Roads and Water Quality

Large wood and hardwoods in Cougar Creek in the Camp Lick timber sale

Roads and Water Quality

By logging in RHCAs areas, threats to water quality from roads are exacerbated. Roads are a primary if not the primary threat to water quality in public forests. Logging projects make this problem worse through increased maintenance and use of roads adjacent to and crossing streams and RHCAs, and through building “temporary” roads and skid trails. In many instances, projects claim to reduce road density but instead the actual road density (existing road density) is increased rather than reduced. Road-related activities in timber sales create lasting effects from “temporary” roads, skid trails, landings, re-opened roads, and closed and decommissioned roads, and increased erosion. Actual on the ground impacts are often not accurately considered. Road density, even for “temporary” use, should not be allowed to increase in areas already exceeding road density standards and existing biological thresholds, especially not in RHCAs and subwatersheds with Bull trout and other listed fish. Effects from roads are almost never “temporary”, and may last for many decades; this can include negative affects on water quality.

Erosion caused by road and poorly fitted culvert on Trail Creek in the Camp Lick sale. Trail Creek supports ESA-listed Threatened steelhead. The USFS is planning both commercial and non-commercial logging along Trail Creek.

The effects of sediments and roads on stream integrity and aquatic habitats affect Bull trout, Steelhead, and other fish. From the Federal Registrar, Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service 50 CFR part 17 (2010) Final Rule for Revised Designation of Critical Habitat for Bull Trout states: “Sedimentation negatively affects bull trout embryo survival and juvenile bull trout rearing densities (Shepard et al. 1984, p. 6; Pratt 1992, p. 6). An assessment of the interior Columbia Basin ecosystem revealed that increasing road densities were associated with declines in four nonanadromous salmonid species (bull trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhyncus clarkii bouvieri), westslope cutthroat trout (O. c. lewisi), and redband trout (O. mykiss spp.)) within the Columbia River basin, likely through a variety of factors associated with roads. Bull trout were less likely to use highly roaded basins for spawning and rearing and, if present in such areas, were likely to be at lower population levels (Quigley and Arbelbide 1997, p. 1183). These activities can directly and immediately threaten the integrity of the essential physical or biological features described in PCEs 1 through 6.”

The Malheur National Forest already has extremely high road densities. The average road density in the Malheur is 4.2 miles per square mile. Priority watersheds in the MNF currently contains 4.8 mile per square miles average road density. There are currently 10,990 miles of existing roads on the MNF and 4,798 miles of hydrologically connected roads (USFS 2014). Average road density is far exceeds both Forest Plan Standards and thresholds for proper watershed functioning. Logging requires access, and so increases and exacerbates road-related impacts on streams.

Erosion and sedimentation caused by poorly fitted culvert in Trail Creek (same culvert as above picture).

Fish stocks are stronger and better distributed in areas of little or no management and low road densities, even in fire suppressed areas, and even if severe fires occur. Numerous studies and reports show that many benefits are gained by leaving forests unroaded, and to their own ecological processes (including processes involving fire, insects, and disease). (Bader 2000, Bradley et al. 2002, DellaSala et al. 2011, Frissell and Carnefix 2007, Public Lands Initiative 2004, Reiman and Clayton 1997, Reiman et al. 2000, Thurow et al. 2001, Public Lands Initiative/Trout Unlimited 2004, Western Native Trout Campaign 2001).

Timber harvest, grazing, and the synergistic impacts of the two activities combined have significant negative impacts on aquatic habitats. From NOAA 5-Year Review of Snake River Salmonids:

Downed wood and hardwoods along a stream in the Camp Lick sale.

“Information from the [PACFISH Biological Opinion Monitoring Program] PIBO monitoring program indicates that unmanaged or reference reaches (streams in watersheds with little or no impact from road building grazing, timber harvest, and mining) on Federal lands in the Interior Columbia basin (including the Snake River basin) are in better condition than managed streams (Al- Chockhachy et al. 2010b). In particular, managed watersheds with high road densities or livestock grazing tend to have stream reaches with worse habitat conditions than streams in reference watersheds. When roads and grazing both occur in the same watershed, the presence of grazing has an additional significant negative ffect on the relationship between road density and the condition of stream habitat (Al-Chockhachy et al 2010b).”

Carnefix and Frissell (2009) discussed impacts from roads, and show that significant negative impacts to sensitive aquatic species are present at road densities greater than one mile per square mile: “Multiple, convergent lines of empirical evidence summarized herein support two robust conclusions: 1) no truly “safe” threshold for road density exists, but rather negative impacts begin to accrue and be expressed with incursion of the very first road segment; and 2) highly significant impacts (e.g., threats of extirpation of sensitive species) are already apparent at road densities on the order of 0.6 km per square km (1 mile per square mile) or less. Therefore, restoration strategies prioritized to reduce road densities in areas of high aquatic resource value from low-to-moderately-low levels to zero-to-low densities (e.g., 1 mile per square mile, lower if attainable) are likely to be most efficient and effective in terms of both economic cost and ecological benefit. By strong inference from these empirical studies of systems and species sensitive to humans’ environmental impact, with limited exceptions, investments that only reduce high road density to moderate road density are unlikely to produce any but small incremental improvements in abundance, and will not result in robust populations of sensitive species.”

The existing road density on the Malheur NF is well above the 2-miles/square mile NOAA (1996) threshold for watersheds to be considered “properly functioning”. NOAA (1996) notes: properly functioning: 2 miles/sq mile; at risk 2-3 mi/sq mi; not properly functioning >3mi/sq mi.


Bader, M., 2000. Based Ecosystem Protection in the Northern Rocky Mountains of the United States. Alliance for the Wild Rockies. USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-2. 2000. Accessed at:

Bradley, C.; Rhodes, J.; Kessler, J.; Frissell, C., 2002. An Analysis of Trout and Salmon Status and Conservation Values of Potential Candidates in Idaho and Eastern Washington. Published by: The Western Native Trout Campaign; the Center for Biological Diversity, The Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and the Pacific Rivers Council.

Frissell, C. and Carnefix, G.; 2007. The Geography of Freshwater Conservation: Roadless Areas and Critical Watersheds for Native Trout. Wild Trout IX symposium. Accessed at: 2023/WOPR_PAPER_01989.120001.pdf

Public Lands Initiative (Trout Unlimited), 2004. Where the Wild Lands are: Oregon; the Importance of Roadless Areas to Oregon’s Fish, Wildlife, Hunting and Angling Accessed at: Where-the-wildands-are.pdf.

Reiman, B.; Clayton, J.; 1997. Wildfire and Native Fish: Issues of Forest Health and Conservation of Sensitive Species. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

United States Forest Service, 2014. Draft Forest Plan Revision for the Blue Mountains. Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Revised Land Management Plans for the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. Accessed online at:

United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) 2010. Bull Trout Final Habitat Justification: Rational for Why Habitat is Essential, and Documentation of Occupancy. Accessed online at:

Western Native Trout Campaign, 2001. Imperiled Western Trout and the Importance of Roadless Areas. Published by: the Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Rivers Council, and Biodiversity Associates. Accessed at: