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Protecting America’s water supply with forestry best management practices


A flowing stream with trees along the bank. Forestry best management practices have been proven to protect water sources.

Aug. 15, 2016 – America’s 700 million acres of forest filter two-thirds of the country’s water supply, but logging and other activities can spill debris into waterways. Forestry faculty Mike Aust, Chad Bolding, Scott Barrett, and John Munsell completed a two-year investigation into the protocols state forestry agencies use to safeguard water.

Forestry activity triggers only a small percentage of water quality problems, but erosion from poorly designed or maintained forest roads and logging trails can increase sediment in nearby streams. Forestry professionals have developed water quality protection measures known as forestry best management practices (BMPs) to protect waterways. Originally developed in the 1950s, BMPs are periodically updated as technology changes and research identifies better methods.

BMPs and adherence protocol vary by state, but common measures dictate how to locate, construct, and maintain routes and work sites to minimize erosion. The federal government continues to update water quality standards, and state agencies keep pace by refining their BMPs. “With every update of the Clean Water Act, states have responded by developing new BMPs or improving older ones,” Aust explained. “Therefore, it is important that states share information regarding the use and effectiveness of forestry BMPs as they are currently applied, with the goal of improving identified problem areas.”

To help the states make informed decisions, the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) commissioned the Virginia Tech researchers to evaluate BMPs across the country. Aided by graduate student Richard Cristan, the team developed a survey for state forestry agencies. The questionnaire provides the most comprehensive review of state BMP programs.

All 50 states and one territory responded, reporting more than 90 percent compliance with BMPs overall. No significant differences in compliance were identified between states that use a regulatory approach or a voluntary approach. The survey clearly indicated that forestry BMPs are in wide use to protect water quality but also identified several areas where BMP usage still needs to be improved, typically forest roads, skid trails, and stream crossings.

The NASF uploaded the team’s findings as part of an interactive online map. Users can select a state and learn which standards apply there and whether its program is regulatory, quasi-regulatory, or voluntary. “The goal was to put the research into a database where the state foresters or other interested people could examine the forestry water quality protection measures for any particular state,” Aust noted.

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