Potential Effects of Forestry Best Management Practices and Implementation Rates on Soil and Water Resources in the Southeastern United States

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Virginia Tech


Forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs) include guidelines, recommendations, and protocols utilized to protect forest water quality from nonpoint source pollutants (NPSP). Sediment is the most common NPSP associated with forest operations, and BMPs are implemented primarily to reduce erosion and potential sediment delivery to streams. Skid trails, stream crossings, forest roads, decks, and harvest areas are major forest operational features that have the potential to erode and deliver sediment to streams. These five features are also common BMP categories evaluated by states across the southeastern U.S. Although BMPs are designed to minimize erosion and sediment delivery, the exact relationship between BMP implementation rates, erosion rates, and potential sediment delivery is largely unexamined. Specifically, the inherently intuitive but unverified concept that increasing levels of BMP implementation decreases erosion and sediment delivery associated with forest harvesting. This hypothesis was tested in this project at five operational features located within three physiographic regions, including the Mountains, Piedmont, and Coastal Plain, across clearcut harvest sites in the southeastern U.S.

First, BMP implementation rates, audit questionnaires, and state guidelines were compared across 13 states in the southeastern region at 116 clearcut harvest sites. Overall, BMPs were implemented at an average rate of 90.1% in the southeastern United States, thus demonstrating that BMPs are currently being implemented consistently at high levels throughout the region. Across all regions, average BMP implementation rates were highest at harvest areas (95.6%), followed by decks (92.7%), haul roads (91.9%), stream crossings (88.2%), and skid trails (82.9%). Average BMP implementation rates for Mountain stream crossings (83.9%) and skid trails (76.1%) were significantly lower than rates calculated in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, and had the lowest implementation rate for any feature in any region. These findings indicate that skid trails and stream crossings, especially in the Mountains, may benefit the most from enhanced BMP implementation and resources.

In the second manuscript, the relationship between BMP implementation, estimated erosion, and potential sediment delivery were examined in three regions of Virginia and North Carolina. This study is one of the only forestry studies that have presented sediment delivery ratios by operational feature and physiographic region. BMP implementation rates and sediment delivery ratios were poorly correlated, however, a significant inverse relationship existed between BMP implementation and the total sediment mass delivered to streams (Spearman ρ = -0.2206, p-value = 0.0027). Generally, as BMP implementation increased, erosion rates and the amount of sediment delivered to streams also decreased. Additionally, this study demonstrated that most of the erosion generated by clearcutting operations in the southeast is trapped in either the harvest area or in Streamside Management Zones (SMZs) prior to reaching the stream.

In the third manuscript, BMP implementation rates and erosion estimates were categorized into three BMP levels (BMP−, BMP-standard, BMP+) which represent low, moderate, and high levels of BMP implementation, respectively. Skid trails and haul roads generally had the highest erosion estimates, regardless of BMP level and physiographic region. Non-parametric correlation analyses indicated that significant inverse relationships existed between BMP implementation rates and erosion estimates at skid trails (Spearman ρ = -0.589, p-value < 0.0001), haul roads (Spearman ρ = -0.388, p-value < 0.0001), and harvest areas (Spearman ρ = -0.2305, p-value = 0.0169), while decks and stream crossings were more poorly correlated with erosion estimates. This reinforces the need for BMP audit questions that specifically address ground cover and bare soil, water control structures, gradients, and stabilization to better address potential erosion and sedimentation.

Clearcut areas, erosion and sediment estimates, and sediment removal efficiencies were presented for the Mountains, Middle/Lower Coastal Plain, and Piedmont/Upper Coastal Plain for the fourth, fifth, and sixth manuscripts, respectively. Regardless of BMP level and physiographic region, a combination of harvest areas, skid trails, and haul roads were responsible for over 95% of potential sediment delivery. Increasing site-wide BMP implementation from BMP− to BMP+ could reduce sediment delivery by 70% in all physiographic regions. High levels of BMP implementation were most effective at reducing potential erosion and sediment delivery from skid trails and haul roads throughout the southeast. Findings from these studies demonstrate that current BMPs are highly effective at mitigating sediment.

In the southeastern U.S., increasing levels of BMP implementation effectively reduce both potential erosion and sedimentation associated with forest harvesting. Generally, both estimated erosion and sedimentation associated with clearcutting in the region is much lower than rates associated with other land uses such as development or agriculture, especially when BMPs are implemented at standard or high levels. However, several opportunities exist to improve the effectiveness of BMPs in the southeastern U.S. Skid trails, haul roads, and stream crossings consistently had the lowest BMP implementation rates and highest estimated erosion rates and sediment delivery ratios. While these features only represent a small proportion of total clearcut area in the southeast, they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of sediment delivery and should receive more attention and resources during the pre-harvest planning and closure processes.

Conclusively, this project addresses several knowledge gaps pertaining to water quality impacts resulting from harvesting operations in the southeastern U.S. For instance, this is only the third project that has presented sediment delivery ratios associated with forest operations in the southeastern U.S., and the first to do so for the Mountains and Coastal Plain regions. On average, SMZs and harvest areas trap 66-96% of sediment on-site before it can be deposited into streams. Additionally, this project provides one of the first and most comprehensive regional comparisons of state BMP manuals, audits, and programs in-field using a third-party approach. Several significant differences existed among state BMP programs and protocol, and states may need to design specific BMP guidelines and audit protocol for major physiographic regions to address the challenges and variation of on-site conditions inherent of each region. Additionally, this project presents one of the only regional-scale estimates of sediment and efficiencies of increased levels of BMP implementation at mitigating sediment associated with forest operations in the southeastern U.S. Conclusively, this project provides forest managers, state and federal agencies, and policymakers with a robust assessment on the effectiveness of forestry BMPs in the southeast.



Forestry Best Management Practices, BMP implementation rates, soil erosion, sediment delivery, forest operations, Water quality, southeastern U.S.