By Kevin Davis, USFS
You may have heard the Forest Service motto: “Caring for the land and serving people.”
As a Forest Service employee at the Sandpoint Ranger District, I use this motto as a check and balance for my work on a weekly basis. It helps me keep this perspective: Is this an important project for the resource, and is it of value for the public? With regards to my job and main resource, water, I am continually concerned about maintaining water quality for domestic use, recreation, a properly functioning watershed and a healthy fishery.
Water itself is probably the most important natural resource we have. Although it is largely self-regulating, human actions do pose a risk on the quality, supply and distribution of water.
In the National Forest, we use water in many ways. Some people have domestic water-use permits for their homes. Irrigation of farm lands is a huge use of water, particularly in southern Idaho. Idaho is a renowned state for rafting and boating with famous rivers and streams emanating from National Forest lands. Good fishing is dependant upon good water quality, and good water quality comes from responsible land management. When the summer weather is hot, water in the form of a cool river or lake is always a valuable commodity.
The common thread between all these different uses is that those using the water all need it to be there, when they want it, and in sufficient quantities. This basic necessity is the overall mission of the Forest Service toward all resources on the National Forest; to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people.
To do this, the Forest Service not only has to serve the needs of the people but also serve the needs of forests, wildlife, and fish. This is a difficult balancing act with the pendulum often swinging radically from one side to the other. The vision is that the Forest Service can help states and communities wisely use the forests to promote rural economic development and a quality rural environment.
One place in North Idaho where the pendulum keeps swinging is Lightning Creek. Back in the day the pendulum swung heavily toward resource extraction and road building. A watershed study in 1989 found that these roads lead to increased mass failure which had a negative impact on the stream channel.
In 2000, the Sandpoint Ranger District set out a plan to address watershed issues. Another watershed study in 2004 helped to lay out a restoration plan. Under the National Forest Management Act, the Forest Service follows Best Management Practices for soil and water conservation as well as Inland Native Fish Strategy guidelines and standards under all action alternatives to insure that project activities are carried out in a manner so as to protect soil, watershed and fish resources.
Lightning Creek is now listed designated critical habitat for bull trout and core habitat for grizzly bears, and this requires certain protective measures. Thus, the Forest Service reduced the level of timber harvest. No timber sales have occurred nor have any new roads been built in the Lightning Creek watershed since about 1995, and problem sections of road have steadily been addressed.
Still, confounding the problem with achieving a balanced, multiple-use approach are the infamous and frequent Lightning Creek floods that wash out roads, destroy bridges and make the road system temporarily unusable to the public.
One recent flood last December washed out several portions of the main road and rendered two bridges and numerous stream crossings unnavigable. The larger flood events reveal the weak points in the road infrastructure, and when roads, culverts and bridges fail, it has a negative impact on water quality and fish habitat while limiting your access to public lands.
The Sandpoint Ranger District is working with Western Federal Lands Highways Division, the agency that issues flood repair dollars. There are some limitations with available emergency road repair funding but we’re hopeful that the construction will be completed by the end of next summer. The long term goal is to achieve a road network that is not a negative impact on water quality, stream function and fisheries and still provides public access.
Kevin Davis is a hydrologic technician with the U.S. Forest Service. He works all over Bonner and Boundary County on National Forest land doing watershed related projects involving culvert replacement, road maintenance and fish habitat improvement.
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