The Region 1 Recommended Wilderness Policy

Region 1 forests are adjacent to those in Regions 2, 4 and 6.

Folks have been kind enough to send the text of the Region 1 Wilderness Policy document we have recently been discussing. Here it is Region 1 RWA Policy.  I don’t have any particular expertise in the World of Wilderness (other than experienti

(1) When does the FS find a need to standardize? This is one of the greatest mysteries of my FS career.  It has seemed to me that culturally the local level tends to hang on to its autonomy as much as possible.  But the argument that Chief Tom Tidwell (then Regional Forester, and/or his then-staff) makes in the letter is that:

“Some areas are managed by more than one unit and the units have different management approaches, particularly for motorized recreation. This results in public confusion and can result in encroachments of illegal activities on to the adjacent forest.” Of course, the argument could potentially be made for the WO to issue a national policy, as Regions may also have neighboring (although perhaps not adjoining) Recommended Wilderness areas. And national groups could easily raise the question “if it’s OK to centralize the approach at the Regional level, why isn’t it OK to centralize at the National level- wouldn’t that would be even less confusing?” I guess I can understand if each Forest makes up its own approach, because that shows up in an EIS and can be questioned, objected to, etc. But that leads to exactly the kinds of problems that the Region 1 letter was intended to solve.

2) The other impression I get is that these decisions seem to be highly technical. In a way, the question of whether it’s suitable or not is ultimately a judgment call.  It is not any less a judgment call because there is an elaborate analytical process, but the very elaborateness and complexity can confuse the public (at least it confused me).

After the 2005 letter, along came the 2012 Rule.  Perhaps others know this, but weren’t the Directives put out for public comment? And wouldn’t the procedures for Recommended Wilderness be part of the Directives? Here’s a piece of the letter:

The three tests of capability, availability, and need will be used to determine suitability as set forth in Forest Service Handbook (FSH) 1909.12, Chapter 2, 72. . In addition to the inherent wilderness quality an IRA might possess, the area must provide opportunities and experiences that are dependent upon and enhanced by a wilderness environment. The area and boundaries must allow the area to be managed as wilderness.

Capability is defined in FSH 1909.12, Chapter 72 as the degree to which the area contains the basic characteristics that make it suitable for wilderness designation without regard to its availability for or need as wilderness. Availability determination is conditioned on the value of and need for the wilderness resource compared to the value of and need of the area for other resources. Need is the determination that the area should be designated as wilderness through an analysis of the degree that the area contributes to the local and national distribution of wilderness.

I also wondered where it was in statute or regulation that wilderness needs to be “locally and nationally distributed.” There are few or no Grassland Wildernesses that I know of, so perhaps they should be on the top of the list?

From a letter signed by then Regional Forester Tidwell to Sandra Mitchell in 2007.

I hope you will see that the process is very rigorous and intended to eliminate from consideration those areas that are really best suited for uses that are not compatible with wilderness designation. The final decision on which areas to recommend is done through a thorough and open public involvement process.

IMHO if uses are currently there, then to determine that land is “best suited” for being without those uses, is a difficult philosophical question. Because if you are a Wilderness aficionado, then everything could be argued to be best suited for Wilderness, if all you have to do is remove mountain bikes, OHVs, snowmobiles, fire suppression, roads, fuel treatments, and so on. I think the Region 1 twist seems to be that there are some uses like mountain bikes that never should have been allowed in certain areas, and they occupy a less legitimate position than other longer uses.

This whole discussion has given me much sympathy for both the FS and the public who deal with these analyses.

12 thoughts on “The Region 1 Recommended Wilderness Policy”

  1. The RWA issues are complicated by the fact many, but not all, candidate areas have failed to meet the early criteria and pool of lands that groups push for being designated. Even if the USFS limits their own consideration to strict criteria, there is nothing stopping advocacy groups or legislators from proposing dramatically different areas ignoring the USFS staff. Areas are often advocated for that were logged, mined, or had roads and mechanized trails. If the roads themselves are left out, it is cherry-stemming. The creation of wilderness designations around the roads created the cherry-stemming, not the fact there were pre-existing roads and logging lands.

    It can be hypocritical to be purists on the application of wilderness criteria to RWA lands but not be purists on the selection of lands that end up as RWAs. Where wilderness is manufactured from quasi-wilderness lands in order to get the highest level of protections provided by designations by conservationists, it should be no surprise that there is push-back from folks that had used those or similar lands in some way that may not meet the wilderness standard. If the line is being blurred on what makes for future designated wilderness in order to expand wildlife corridors, then it is quite reasonable that a different standard needs to be applied to RWAs as land goes through the transitions from resource to wilderness. Of course by true wilderness standards, this transition wouldn’t actually be allowed to happen. Watch what happens with the Colville draft forest plan in Region 6. Just like with Wild Sky, there is a difference between the rules that agencies are expected to follow and the lack of rules that advocates and legislators follow. The indiscretions by the latter ultimately creates gray areas for public lands users and advocates in how rules should be applied.

    Link to current planning directives for wilderness recommendation.

    Correct on all counts, Sharon. The criteria cited in the letter (capability, availability, and need) were abandoned in the 2012 planning rule directives, which did undergo public comment and were finalized in February 2015. Yes, wilderness recommendation is a subjective process, though a highly detailed and analytical process, and that has not changed with the new directives. So why is R1 still using this letter as guidance?

