Environmental groups blame on the U.S. Forest Service for sloppy management of an off-road vehicle area in the Nantahala National Forest, which has turned into a mud pit in certain areas. This past Friday, the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing North Carolina and Tennessee Councils of Trout Unlimited, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project announced its intent to sue the federal agency for violating its own management regulations.
The Tellico watershed, which spans the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina and Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, is one of the last healthy strongholds for native brook trout. But the Tellico off-road-vehicle trails that send mud flowing into those cold mountain streams threaten the Southern Appalachian-native fish, which is in decline throughout the region. The Southern Environmental Law Center notified the U.S. Forest Service Friday that it intends to sue in order to correct the problem.
The off-road-vehicle area is one of the largest and most heavily used on public lands in the Southeast, according to the environmental-law group, with twice as many designated off-road-vehicle trails as allowed by the Forest Service’s own plan. Years of heavy use have turned many of these trails into muddy ditches, the group charges, and the impact on nearby creeks and streams is a violation of state and federal water 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,” says DJ Gerken, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Forest Service policy prohibits the agency from issuing any official statement about a pending lawsuit, but spokesperson Terry Seyden notes that “We will be reviewing it very carefully.”
— Rebecca Bowe, editorial assistant