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Expanded Logging On Sparta Mountain Could Contribute To Widespread Ecological Harm

USGS Study in Catskills Found Logging Caused 100% Trout Mortality

Stream and aquatic life impacts not adequately considered by DEP

Source USGS

Source USGS

(this is part five of our look at the DEP’s proposed Sparta Mountain “Forest Stewardship Plan” which would significantly expand logging on the mountain. Here are links to read part one and part two and part three and part four).

A study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on the impacts of logging on the ecological health of nearby Catskill forests highlights flaws of DEP’s proposed “Forest Stewardship Plan” for Sparta Mountain, including failure to map watersheds and streams or adequately consider adverse impacts on the exceptional water resources of the Highlands forest.

Instead of a rigorous scientific analysis of impacts on water resources, the plan selectively summarizes some of the large body of scientific research on the effects of logging on water resources, suggesting relatively minor impacts that can be mitigated by BMP’s. The DEP plan concludes (@ page 13):

  • Clear-cutting generally resulted in short-term water yield increases due to decreased evapotranspiration, but returned to pre-harvest levels within a few years as regeneration became established.
  • The greatest sediment load problems arose from poor road construction delivering suspended material directly to streams. Overland flows were rarely observed.
  • Selection method harvesting had no obvious effect on watershed stream temperatures. In clear-cuts where no vegetated buffer was maintained along streams, stream temperatures generally were a few degrees higher during the growing season and a few degrees lower during the dormant season, but returned to pretreatment levels with 3-5 years. When a 50- foot-wide buffer strip was maintained, clear-cutting had no effect on stream temperature. This would imply that subsurface groundwater down-slope of a clear-cut treatment with a vegetated buffer would also maintain a stable, pre-harvest temperature.

But the DEP’s research summary curiously ignores classic research on nutrient budgets as well as a recent 2008 United States Geological Survey (USGS) study of the ecological impacts of logging in the nearby Catskills which found widespread impacts on forest soils, soil and stream water chemistry, forest regrowth, and aquatic communities, see:

The USGS study noted that – just like the NJ Highlands – the Catskills provide critical water resource values and are extremely sensitive to the effects of logging;

The Catskill Mountain region of southeastern New York (fig. 1) is about 85 percent forested and contains six reservoirs that are the principal drinking-water supply for New York City. Land-use managers in the region need forest-harvesting guidelines that will ensure the continued vigor of the forest-products industry while preventing water-quality degradation.

The USGS study highlights the narrow focus of the tradition approach to forestry and explicitly rejects that in favor of an ecosystem health framework;

A Changing Approach to Forest Management

Traditionally, forest-management decisions have been based mainly on the observed physical condition of trees in a forest stand. A new, broader perspective on forest management has emerged in recent years from the field of watershed biogeochemistry, the study of biological and geochemical processes and element cycling within a given drainage basin (fig. 2). A biogeochemical approach to forest management takes into account a suite of interrelated indicators of ecosystem health.

With respect to water resources, we’ve previously noted that logging harms sensitive cold water trout streams by increasing sediments and stream temperature.

Russia Brook, one of the streams on Sparta Mountain is a DEP designated trout production C1 stream. DEP’s Water Quality Standard for C1 streams is “no change in existing water quality” and C1 streams are protected by 300 foot wide buffers. As we’ve previously argued, the DEP Forest Stewardship Plan does not meet these two standards for C1 streams.

But, in addition to increases in sediment and temperature,  the USGS study documents an additional serious impact resulting from the toxic effects of increased stream concentrations of nitrate and aluminum from logging runoff.

Shockingly, USGS found that clear cuts caused 100% mortality of trout:

Clearcutting caused a large release of nitrate (NO 3-) from watershed soils and a concurrent release of inorganic monomeric aluminum (Alim), which is toxic to some aquatic biota. The increased soil NO 3- concentrations measured after the harvest could be completely accounted for by the decrease in nitrogen (N) uptake by watershed trees, rather than an increase in N mineralization and nitrification. The large increase in stream water NO3 – and Alim concentrations caused 100-percent mortality of caged brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) during the first year after the clearcut and adversely affected macroinvertebrate communities for 2 years after the harvest.

The amount of tree biomass that can be removed without causing a sharp increase in stream-water NO3 – and Alim stream-water concentrations is unknown, but probably depends on the history of forest-disturbance and acid deposition and the level of soil acidification. Results of this study indicate that macroinvertebrate and brook trout communities were sensitive to clearcutting and that deer browsing may affect water quality by suppressing forest regeneration and nutrient uptake. Further studies of selective harvests could identify the harvesting threshold below which changes in water quality and soil chemistry are minimized, and nutrient retention is maximized, thus reducing the damage that logging can inflict on stream and aquatic communities.

USGS found that not only trout were likely harmed:

Therefore, the toxic conditions produced by the clearcut would probably have killed other fish species that may have been present, such as slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus), and the brook-trout mortality reported here may represent only some of the detrimental effects that clearcutting could have on fish communities and the downstream ecosystem. 

USGS emphasized that current science and data are not adequate to establish a threshold below which logging will nt harm sensitive and high quality water resources:

Further research is needed to define the harvesting threshold below which soil nutrient loss is minimized to limit the adverse effects of logging on stream-water quality and aquatic biota.

The USGS findings are troubling and suggest sufficient flaws in the DEP’s forestry practices to suggest that they be halted until DEP develops an ecosystem health based program to characterize, monitor and assess the broader set of  ecosystem and water resource  impacts of current forest management practices, including multiple “stewardship” logging projects in the Highlands.

This program would include establishment of baseline conditions of forest ecosystem health, including “existing water quality” and a rigorous program to monitor these conditions as well as the cumulative impacts of logging on Highlands forests and water resources.

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