded, which is perhaps not a problem a planning rule or a plan can fix alone.

    It seems like a better idea to me for those folks (FS hydrologists) and other interested parties (water providers, fish interests) to get together, determine what needs to be done, and then determine the appropriate venue for each activity which needs to be done (which I doubt would be a planning rule). I think the same thing about recreation- first we need the broader discussion – would it take for the FS to give it its rightful place? Then ask how much of that needs to go into a planning rule. A planning rule can never be a home to every analysis or monitoring requirement that everyone thinks needs doing, or plans will never get done, and all those wonderful things that are dreamed will never get achieved.

    I’ll provide some counterarguments to the Earthjustice/Pacific Rivers paper in a future comment or post.

    Finally, here’s a question for FS history aficionados: was protecting watersheds the original purpose more so than restoration? A tiny bit of Organic Act history might be good to know here.

  3. John,

    Terrific post. Just finished the Earthjustice/Pacific Rivers paper and it makes sense to me. Of no surprise to you, I like taking a politically malleable idea like watershed restoration and giving it real meaning through standards and guidelines. If operationalized like this, watershed restoration will actually mean something.

    I also like how the paper makes connections between assessments, standards, and monitoring. One of the few complaints that I have about the new planning rule as envisioned so far is that the assessments aren’t purpose-driven enough. Most assessments that are used in resource management are tied to actions and a strategy–the two are linked (e.g., state wildlife action plans, TNC’s approach, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, assessments can be useful even if only used to gauge whether or not a plan revision or amendment is necessary. But they can be given a greater purpose, as seen in this concept paper.

    I also like the emphasis on how a planning rule can be written in a way that helps obtain other goals and legal responsibilities, from tribal reserved rights to ESA recovery. So weird that these connections don’t dominate the discussion, but they seldom do it seems.

    Not addressed in the paper, however, is the lingering question of how to pay for the watershed restoration work. Stewardship contracting is not up to the job, a congressional investment is questionable, so where does the reallocation happen?



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