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.
Restoration is not new
"Watershed restoration is not new to the Forest Service, but we now have new capabilities to assess and prioritize where resources are most needed," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
"For the first time, we are laying out a process to allow data from local assessments to be collected, analyzed and evaluated to better understand existing conditions and the specific needs for restoration and maintenance at the national level."
The Forest Service, as custodian of national forests and grasslands — which contain nearly 400,000 miles of streams, 3 million acres of lakes, and many aquifer systems — provides drinking water for more U.S. residents than any other entity.
The Forest Service manages habitat for more than 550 rare, threatened, and endangered aquatic species and provides water-related recreation to more than 130 million visitors each year. U.S. lakes and streams provide drinking water for one in five Americans.
The Framework integrates well with both the proposed Land Management Planning Rule and the agency's Climate Change Scorecard. All three efforts require working with the public and partners to assess, monitor, maintain and restore the health of forests and watersheds. The Framework assists by providing key data that will help to prioritize resources.
The Forest Service expects to have national and regional Watershed Condition Classification maps posted electronically on an agency Web site early next week, with an interactive mapping tool available by the end of the month, according to agency officials.
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.