Earlier this week, a federal judge upheld a U.S. Forest Service decision to keep off-road vehicles out of sensitive native brook trout habitat in the Tellico River drainage in the Nantahala National Forest–excessive ORV use was contributing silt and sediment to the watershed, impacting brook trout spawning habitat.
“Locking out” certain users of public lands is always a touchy subject, and it’s not surprising that ORV user-groups sued the Forest Service over its decision. But, in this case, where native brookies were clearly at risk in the prized river’s upper reaches in North Carolina and Tennessee, the decision was justified. The area receives more than 80 inches of rain each year, and with runoff flowing over bare earth, the mud and sediment entering the river were impacting insect populations and smothering spawning gravel.
And, as a side note, the area is still accessible by foot, and since ORVs have been redirected to other trail systems in the area, the fishing is getting better and better.
Trout Unlimited, and its grass-roots volunteers in North Carolina and Tennessee, supported the Forest Service decision, simply because the impact on native brook trout and their habitat from ORV use was severe. For clarity, it’s extremely rare for TU to engage in legal cases–we only resort to the courts when efforts to reach compromise fail, as they did in this case.
In fact, one of our partner programs, Sportsmen Ride Right, actually works from within the ORV community to support responsible riding. SRR encourages ORV users to help make sure members of the community are doing their best to minimize impact on natural resources and other recreational users on public lands in order to protect motorized access.
SRR has helped avoid issues like the one facing the Tellico today, particularly in the West. Unfortunately, no middle ground was accessible on the Tellico, but perhaps this case will lead to more fruitful negotiations in the future. One thing is certain: it will lead to better fishing for brookies in the Tellico.