  3. The policy was written for forest plan revision under the old planning regulations so would now be controlled by language in the current Planning Rule and directives. The following language was apparently added to the directives in response to public comments (1909 FSH 74.1, and 24.41) (though mountain biking was apparently not mentioned by the public –

    “When developing plan components for recommended wilderness areas, the responsible official has discretion to implement a range of management options. All plan components applicable to a recommended area must protect and maintain the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness recommendation. In addition, the plan may include one or more plan components for a recommended wilderness area that:
    1. Enhance the ecological and social characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designations;
    2. Continue existing uses, only if such uses do not prevent the protection and maintenance of the social and ecological characteristics that provide the basis for wilderness designation;
    3. Alter existing uses, subject to valid existing rights; or
    4. Eliminate existing uses, except those uses subject to valid existing rights.
    The responsible official should strive to maintain consistency with the provisions of 16 U.S.C. 1133(d) and the content of FSM 1923.03(3) in developing plan components for the management of recommended wilderness areas.” (“Use of wilderness areas.”)

    I note that regarding existing wilderness, the Planning Handbook says (1909.12 FSH 24.41):
    “2. When developing plan components for designated wilderness areas within the plan area, the Responsible Official should consider:
    b. Management on adjoining lands that are within the NFS or in other Federal, Tribal or State ownership, especially when the adjoining land s are also designated wilderness areas.”
    No reason to think that wouldn’t also authorize a coordinated policy for recommended wilderness. However, the final agency action that could be challenged would presumably be the plan components for a particular revised plan, regardless of any broader policy.

    Here is what the Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club case judge said in 2017: “In recent years, Region 1 began to evaluate a new policy to guide management actions involving RWA’s in forests within the region. This is what the parties refer to as the “Region 1 guidance.” However, each forest plan and RWA is supposed to be analyzed according to its individual characteristics in order to determine the proper management of the area.” (The court explains that there are multiple documents, but it’s not clear what document that last sentence was derived from.)

    The Ten Lakes case was on forest plan revision. The Bitterroot litigation involved travel planning rather than forest planning.” The Planning Rule and directives wouldn’t necessarily apply to travel planning even if the R1 policy does.

  4. Jeff Chapman makes an excellent point about the blatant hypocrisy many wilderness advocates exhibit. Look at Southern Utah where for years the SU Wilderness Alliance has fought common sense oil development on the grounds it would impair areas they and their east coast lawyer pals, not the BLM, found to have
    “wilderness character”. Yet they advocate wilderness designation for areas pocked with old wildcat wells from the 1950’s, telling locals “those aren’t roads”. As I’ve noted before, Zahniser is rolling in his grave as what he considered a high bar for the most special places has morphed into and endless quest for more acres, to keep out uses people don’t like or agree with. The FS does not help with the ridiculous notion that every 15 years we should revisit the wilderness question. Kudos to line officers who take a stand and say enough wilderness, no more ! Multiple use is still law of the land.

    As for the original question Tidwell’s letter is not policy, any OGC rookie out of law school will tell you that. It ain’t worth the tree that was cut to make the paper it’s printed on. Toss it in the round file.

  5. Not policy. Toss it in the trash. Awesome! I guess we should have no problem getting mountain biking in RWAs then.

  6. The attorney might have made the case for the Forest Service:
    “102. The capability, availability, and needs criteria are vague, indefinite, not capable of
    objective or independent review, and internally contradictory.
    103. The ultimate conclusions on RWA additions did not track or properly apply
    guiding criteria in the Wilderness Act or Forest Service Handbook.”
    Based on this, what judge is going to say the FS did it wrong?

    But this complaint also jogged some memories. This “consistency paper” was prepared at a time when the Region was (again) gearing up to revise its forest plans, and similar papers were produced by the Region for most or all resources (coordinated by the other regional planner, but I was generally aware of what was going on). One problem identified in the formal national critique of forest planning was that forest plans were all different in ways that were confusing to the public. This was an effort to see if they could be made more “consistent” the next time around. (I don’t know if other regions did anything similar, but this problem may have been more pronounced on the typically independent R1 forests.)

    Part of the guidance was, “If it is determined that the best future use is inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, the desired condition (dc) should reflect that.” That makes sense, but the issue then becomes whether other plan components are consistent with that desired condition, and it would be hard to say that motorized/mechanized uses would be.

    Also, it looks like there may have been some thinking about making this guidance consistent with the language applicable to congressionally designated Wilderness Study Areas: “In other units, Forests considered the applicable FSM and Forest Plan direction as requiring maintenance of wilderness character as it existed when the area was recommended for designation in the Forest Plan and have limited expansion or development of non-conforming uses.”

    The bottom line is that if the documentation said “we excluded these uses because the RO told us to,” it was arbitrary. However, if it indicated that some independent analysis and thought went into it, it was not arbitrary. A lot of the real thinking doesn’t get documented, but an agency is rarely going to lose this kind of case.

  7. Understood. But this logic fails when the management for RWAs across all action alternatives is identical insofar as mb, ohv and snowmobile use. At least in my mind.

    The analysis cannot hide the fact that this Region applies a inventory criteria that allows the presence of non-conforming recreation but then imposes a management standard that mandates the elimination of those uses.

    Arbitrary. Capricious. Lame.

    • Hmm.. it sounds like a potential court case for not examining the “full range of alternatives” or I guess the alternatives were more or less RWA?

  8. As the court viewed it in the Ten Lakes case, there was a range of alternatives for the amount of snowmobile use. I don’t believe the court was presented with the question of whether “there must be a range of action alternatives for each RWA.”


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