Rejecting a challenge from ORV enthusiasts, a federal judge today upheld U.S. Forest Service and conservation groups’ efforts to protect the Tellico River watershed in the Nantahala National Forest, including streams critical to native brook trout, from pollution caused by excessive off-road vehicle use. Heavy usage of the Tellico ORV trails system damaged habitat in the Nantahala National Forest, so the Forest Service closed it as required by law and ORV enthusiasts subsequently sued.
The Southern Environmental Law Center intervened in the lawsuit to defend the Forest Service’s decision on behalf of Trout Unlimited, Wild South and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Today’s court decision brings to a close a decade-long process that began when Trout Unlimited and other groups held annual meetings with the Forest Service and ORV enthusiasts about erosion from the Tellico ORV area. When years of discussion failed to prompt action, conservation groups threatened to sue the Forest Service in 2007 because muddy runoff from the ORV area was devastating one of the last, best strongholds for brook trout, a native species in decline in North Carolina and Tennessee. The Forest Service then initiated a thorough assessment of the watershed, ultimately concluding that the ORV trails could not be sustained in the highly-erodible soils near the Tellico River.
“Under the law, the Forest Service didn’t have the option of allowing ORVs on the Tellico trails to do more damage to forest streams and brook trout,” said DJ Gerken, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Court recognized this duty to protect the forest’s waters from pollution and upheld the agency’s decision.”
“The facts were clear – the Forest Service simply couldn’t maintain the trails to minimum standards,” said Michael “Squeak” Smith with the North Carolina Council of Trout Unlimited. “The Forest Service didn’t have the massive funding required to reconstruct eroded trails and maintain them permanently. Closure was the only affordable option to protect water quality.”
The Forest Service’s action will improve water quality in the Tellico River which flows from North Carolina to Tennessee. “I’ve fished in the Tellico River my whole life,” said George Lane, past council chair of the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited. “Now I look forward to many more years of fishing in streams spared by the Forest Service’s decision to close the ORV trails.”
ORV driving on public lands can cause significant damage when it is not adequately managed. In Tellico, intensive ORV use eroded many ORV trails into deep ditches, some more than seven feet deep.“If agencies choose to make federal lands available for ORV driving, they have no choice but to spend the taxpayer dollars required to maintain them and prevent water quality problems,” said Barry Sulkin, director of the Tennessee office of PEER.
“If they lack resources to do the job right, then they shouldn’t do it at all and the trails have to be closed. Tellico is an example of an agency stepping up to the plate and doing what the law required.”
Ben Prater, associate director of Wild South, agreed. “The National Forests are an important recreation resource,” said Prater, “but water quality must come first.”