Protecting Our Rivers and National Forests in Utah from Damaging and Unnecessary Forest Roads

Laura Belanger“Our forest rivers are extremely important for fish and other wildlife, and are the source of much of our drinking water.  We look forward to working with the Forest Service to ensure that roads that contaminate streams are removed or maintained to much higher standards.”

– Laura Belanger, Water Resources & Environmental Engineer

Utah’s National Forests Provide Clean Water, Great Recreation, Wildlife and Vistas

Utah’s National Forests provide unparalleled recreation; habitat for a wide variety of wildlife such as elk, moose and mule deer; outstanding vistas; and very importantly, water. Most of Utah’s water supply, which communities and local farmers depend on, comes from the rivers and streams that originate within in the state’s five National Forests.

Outdated, Neglected and Poorly Located Forest Roads Can Pollute our Rivers and Drinking Water, and Harm Fish and Wildlife

The aim of our Headwater Streams Protection Project is to preserve ecosystems and clean water supplies from unnecessary and environmentally damaging roads in Utah’s 9 million acres of National Forests.

Roads within National Forests are necessary for forest maintenance and emergency response, and may facilitate recreation such as fishing, hiking, and camping. Many forest roads and routes were poorly located or constructed, or have not been adequately maintained.  These roads are a significant source of water pollution in the rivers and streams of Utah’s National Forests. Rivers and streams near poorly-designed or poorly-maintained forest roads can be seriously degraded by sediment runoff from these roads, harming fish, wildlife, and plants—and contaminating sources of drinking water.

According to the Forest Service, in most road systems, the majority of the road network delivers most of the fine sediment[1]  which can:

  • coat and smother stream beds, killing organisms that fish depend on for food;
  • lower fish growth rates and affect fish egg and larvae development;
  • clog fish gills, making it difficult for fish to breathe and reducing resistance to disease;
  • block out the light that aquatic plants need to survive.

Sediment runoff from these forest roads may also degrade the quality of sources of drinking water for Utah’s communities and can make the treatment of water supplies more costly.

Western Resource Advocates is Identifying and Documenting Impacts to Water Quality and Forest Health

To protect our water and restore forest health in Utah’s National Forests, Western Resource Advocates is identifying problematic roads and advocating for their removal or repair. We are scientifically documenting the condition of bad-actor forest roads and the impact they have on water quality and aquatic habitat in nearby streams.

We are working with our partner WildEarth Guardians to encourage enforcement of Utah water quality standards that should protect high quality National Forest streams. We will work with the Forest Service to eliminate unnecessary roads, and repair and maintain useful roads so they stop polluting water. Through this research and advocacy we will improve water quality in rivers and streams for fish and wildlife, and will better safeguard drinking water supplies.

[1] USDA Forest Service, 2015.  Science Briefing. Road Decommissioning: Picking the Right Road, March 4, 2014.  Rocky Mountain Research Station. Air, Water and Aquatic Environments Program. Accessed at: www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/AWAE/briefing/AWAE_Science_Briefings-PickingTheRightRoad.pdf

Project Staff

Laura Belanger

Laura Belanger

Water Resources & Environmental Engineer

Rob Dubuc

Rob Dubuc

Staff Attorney, Utah Office

Joro Walker

General Counsel