The National Forest and the Candy Darter

By Rick Webb

As described in my presentation for the 2021 Highlands Conservancy Fall Review, current Forest Service management practice does not bode well for preservation and restoration of the endangered candy darter. Although the occupied range of the candy darter is now mostly limited  to streams draining the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) and the Jefferson National Forest (JNF), the Forest Service has plans for multiple projects that risk loss of this remaining habitat. 

Figure 1, adapted from the Fall Review presentation, shows the historic and currently occupied habitat of the candy darter in relation to the region’s National Forests. Figure 2 shows the location of current MNF projects and project proposals in watershed areas that drain to designated critical habitat for the candy darter. Two natural gas pipeline corridors that would cross candy darter critical habitat are also shown: the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the persistently challenged Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).

Much has happened concerning the candy darter in the few months since the Fall Review. 

In December, the Forest Service published a Final Environmental Assessment (EA), together with a Finding of No Significant Impact and a Draft Final Decision, indicating pending approval of the Greenbrier Southeast (GSE) project, a project involving timber harvest and related road construction in the East Fork of the Greenbrier River watershed. The entire GSE project area drains to designated critical habitat for the candy darter. 

In January, the Highlands Conservancy responded to the pending GSE project approval by filing an objection based on Forest Service inattention to analysis requirements for endangered species and unsupported conclusions concerning project effects and proposed mitigations. The objection calls for preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to provide for informed analysis of project plans and to achieve compliance with review requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In February, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a Biological Opinion for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had concluded that construction of the pipeline would not harm two endangered fish in its path, the candy darter and the Roanoke logperch. In its opinion, the court cautioned that when baseline conditions or cumulative effects are already jeopardizing a species, an agency may not take action that deepens the jeopardy by causing additional harm. The court highlighted the importance of this directive for “the apparently not-long-for-this-world candy darter.” 

The decision to vacate the Biological Opinion for the MVP is significant for Forest Service projects affecting designated critical habitat for the candy darter. The Conservancy’s objection to the GSE project focused on the same key issues, in particular the failure to describe and evaluate baseline environmental conditions and the failure to conduct a cumulative effects analysis. 

The following sections of this article describe some of the main concerns raised in the Conservancy’s objection to the Greenbrier Southeast project. These are among the concerns that apply to the multiple Forest Service projects in watersheds that support the candy darter. Additional information concerning the candy darter and these projects, including regulatory review documents and interactive maps, can be accessed through the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA) Conservation Hub. 

Failure to conduct a baseline assessment

The Forest Service failed to prepare an environmental baseline description and evaluation for streams in the Greenbrier Southeast project area. As a result, the Forest Service failed to consider the best available scientific data and information in concluding that the project will not adversely affect the candy darter and its critical habitat. The Forest Service also failed to provide an informed baseline assessment to the Fish and Wildlife Service when seeking concurrence with this conclusion.

Among the most-relevant scientific information that the Forest Service failed to consider are the monitoring program evaluation reports periodically prepared by the MNF. The current MNF report, Fiscal Year 2011–2019 Monitoring Evaluation Report, was finalized in March 2021, eight months prior to release of the Final EA and Draft Decision Notice for the GSE project. 

Although the 2021 monitoring report has clearly negative implications for the candy darter and its critical habitat, the findings of the report were evidently not considered in the preparation of the Final Environmental Assessment or the Draft Decision Notice. Nor is there evidence that the findings of the report were considered in the Forest Service Biological Assessment for the project or the Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion for the project. (The findings of the 2021 report were not described, discussed, or cited in these documents.)

Analysis included in the 2021 monitoring report indicates that most of the streams in the MNF are degraded and trending negatively with respect to chronic sedimentation. This is bad news for the candy darter and other aquatic life, such as the brook trout, that depend on a clean gravel streambed. 

The 2021 monitoring report compared fine-sediment data obtained for stream reaches throughout the MNF with exceedance criteria for “particularly detrimental effects” to native coldwater fish. Figure 3 shows the application of these criteria to the subset of sampling reaches on streams that drain to candy darter critical habitat. Consistent with observations for streams throughout the MNF, most of the streams that drain to candy darter critical habitat, including streams in the proposed GSE project area, are degraded by chronic sedimentation. Similarly, the problem is getting worse, not better. 

These elevated and increasing fine sediment values compromise the survival of the candy darter and the integrity of its critical habitat. The candy darter is intolerant of sedimentation, and sedimentation is among the primary habitat degradation factors responsible for loss of the candy darter from about 50 percent of its historical range. 

The continuing degradation of streams throughout the MNF due to sedimentation is a critical baseline condition that should be described and evaluated for all MNF management projects that risk additional sedimentation of aquatic habitat. 

In planning the Greenbrier Southeast project, the Forest Service failed to describe and evaluate existing sedimentation impacts to candy darter critical habitat. Rather than reaching conclusions based on analysis of the problem, the Forest Service is simply relying on the questionable efficacy of project design features and mitigations to achieve reductions in new sediment production and delivery to candy darter habitat. In other words, the existing sedimentation problem will become worse, though not as bad as it would be if there were simply no mitigation effort.

