Watershed Restoration Program Overview

Map of the United States: USDA Forest Service Watershed Condition Classification. Rating based on assessment of National Forest System land in sixth level watersheds. May 12, 2011.
USDA Forest Service Watershed Condition Classification. Rating based on assessment of National Forest System land in sixth level watersheds. May 12, 2011. (PDF version, 6.7 MB).

The 1897 Organic Act established the care and management of forests to secure “favorable conditions of water flow” as a principle purpose of the Forest Service. National Forests and Grasslands are the largest single source of water in the continental U.S., contributing nearly 20 percent of the Nation’s water supply. However, a history of fire suppression and past land management activities necessitate that the Forest Service take an active approach to restoring watershed conditions, protecting communities and their drinking water, and sustaining wildlife.

Watershed Condition

A goal of the Forest Service is “to protect National Forest System watersheds by implementing practices designed to maintain or improve watershed condition” (FSM 2520.2). Watershed condition is the state of the physical and biological characteristics and processes within a watershed that affect the soil and hydrological functions that support aquatic ecosystems. Watershed condition reflects a range of variability from functioning properly to degraded (impaired). Watersheds that are functioning properly have terrestrial, riparian, and aquatic ecosystems that capture, store, and release water, sediment, wood, and nutrients within their range of natural variability for these processes.

National Direction

National policy directs the Agency to use watershed condition to help prioritize watersheds and consider resource factors, risks, values and benefits, economics, social factors, and partnership opportunities when setting priorities (FSM 2521.11b).
The intent of the national direction is to:

  • Protect high-value watersheds already in good condition.
  • Maintain the condition of watersheds to keep them from becoming threatened.
  • Improve watersheds that are in an impaired condition.

Watershed Condition Framework

To help implement the new policy emphasis on restoring watershed health, the Forest Service developed the Watershed Condition Framework (WCF). The WCF is a comprehensive approach for:

  • Evaluating the condition of watersheds.
  • Prioritizing watersheds for restoration or maintenance.
  • Strategically implementing integrated restoration.
  • Tracking and monitoring outcome based program accomplishments.

Watersheds are evaluated using a nationally consistent core set of indicators, which are used to classify watershed conditions, identify elements that need to be addressed, and track changes over time. The primary emphasis is on those conditions and risks where the agency can take action or influence actions to be taken by others to improve watershed condition. The Watershed Condition Classification Technical Guide (PDF, 1.8 MB) has been developed.

Implementation began in 2011 by classifying 15,034 watersheds that contain substantial acreages of NFS lands. This was followed with identifying 204 priority watersheds for treatment, directing the collaborative development of Watershed Restoration Action Plans (WRAPs) and defining a schedule of priority actions.
Watersheds provide an excellent basis for developing restoration plans that can treat a multitude of resource problems in a structured, comprehensive manner.

Stream Restoration

Channel modification due to historic logging, road building, rural residential development, and agricultural use can have significant adverse impacts on streams. Impacts may include chronic sedimentation, reduced stream shading, and modified floodplain and channel morphology, which negatively affects fish habitat quality and compromises fish production. In order to rehabilitate stream habitats, restoration work must focus on increasing habitat complexity and channel stability. Stream channel rehabilitation activities include mechanical placement of large woody debris, stabilization of stream banks, restoring floodplain connectivity, reinstating natural stream meanders, adding spawning gravels, and creating side channels for fisheries and riparian species.

Riparian Restoration

Riparian areas (floodplains and stream banks) regulate channel morphology, stream water temperatures, and nutrient flow. A diverse range, in both age and species composition, of riparian species is necessary for optimal fish and wildlife habitat. Instream woody debris is a forming agent for large pools and gravel deposits for fish spawning. Over the last century, riparian areas have been impacted by the salvage of large wood, conversion to pasture land, fire suppression, logging activities, and hydropower dams. Riparian restoration activities include planting native species within riparian zones, to facilitate stream shading and tree growth, and protecting riparian vegetation from invasive species, livestock, and other stressors.

Road Restoration

Road restoration and decommissioning are two of the primary strategies used to reduce watershed impacts from past development. Restoration involves the reconstruction of roads that are located along sensitive streams to improve drainage and reduce sedimentation. It also includes road storage and temporary closures. Road decommissioning involves activities that stabilize and restore unneeded roads to a more natural state.

The primary objectives are:

  1. reduce erosion from road surfaces and slopes and related sedimentation of streams,
  2. reduce the risk of mass failures and subsequent impact on streams,
  3. restore natural surface and subsurface drainage patterns,
  4. restore vegetation and site productivity, and
  5. restore stream channels at road crossings and where roads run adjacent to channels.