Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the release of a new map that characterizes the health and condition of National Forest System lands in more than 15,000 watersheds across the country.

The U.S. Forest Service's Watershed Condition Classification Map is the first step in the agency's Watershed Condition Framework, and is the agency's first national assessment across all 193 million acres of National Forest lands.

Vilsack made the announcement at a USDA event in Washington highlighting the United Nation's International Year of Forests.

"Clean, healthy forests are vital to our efforts to protect America's fresh water supply," said Vilsack. "Our nation's economic health, and the health of our citizens, depends on abundant, clean and reliable sources of freshwater. The Watershed Condition Framework and map will help provide economic and environmental benefits to farmers, ranchers and residents of rural communities."

The map establishes a baseline that will be used to establish priorities for watershed restoration and maintenance. The national Watershed Condition Framework establishes a consistent, comparable, and credible process for characterizing, prioritizing, improving, and tracking the health of watersheds on national forests and grasslands.

The Framework also builds added accountability and transparency into the Integrated Resource Restoration program which is included in President Obama's budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

The Framework uses three watershed condition classifications:

• Class 1 watersheds are considered healthy.

• Class 2 watersheds are relatively healthy, but may require restoration work.

• Class 3 watersheds are those that are impaired, degraded or damaged.  

Additional benefits to the Framework are the opportunities it provides to current and future partners in watershed restoration and maintenance. It also increases the public's awareness of their local watershed conditions and the role they can play in improving them. The Forest Service expects that as the map gains more widespread use, it will promote the department's "all-lands" approach to managing the nation's forest and landscapes.