Asheville, NC – The U.S. Forest Service is violating multiple federal and state laws – and its own regulations – in failing to prevent mud from severely eroded off-road vehicle trails from polluting streams in the Tellico River watershed in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina and Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, sportsmen and conservation groups said in a letter today to the agency. Muddy runoff in the Tellico watershed is devastating one of the last, best strongholds for native brook trout.
The Tellico Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) area, located in the Nantahala National Forest in the headwaters of the Tellico basin, is one of the largest and most heavily used ORV areas on public lands in the Southeast. The area has twice as many designated ORV trails as allowed by the Forest Service’s own plan – not counting innumerable illegal trails. The agency has also documented dozens of stretches where trails are within 100 feet of streams – again, contrary to its own rules. Years of heavy use have turned many of Tellico’s ORV trails into massive ditches, some more than seven feet deep. In wet conditions, these eroded trails send muddy water directly into nearby creeks and streams, violating state and federal water laws.
Sportsmen and conservation groups have repeatedly asked the Forest Service to rein in damaging ORV traffic, but the agency has taken little effective action. In their letter today, the groups – the North Carolina and Tennessee Councils of Trout Unlimited, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project – notified the Forest Service of their intent to sue for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws.
“The Forest Service has come up short in taking decisive action to fix this problem. We are letting them know that the law is unambiguous – water quality and mountain trout come first,” said DJ Gerken, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the groups. Gerken said the Tellico issue is a bellwether for how the agency handles growing ORV use throughout the Southeast.
“The Tellico flows into Tennessee, bringing sediment with it,” said Tennessee PEER Director Barry Sulkin, the former Chief of Enforcement and Compliance for the Tennessee Division of Water Pollution Control. “The streams running out of the Tellico area have 100 times more mud in them than similar streams unaffected by ORV use.”
The groups are calling on the Forest Service to permanently close the most environmentally damaging trails, and temporarily close the entire system in the wettest months. This option was considered by the agency in a recent evaluation of the trail system, but ultimately rejected by the Forest Supervisor who, without conducting the requisite environmental review, implemented only a seasonal closure of a few of the worst trails in the four wettest months of the year, and took no action to address problems throughout the rest of the eroded trail system.
The federal agency, at times in partnership with ORV users, has over the years installed culverts, ditches, sediment traps and water bars, and conducted other trail projects. But, as the agency’s own studies show, these erosion-control projects are improperly designed, poorly maintained, and often fail due to heavy ORV use.
In their letter today, the groups say the Forest Service is in violation of the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the North Carolina Sedimentation Pollution Control Act, and myriad federal and state regulations. In addition, the groups’ letter states that:
- The almost 40 miles of designated trails in the roughly 6 to 7 square-mile system exceed the maximum density of trails allowed by the Forest Plan by 200%;
- The agency’s own studies reveal that streams affected by the Tellico ORV trails have 100 times more mud in them than unaffected streams of similar characteristics; and
- The Nantahala National Forest management plan says ORV trails should provide “easy to moderate levels of challenge.” But ORV users have rated at least half of the Tellico trails as difficult or highly difficult, attracting the biggest ground-disturbing off-road vehicles.