By Karen L. Monsen
After forest fires, Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are especially prophetic, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Charred landscapes are heartbreaking, but degraded watersheds can threaten water resources even for distant communities.
According to the USDA Forest Service, drinking water in sixty-percent of America’s west originates in forest headwaters, and over two-thirds of the U.S. population derive drinking water from surface sources connected to grasslands or forests. Additionally, 193 million acres directly managed by the Forest Service provide drinking water to 180 million people every day. When forests are destroyed, millions in the affected watersheds discover a previously unnoticed connection between forests and water resources upon which they depend.
So, what’s a watershed?
The Forest Service publication, Wildland Waters, asserts, “Fewer than 40-percent of Americans can identify what a watershed is.” Brooke Shakespeare, Soil and Water Program Manager/Forest Hydrologist with 10 years of Forest Service experience, compares a watershed to a bathtub, “It all drains to a common point – a drain pipe for a bathtub and a river for a watershed. If you were to add a sponge layer that lines most of the bathtub, during a shower a great deal of water would be stored in the sponge and slowly released to the drain over time. Additionally, if there were portions of the bathtub that were covered with dirty residues or chemicals, these undesirable constituents would be filtered out in the sponge layer and the water that makes it to the drain would be relatively clean.”
When forests are removed, erosion can add sediment to reservoirs 100 miles away. The American Water Works Association reported that forests further benefit urban areas by reducing the need and funds to treat municipal water to remove sediment and impurities.
Reinforcing Mitchell’s lament of paradise lost to a parking lot, Penn State School of Forest Resources declares that one acre of paved parking generates the same annual runoff as 36 forest acres. And the Forest Service claims, “A dense forest can intercept up to 25-percent of rainfall by its leaves and branches; this slows the speed at which the rain hits the ground, reduces erosion, and allows precipitation to seep into the soil — nourishing plants and replenishing groundwater.” Although millions of people benefit from the clean drinking water forests provide, watersheds are perhaps the least obvious of forest products.
National Forests & Economic Impact
Established in 1905, the Forest Service is tasked with sustaining productive forests and grasslands for future generations ensuring, “renewable resources in the national forests be managed in a balanced and coordinated way so that no single use excludes others and so that the productivity of the land remains unimpaired.” Today, U.S. forests annually receive more than 160 million recreational visits. Outdoor recreation supports more than 205,000 jobs, contributing more than $13.6 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. And forest industry products total more than $200 billion. That’s a lot of economic impact.
Local Benefits & Challenges
Benefits vary as much as the forests themselves. Dixie National Forest, headquartered in Cedar City, Utah, supplies water for farms and communities, permits grazing in 84-percent of its total acres, and includes 500 miles of fishing streams and 90 fishable lakes, including Posey Lake, near Escalante, Utah receiving 1,718 campground visitors in 2017. Annual precipitation in Dixie National Forest ranges from 10 inches at lower elevations where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, to more than 40 inches near Brian Head Peak and plateau tops that can drop below -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Whereas areas near forests experience many benefits, they also shoulder costs and consequences of forest fires.
A look at the 2017 Brian Head, Utah fire reveals the challenges confronting localities once the smoke settles. The fire burned 71,675 acres, destroyed 13 residences and 8 outbuildings, damaged roadways, telephone and internet, resulted in 1,562 people being evacuated, and impacted two municipal watersheds. Post-fire recovery, reforestation, and watershed restoration will take many years.
Communities supporting prompt reforestation can reduce further watershed degradation. Utah Department of Natural Resources reported that 500 agencies, organizations, and individuals contributed in-kind assistance and funding to Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative that completed 1,500 projects covering 1.5 million acres as of 2016. Trout Unlimited and Utah’s Blue Ribbon Fisheries Advisory Council collaborate on projects to benefit sport fisheries. Additionally, Back Country Horsemen, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Elk, and Turkey Federations, UDWR Dedicated Hunter Program, Plant-a-Tree Foundation, and ATV/OHV clubs support mountain trails, watershed improvements, reforestation, and wildlife habitat improvement projects. Contributions from many groups are invaluable when rebuilding forest reserves after a fire.
Forests provide more than meets the eye in timber and fishing lakes — they sustain watersheds and precious water resources. So, the next time you turn on the faucet, remember you are connecting to a watershed and indirectly to a forest. May the forest be with us always!