Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers had better be ready for a lot of detours in Oregon this summer. In November and December, after fire season-ending rain and snow storms, the Forest Service issued orders closing three of Oregon’s most popular PCT segments (e.g., Three Sisters & Mt. Jefferson), along with their associated wilderness areas and connecting trails. The reason? “Public Safety.”
This summer, fires burned parts of the wilderness areas that have been closed to the public. As with most western Oregon fires, the burns are a patchy mosaic of burn intensities. Ridge tops tended to burn hotter; valley bottoms cooler; many acres not at all. Fires are not uncommon in these Douglas-fir/western hemlock forests, with a return interval on the order of 100 years. The popular French Pete trail traverses through forests with numerous fire-scarred trees, snags killed by previous fires, and other fire-affected structure typical of the area’s old-growth forests. This trail, like dozens of others, is now closed to the public.
The Wilderness Act directs the Forest Service to manage wilderness areas for “their primeval character and influence” to “preserve natural conditions.” Wilderness areas are to be “affected primarily by the forces of nature” and “offer primitive and an unconfined type of recreation.” The Act’s only reference to safety is an exception to the ban on motorized equipment (e.g., aircraft) if “required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area.”
Even if the Wilderness Act countenanced a nanny state approach to wilderness management, the Forest Service did not explain its closure decisions, nor invite public comment on whether it’s too dangerous to hike in these woods. People do die in wilderness areas. They drown, freeze, fall off mountains, and have heart attacks. Trees cause about 1% of wilderness-related fatalities.
The default condition of national forests is that they are open, by law and without permit, to dispersed recreation. The Forest Service must follow the law when it decides to lock the public out. Under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Forest Service must explain its reasons, including how the facts support its conclusions. The Forest Service did not do so. The agency must also follow NEPA’s procedures, including explaining the degree to which its closure decision affects “extraordinary circumstances,” such as wilderness. The orders have an obvious and profound effects on wilderness and Pacific Crest Trail users, eliminating all forms of dispersed recreation. The Forest Service made no attempt to comply with NEPA.
What should our nanny state do?