Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
June / July 1998


Free Training for Public Lands Issues
by Kirk Cunningham, Water Quality Chair

One of the most damaging and esthetically obnoxious aspects of public lands management is road building. The National Forests have over 300,000 miles of official roads plus tens of thousands of unofficial tracks caused by logging and recreational vehicle use. On BLM lands, there is a road network of comparable density caused mostly by grazing operations, oil and gas exploration, and recreational vehicle use.

What impacts do roads have? First, roads fragment wildlife habitat because animals tend to avoid them. Second, roads allow access by vehicles to lands that otherwise would be hard to access, with attendant effects on wildlife habitat in areas which now serve as refuges from human contact. Third, roads represent a future claim on agency maintenance budgets that, depending on the location of the road, can be significant. Finally, dirt-surfaced roads especially are a major source of water pollution in the form of sediment to streams on BLM and National Forest lands. This last impact, and what citizens can do about it, is the subject of this article.

Sediment pollution in run-off from roads covers over the stony bottoms of streams where the aquatic insects and rooted plants that are the staple of fish diets live. In the presence of sediment, the biological productivity of a stream bed can be reduced by as much as a factor of 100, even if the stream experiences no other type of pollution. The accumulation of sediment on a stream bottom can also change the flow regime of the stream, causing it to eat into its banks and result in even more sediment in the stream from bank erosion.

Despite the importance of sediment to stream health, it is not routinely measured by any regulatory agency. In fact, common tests to determine whether a stream is indeed impacted by sediment have not been adopted by all land management agencies. The Forest Service uses one method, the EPA uses another, and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division is proposing to use yet a third. All of them have some validity, but more field testing is needed for methods comparison.

Here's where volunteers come in. The Sierra Club has been involved for 2-3 years now in learning the T-Walk method of stream health assessment which is used by the Forest Service. The T-Walk is a relatively simple method that does not require any expensive equipment or testing and which will still give a somewhat quantitive idea of how much a stream's biological productivity has been affected by sediment, as well as by chemical pollution.

Learning to apply this method will be useful to all those who are concerned about the impacts of existing or planned roads on National Forest land. It will also prove useful for BLM lands under certain conditions. The method, while simple, does require some training, and the Club is fortunate this year of having the offer of free training by a Forest Service expert. Providing we can geta reasonable number of people together, the training would occur on two weekend days in the late summer and early fall; details of time and place would depend on who expresses interest.

We encourage anyone who has an interest in spending some time to learn a useful monitoring technique to contact me at (303) 939-8519(h) or at It is possible that we can get a grant to cover incidental travel expenses for participants.