Contact: Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney, 541-963-3950x23 or firstname.lastname@example.orgHells Canyon Preservation Council and the U.S. Forest Service reached an agreement, approved in federal court today, that commits the government to determining whether motorized vehicle use along the upper reaches of the Walla Walla River is impairing the recovery of steelhead and bull trout populations, both of which are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
For decades the Forest Service has allowed off-highway vehicles "OHVs" (motorcycles and in some areas all-terrain vehicles like quads) to use trails adjacent to the North and South Forks of the Walla Walla River. "The Forest Service has expanded the motorized trail network, which now spans over 100 miles, in some of the best, un-roaded fish and wildlife habitat in the region without carefully examining the environmental consequences, including the unauthorized use happening off of established trails" said Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney for the Council. "The Walla Walla River watershed is an ecological stronghold, encompassing crucial winter range for big game, old-growth forest stands, and deeply incised canyons that provide critical aquatic habitat for bull trout and Mid-Columbia River steelhead." Under the agreement, the Forest Service will thoroughly assess the impacts of motorized use in the area and refrain from constructing any additional motorized trails until it complies with the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
The Walla Walla River Roadless Area is surrounded by other large tracts of roadless habitat and the congressionally designated Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness—offering rare opportunities for wide-ranging animals like elk, black bear, cougar, lynx, wolves, and wolverine to travel within a well-connected natural landscape.
The government has recognized since 1972 that OHV use on public lands is “in frequent conflict with wise land and resource management practices, environmental values, and other types of recreational activity.” Executive Order 11644. Today's high-powered motorized vehicles can penetrate deeper into backcountry areas that were previously inaccessible due to technological limitations. OHVs can negatively affect natural resources, from disturbing and displacing wildlife, to trampling native plants, to destroying wet meadows and spreading noxious weeds. This lawsuit focused on OHV impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat through soil rutting, erosion and compaction, the removal of streamside vegetation, and the loss of streambank stability, all of which can lead to increased surface runoff, sedimentation, elevated water temperatures, and the introduction of oil, grease, and other pollutants into public waterbodies.
"Today's agreement marks a critical step toward ensuring the health of our waters, native fish populations, and the biological integrity and quiet enjoyment of our remaining roadless, wild lands," said Schwartz.
Hells Canyon Preservation Council is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Hells Canyon-Wallowa and Blue Mountain ecosystems.
Top photo courtesy of David Mildrexler: depicting damage to wet meadow from unauthorized OHV use emanating from the Walla Walla River motorized trail network.
Bottom photo courtesy of Jennifer Schwartz: depicting unauthorized use by full-size ATVs (quads) alongside South Fork Walla Walla River and within river's floodplain.