Land Management Practices Impacting Rivers

Road Building on Public Lands

There are reportedly 500,000 miles of roads in the US Forest Service system alone that currently require billions of dollars of maintenance. Paddlers use these roads to access many rivers nationwide - yet many of these same rivers are negatively impacted by those roads and their associated uses. There are political forces pushing hard to build additional roads into roadless lands to allow logging and mining to occur, and a countermovement pushing for roadless area protection, selective road removal, and improved maintenance. American Whitewater and the greater paddling community have been involved in this very important debate, and will continue to be because it directly affects our interests in a number of ways. We offer the following ecological premises that we base our advocacy efforts on:

  • Roads can have direct negative ecological impacts on rivers and streams through increasing erosion and sediment delivery, encouraging the spread of invasive species, altering flow patterns in the river and tributaries, and through impacting and fragmenting habitat of aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal species.
  • Roads can have indirect negative ecological impacts by facilitating resource extraction activities such as logging and mining that have their own set of ecological impacts.
  • Roads can have cumulative impacts associated with road densities and distribution in a given area that far exceed the sum of the impacts of individual road segments.
  • Roads are manmade structures that require careful planning and responsible maintenance and management. Roads that are not well planned or maintained have an increased risk of failure - which may cause dramatic ecological harm. Building a road is therefore a long-term commitment to its maintenance.

American Whitewater was founded specifically to protect wild rivers, the wildest of which flow through roadless lands. Roadless lands are literally few and far between. We consider them precious and limited resources with unique values that are deeply important. There are essentially two types of roadless lands - those that have been designated as Wilderness under the Wilderness Act, and those that have not. The areas that have not been formally designated as Wilderness are at risk of being logged, mined, roaded, and otherwise developed. It is these lands that the Clinton Administration set aside with the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and that subsequent political and industrial entities have sought to reopen to road building. American Whitewater will be maintaining our support of protecting roadless areas and the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

A nonprofit organization called Wildlands CPR has created and regularly updates a Bibliography of scientific literature specifically focused on the ecological impacts of road building and the science of road removal. You can search this database using key words and then view abstracts for various articles relating to your topic of interest. We recommend this resource as well as additional background and bibliographical information from KRIS (Klamath Resource Information System) to anyone confronted with challenging a road building project.

Dam Building

American Whitewater and the greater environmental community have a long history of defeating proposed dams. While at one time dams were considered essential steps in the progress of industrializing wild America, the public perception of dam building has largely changed. Many dams that are currently in place would never be built today because of environmental and social concerns. This view is largely based on the now well documented impacts (see Section 2.2 of the Toolkit) that dams have on the environment.

It is reported that there are 70,000 dams in the United States alone and that most or all of the acceptable locations for large dams already have dams built on them. Indeed, it appears that we have entered an era of dam removal in this country, and have left the era of dam building. With this being said, there are regular proposals for new (typically small) dams in the US, and massive efforts to build dams in Canada, China, and developing nations.

Preventing new dams is largely a matter of showing the true costs of the project which are usually paid by the public and the environment, versus the benefits of the project which is usually reaped by a single corporation. Recreationists like whitewater boaters have been successful at showing the economic value of free flowing rivers. Economic and recreational arguments hold sway with elected officials, local residents, and other organizations. Environmental arguments generally resonate with state and federal resource agencies and non- profit organizations.

The most recent example of American Whitewater's dam prevention efforts was the successful resolution of a dam building attempt on British Columbia's Ashlu Creek. Canada is currently involved in a significant dam building effort. Much of the emphasis is on developing Micro-Hydro projects on small steep creeks, but there are proposals for dams on large rivers like the Magpie. Stuart Smith, chair of the Whitewater Kayaking Association of British Columbia's River Impacts and Access Committee is leading the charge against dams in western Canada.

Here in the US, boaters have a great legacy of preventing dams on incredible rivers like the Gauley, the North Fork of the Payette, Boundary Creek, and many others including the classics we helped protect through our efforts to see the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed. American Whitewater staff members are always available to discuss the prevention of new dams. American Rivers and the Hydropower Reform Coalition are other national groups that regularly oppose new dams.

Logging

Few paddlers have not witnessed the environmental impacts of large scale logging firsthand. Logging can have devastating impacts on rivers if too much of the watershed is logged, if roads fail, or if logging encroaches too near to the riparian areas of the river or its tributaries. The primary river impacts caused by logging relate to sedimentation. Additionally there are significant terrestrial habitat impacts associated with logging as well as aesthetic and recreational impacts.

Oftentimes fire - either past or potential - is used as a justification for logging. The science of fire ecology rarely if ever supports these arguments. The Reporters Guide to Wildland Fire provides a good discussion of these topics. The Western Fire Ecology Center also provides a wide range of educational and advocacy materials regarding fire management and ecology.

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The North Fork of the Blackfoot in Montana was the scene of an unusually large natural crown fire.

Many national, regional and local environmental organizations share whitewater paddlers' interests in preventing irresponsible logging practices. Partnering with such organizations is strongly recommended in efforts to prevent logging or improve logging practices. American Land Alliance is one of the primary national organizations that provide support and information regarding logging on public lands. Paddlers have tackled logging issues on rivers across the country including for example the Upper Yough, Cheat, and Blackwater, and rivers in California Tennessee, Virginia, the Southeast, and across the Nation.

Logging is often a legal activity on private or public lands, however logging companies must abide by environmental regulations that are overseen by the land managing agency if the tract is on public land, and in some cases by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, state water quality agency, or the Army Corps of Engineers. If you witness logging activity that you feel is infringing on the riparian area or that is impacting water quality, consider contacting one or all of the above agencies to inquire about the legality of the logging.

Mining

Mining has unique physical and chemical impacts that can radically transform the ecology or rivers, streams, and their watersheds. Mines can radically alter the habitat in streams by changing the ph and other water chemistry characteristics to the point that some streams are uninhabitable by most aquatic organisms. The same water quality changes can kill riparian vegetation which leads to the unraveling of what ecological integrity remains in such streams.

Coal mining is the primary mining risk to Appalachian rivers. Some of the most striking impacts of coal mining are evident in the Stony Creek watershed in Pennsylvania, and Cheat watershed in West Virginia. A relatively new form of coal mining known as Mountaintop Removal Mining is particularly devastating to rivers and streams. Many streams that are impacted by coal mining have dramatic water quality problems, most notably a condition known as Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), which leaves streams orange and largely devoid of life. The Clean Streams Initiative is one example of the many programs seeking to mitigate AMD impacts. Appalachian Voices has emerged as a leader in preventing the most impactful forms of coal mines in the Southern Appalachians.

The mining of heavy metals has also extracted a toll on eastern rivers like the Ocoee, however the majority of metals mining occurs in mining regions of the Rockies. Mining has drastically impacted many western rivers including the Clark Fork River in Montana, the Animas River in Colorado, and the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, and is currently threatening high quality rivers like the Blackfoot.

Mining pollution is generally managed by the state water quality agencies, and by the Environmental Protection Agency, and many regional NGO's are focused on mining issues. There are many restoration efforts underway to clean up abandoned mines across the country and many rivers are rebounding from past mining abuses. That being said there are still new mines being built all the time, some of which will spell disaster for water quality if not stopped or strictly regulated. We recommend that river enthusiasts partner with local and regional NGO's, and work closely with state and federal agencies when addressing mining issues.