SELC – DJ Gerken, 828-258-2023
Trout Unlimited, North Carolina Council – Michael “Squeak” Smith, 828-205-2355
Trout Unlimited, Tennessee Council – George Lane, 865-414-1527
PEER – Barry Sulkin, 615-313-7066
Wild South – Chris Joyell, 828-337-6927
Asheville NC – Conservation groups, concerned about the ongoing pollution of the Tellico watershed in national forests in two states from heavy off-road vehicle (ORV) use, expressed cautious optimism at steps announced today by the U.S. Forest Service to address the problem. The agency said it will close all ORV trails in the Tellico area for the winter – when wet weather exacerbates muddy runoff into streams, and will close for a year four trail segments that are especially eroded.
The conservation groups have had a series of conversations with the agency and ORV users since June when they submitted a notice of their intent to sue the Forest Service for violating multiple state and federal water quality laws, and its own regulations. No lawsuit has been filed, although the groups’ notice is still pending.
“This action comes not a moment too soon for the health of these streams and the critical habitat they support,” said Michael “Squeak” Smith, with the North Carolina Council of Trout Unlimited. “The Forest Service is finally walking the talk – and we’ll fully expect them to follow through with their intent to do a more thorough, long-lasting plan.”
Muddy runoff in the Tellico watershed is devastating one of the last, best strongholds for brook trout, a native species in decline in North Carolina and Tennessee. The Tellico area, located in the Nantahala National Forest in the headwaters of the upper Tellico River, is one of the largest and most heavily used ORV destinations on public lands in the Southeast. The almost 40 miles of designated trails – not counting unmarked trails – are double what the Nantahala forest plan allows for the Tellico.
Intensive use has turned some ORV trails into massive ditches more than seven feet deep. The Forest Service has estimated that over the years, more than 25,000 tons of sediment have been displaced from the entrenched sections of the trail system. Recent trail surveys conducted by the agency documented hundreds of sites where sediment flowed directly from trails to nearby streams, with some sections of trail discharging as much as 59 tons of mud to streams each year for each mile of trail. Generally, streams within the area receive 500 to 1,000 times more sediment than similar streams just outside the trail system. The runoff has been detected several miles downstream in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.
The Forest Service decision entails closing three of the most entrenched trail segments to ORV traffic for one year. The agency also has closed a trail adjacent to the Tellico River which it found contributes substantially to water quality problems in the river. Finally, the Forest Service ordered that the entire trail network be closed from January to March.
“We view this as a good-faith effort by the Forest Service to immediately address the worst problems,” said DJ Gerken, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents Trout Unlimited, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and Wild South. “We intend to work with the Forest Service on its pledge of quickly formulating and executing long-lasting solutions so we don’t wind up in court – now or in the future.”
“We have been trying to get some action like this since this problem was brought to our attention several years ago,” said Barry Sulkin with the Tennessee chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “It is encouraging to see that the Forest Service has finally decided to take these steps, but we need to see if it is enough and if opposing parties will try and block it. These trout streams deserve extra protection and for too long they have been abused.”