Informed conclusions concerning potential sedimentation impacts of proposed Forest Service projects on candy darter critical habitat require an understanding of the sources, transport, and fate of existing sedimentation. A properly prepared baseline assessment should provide this understanding.

Over-reliance on project design features and mitigations to prevent stream sedimentation 

Although research consistently shows that roads increase erosion and sedimentation more than any other practice associated with forest management, the Forest Service is proceeding with planning for multiple projects that will require extensive construction and use of roads for timber harvest in watersheds that drain to candy darter critical habitat. 

As described in the Final EA for the GSE project, the project was designed to limit both production of sediment and delivery of sediment to streams by locating ground-based timber units to avoid steeper slopes and to maintain distance between the stream network and the timber units and related roads.  

Although distance is a factor, sediment is moved by surface water runoff, and the presence or absence of a hydrologic connection between sediment producing ground disturbance and the surface water drainage network, is the primary determinant of sediment delivery to streams. Drainage networks, moreover, are variable and can be extended both by heavy precipitation and by changes in runoff patterns due to flow concentration and diversion by roads and other disturbed ground. In discounting potential sediment delivery to surface waters and downstream candy darter habitat, the Forest Service failed to account for sediment movement associated with extension of the surface water drainage network due to storm events and hydrologic alteration related to the project. 

As also described in the Final Environmental Assessment for the Greenbrier Southeast project, application of Best Management Practices (BMPs) is standard procedure for Forest Service timber operations and related road construction. The Forest Service will rely on application of standard BMPs to reduce sediment production and transport for much of the road use, construction, and restoration associated with the project, including for new skid road decommissioning, for storage of multiple-entry skid roads, and for decommissioning and closure of temporary and reconstructed roads. 

Research cited in the Final Environmental Assessment indicates that application of BMPs for timber operations and related roads can reduce sediment production and transport, especially when compared to operations without BMP application. The cited material, however, also indicates that BMP performance can vary widely. For example, one study reported BMP efficiencies ranging from 53 to 94% during timber harvest and for up to a year after harvest for three forested watersheds in West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Other cited studies indicate that substantial increases in sediment production are unavoidable, even when the most cautious road-building methods are used.

Research cited in the Final Environmental Assessment for the Greenbrier Southeast project further indicates that while sediment production can occur throughout the lifespan of a road, it is greatest during road construction and in the first one to two years after construction, a period that coincides with road use for timber harvest. Active road use for timber harvest precludes use of some of the more-important BMPs for controlling runoff, such as waterbar installation, outsloping, decompaction, mulching, and seeding. Thus, while standard or even enhanced BMPs can reduce sediment production and transport following post-harvest road closure or decommissioning, BMPs are less useful during periods of road construction and use. They cannot be relied upon to prevent sediment production and transport during the period when sediment production associated with roads is the greatest. 

Failure to conduct a cumulative effects analysis

Cumulative effects refers to environmental impact that results from the incremental impact of an action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions. With respect to the candy darter, the appropriate scope for cumulative effects analysis is the geographic extent of designated critical habitat. All parts of the designated critical habitat have been determined to be essential for long-term survival of the species. 

At a minimum, reasonably foreseeable future actions include the concurrently planned Forest Service projects that involve timber harvest and related road construction in watersheds that drain to critical habitat for the candy darter. The Forest Service, however, has thus far failed to conduct a cumulative effects analysis for the GSE project or any of the other planned or proposed projects that may affect the candy darter or its critical habitat. 

The multiple Monongahela National Forest projects that may affect designated critical habitat for the candy darter share the problem of chronic sedimentation. Thus far, however, project review has failed to include an analysis of existing sedimentation impact, has failed to determine what level of additional sedimentation would be significant, and has failed to provide any estimate of potential additional increments of sedimentation that may result due to the projects. Reliance is instead placed on project design and mitigation measures that, as described above, are unreliable or have limited value for prevention of sediment production and delivery to streams. 

Consideration of potential cumulative effects of multiple Forest Service projects, especially with respect to sedimentation control and continuing degradation of critical habitat, raises these questions concerning National Forest management policies and the candy darter:

  • Does the Forest Service have a coherent policy for reversing the current chronic sedimentation trend? 
  • How much additional sedimentation of candy darter habitat will the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service deem acceptable? 

Preservation and restoration of the candy darter and its designated critical habitat will depend on how these and similar questions are answered.

For additional information see:

Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance Conservation Hub

Final Environmental Assessment for the Greenbrier Southeast Project, 12/9/21

West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Objection to the Greenbrier Southeast Project, 1/3/22

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Vacating the 2020 Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, 2/3/22

Monongahela National Forest Fiscal Year 2011-2019 Monitoring Evaluation Report, March 2021