Why Watersheds?

Without water life would not exist on our planet. Along with clean air, water is essential for all life, and is a primary focus of forest management projects and decisions. These combine to give us healthy and resilient forests, viable wildlife and aquatic habitats, and the wide range of recreational opportunities we all anticipate on national forests.

Think of a watershed on the landscape like a room in your house – they have distinctive boundaries that separate them from other rooms, but they are connected; everything that happens within one room can impact another; and you can’t simply ignore one room for too long before it becomes dysfunctional. You don’t clean or renovate only part of a room, and so it is with watersheds.

The National Forest System (NFS) impacts virtually every major watershed in this country. In the Northern Region, we manage NFS lands that are home to headwaters, streams and rivers heading east and west - to the Columbia River watershed in the Pacific Northwest, and the Missouri River watershed that feeds into the Mississippi River watershed.

Watersheds are the building blocks or base elements for natural resource and land management, regardless of the agency. The only difference is the scope of those watersheds. See the sidebar, “What the HUC is going on?” on this page for detailed watershed definitions and information from the US Geological Survey.

Because of the importance of watershed functions and clean water for America, the Forest Service adopted its Watershed Condition Framework in 2011, and expanded its decision-making capacity through the Watershed Condition Classification Map in 2012. This tool sets up a criteria-based decision-making process to categorize watersheds based on their function, or lack thereof. It further outlines where priority efforts should be applied to produce the most beneficial change, or to maintain the most efficient watershed areas.

Northern Region Watershed projects:

Individual forests and grasslands identify watershed work within their boundaries. More and more the agency is actively seeking committed local and other partners in a broad, collaborative approach where it is beneficial to the project and any local communities. They subsequently develop projects to address concerns, needs and public desires for the outcome of that area. Once a Decision is made, the projects can be implemented in a number of ways, including collaborative partnerships, stewardship contracts, contracted project work or Forest projects using appropriated funding.

You can follow the links below to a variety of Northern Region and Forest Service web pages for the information indicted.

Northern Region Projects Information

National Schedule of Proposed Actions

National Planning Regulations

Northern Region Land and Resource Management

Northern Region Geospatial Library

Graphic of the Columbia River Watershed. The western portion of Region 1 is home to many of the headwaters of the Columbia River. This watershed is home to a wide range of aquatic life, including world-class salmon and trout streams. It is a primary water source for thousands of acres of agriculture across eastern Washington and Oregon, and supplies water to millions across the Pacific Northwest.


Like the Columbia River to the west, Region 1 is home to the headwaters of the Missouri River and the major tributary of its complete watershed. The Yellowstone River watershed is part of this larger watershed as well. The Missouri River watershed spans the Dakotas and joins into the Mississippi River watershed, and is fed by other headwaters and tributaries across Wyoming and Colorado. This map shows the extent to which national forests impact the water supply for millions of acres of the nation’s Breadbasket as well as major population centers from our northern border to the Gulf of Mexico. Graphic of the Missouri Watershed.


Graphic map of the Mississippi river Watershed. This larger, almost national map, outlines the entire Mississippi River watershed, including the entire Missouri River watershed that originates in Region 1. As you can see, beginning with Colorado in the west and moving clockwise all the way to Tennessee, every state around the watershed’s border contains national forests or grasslands that are home to headwaters, tributaries, or that act as filters for the entire watershed.