Asheville— Conservation groups concerned about water quality in the Tellico River watershed in national forests in North Carolina and Tennessee from a degraded off-road vehicle (ORV) area hailed the final decision announced today by the U.S. Forest Service as a win-win approach to resolving the problem. The agency will close most trails in the Tellico area and invest substantial resources to restore those lands, and convert the remaining ORV trails to forest roads for public access for other types of recreation. ORV use will no longer be allowed anywhere in the area.
Today’s decision brings to a close a years-long process that began when the conservation groups took steps to sue the agency in 2007 for failing to meet federal law and its own standards to protect the watershed from pollution caused by excessive ORV use in the area.
“We support the agency’s decision to do what is necessary – and what is required by law – to protect this critical watershed, and will stand by them to defend this decision if necessary,” said DJ Gerken, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Muddy runoff in the Tellico watershed has been 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, was 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 illegal trails – are double what the Nantahala forest plan allows for the Tellico.
“The results of the Forest Service’s extensive study make it clear that the agency could not maintain this trail system to acceptable standards,” said Michael “Squeak” Smith, with the North Carolina Council of Trout Unlimited. “Because the Forest Service can’t operate this ORV area without degrading this important habitat for native southern brook trout, it had no choice but to take this step. We’re grateful the Forest Service took this problem seriously and took the steps necessary to fix it permanently.”
The Forest Service’s action will improve water quality in the Tellico River which flows from north Carolina to Tennessee. “I have been fishing in the Tellico River in Tennessee since I was a boy. Closing this unsustainable ORV area will ensure that future generations will have the same opportunity,” said George Lane, Council Chair of the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited.
Over the years, intensive ORV use and extensive erosion turned many ORV trails into huge ditches, some more than seven feet deep. The Forest Service has estimated that more than 25,000 tons of sediment have washed off from the trails into the Tellico’s tributaries over the years. The Forest Service’s evaluation of the trail system found that many trails cut through unstable soils. “Many of the Tellico’s trails were badly designed and put in the wrong place long before the Forest Service acquired the area,” said Tennessee PEER Director Barry Sulkin. “The agency’s study confirms that these ORV trails simply cannot be maintained to protect water quality with any reasonable budget.”
The Forest Service has a legal mandate to protect water quality and wildlife habitat. “The National Forests are an important recreation resource,” said Ben Prater, Associate Director of WildSouth, “but no recreation use can be allowed to degrade wildlife habitat entrusted to the Forest Service’s stewardship. Water quality must come first.”