Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lawsuit Spurs Major First Step Towards Protecting the Wild Rapid River Watershed From Motorized Use

Hells Canyon Preservation Council joined its conservation allies, The Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League, in challenging a decision from the Payette National Forest that would unlawfully designate and allow trails for motorized recreation use within the Wild Rapid River Corridor, included in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, and the surrounding watershed.

The Rapid River Management Area is an ecological stronghold encompassing the Wild Rapid River and the Rapid River and Patrick Butte Roadless Areas. This watershed is the largest and best remaining fish habitat within the Little Salmon River system, providing crucial habitat for spring and summer Chinook salmon, Snake River Basin steelhead, and Columbia River bull trout, all of which are listed as “threatened” species pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.

This remaining aquatic stronghold is in large part due to the fact that there have been minimal land-disturbing activities in the Wild Rapid River--allowing near-natural habitat conditions to persist. The Wild Rapid River’s fisheries and water quality values also help support the Rapid River Fish Hatchery, which was built to mitigate lost runs of Chinook salmon caused by the construction and operation of the Hells Canyon Dam. Hells Canyon Dam – actually a “Complex” consisting of three dams – blocks salmon and steelhead from native spawning areas.

Both Congress and the Forest Service have acknowledged the Area’s ecological values and provided these values with strong legal safeguards. The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act (“HCNRA Act”) designated the Rapid River as a “wild river” and part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System created by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The designation of the Rapid River as a “Wild” river affords legally-enforceable conservation protections to not only the waters of Wild Rapid River itself, but also to a corridor of lands surrounding these waters.

Despite these remarkable conservation and fisheries values, the Forest Service designated several motorized recreation routes incompatible with the Area’s legal safeguards. The construction and use of motorized trails are known to negatively affect water quality by accelerating erosion and delivering sediment to rivers and streams. Consequently, our conservation coalition, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, filed suit in federal court to uphold the values envisioned by the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act—safeguards critical for protecting water quality and aquatic habitat, and which indirectly protect secure big game habitat and opportunities for solitude and quiet use recreation.

The good news is that on March 9, 2010 the Forest Service decided to officially issue a closure order prohibiting motorized use within the river corridor and on all trails that lead directly to the corridor area (see attached closure order & map). This is an incredibly important step forward. However, the Forest Service still has not closed several other routes that will adversely affect the health of the Rapid River watershed. These routes, notably, fall within a Roadless Area, one of our most protective conservation areas.

So while celebration is certainly in order, we will continue our efforts to resolve these remaining threats. There are many places on the Payette National Forest to ride off-road vehicles, but the Wild Rapid River and its surrounding watershed should be permanently protected for quiet recreation and crucial fish habitat!

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