Forest Service Challenged on Allowing Chainsaws in Wilderness

Here’s a press release from the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Wilderness Watch and Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019

Denver, CO – A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today against the United States Forest Service for their secretive approval of a policy to violate the Wilderness Act by allowing chainsaws to clear obstructed trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan Wildernesses this summer. The groups are asking the court to overturn the Forest Service’s approval and direct the agency to comply with the Wilderness Act by inviting public participation and weighing lawful alternatives to allowing motorized equipment in the wildernesses.

The concept of wilderness as codified in the Wilderness Act is to restrain the impulse to use our industrial might, to allow wilderness to be left untrammeled by humans and dominated by natural processes. “Wilderness exists for it’s own sake. It represents a piece of primitive America free of motors and technology that have allowed humans to dominate so much of the planet. It is not the role of the Forest Service to alter wilderness to appease impatient managers or visitors,” says George Nickas of Wilderness Watch.

While there are exceptions for the use of motorized equipment in dire emergencies, such as search and rescue, inconvenienced trail users clearly does not rise to that level. Heavy deadfall can be a challenge, but 80% of trails in the San Juan National Forest are not in designated Wilderness and can be cleared with motorized equipment.

In fact, the Wilderness Act explicitly bans administrative waivers for ease or convenience of trail maintenance using chainsaws or other motorized equipment. The Forest Service’s Minimum Requirements Decision Guide helpfully spells out exactly that point: “Forest Service policy does not allow managers to base a decision to approve a generally prohibited use solely on a rationale that the method or tool is quicker, cheaper and easier (FSM 2320.6).”

The Forest Service has been effectively clearing wilderness trails for decades. “I know from my 30 years of experience using a crosscut saw to buck trees, some of them 28 inches in diameter, out on wilderness trails that the work can be done safely and efficiently with crosscut saws and axes. In 2005, a crew of 10 people in the Weminuche Wilderness cleared over 3,000 trees with hand tools. This authorization is unnecessary and sets a dangerous precedent for all Wilderness in the U.S.,” says Anne Dal Vera, retired Wilderness Ranger.

“More discouraging than the lack of commitment to following the plain language of the law, is the demonstrated dismissal of the fundamental purpose of wilderness – to show restraint and humility in the wildest parts of the Rockies,” says Mark Pearson of the regional environmental advocacy group, San Juan Citizens Alliance.

If allowed to proceed, this decision will set a disturbing precedent for using chainsaws or other motorized equipment in wilderness for convenience and without public input. If the Forest Service believes the challenge of clearing within wilderness areas is a pressing public concern, the agency should initiate an open and transparent public process to invite perspectives of all wilderness users.

“We need wild, untouched places where we can retreat from civilization and remember what we deeply value,” says Shelley Silbert of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national conservation organization. “Only 3% of land in the lower 48 states is protected as Wilderness. These special places allow us to take a step back and think about our human imprint. We stand ready to help the Forest Service in finding a better way.”

18 thoughts on “Forest Service Challenged on Allowing Chainsaws in Wilderness”

  1. This is such a common sense action it boggles my mind people are actually opposed to it. The Forest Service has a tough enough job to do maintaining these areas with very limited resources, without arbitrarily limiting the tools available to them because of some ideological objection to motorized technology. A prohibition on the use of motorized devices by the general public is one thing, but applying the same restrictions to Forest Service maintenance crews is just dumb.

    No idea whether this will hold up in court or not, but I’m glad the Forest Service is starting to push back on this idiotic rule.

    • “… objection to motorized technology.”

      As a sawyer who once cut several cords of firewood a year with a crosscut saw, in part because I couldn’t afford a chainsaw and in part because of was young, idealistic, and foolish, I support the use of chainsaws by maintenance crews in wilderness. However, it is a slippery slope. A few years ago, while enjoying a peaceful wilderness lake, the wilderness experience was interrupted by some backpackers who fired up a battery-powered reciprocating saw to cut camp-fire wood. Two violations in one, right? But if hikers see and hear USFS chainsaws, they may feel comfortable with bringing their own powered noisemakers.

  2. I have always had mixed feelings on this. If the argument is trammeling, a tree cut with a hand saw is just as trammeled as one cut with a chainsaw.

    Are the impacts of a trail crew camping out and clearing trees more or less invasive and impactful than a smaller crew in the area for a shorter period of time with chainsaws.

    In a world with unlimited funds for trail maintenance, cross cut saws would be preferable, but at some point unmaintained trails impair primitive recreation. 3000 trees sounds like a lot, but in burned areas with a lot of downfall I have personally cleared 200 trees In a day with a chainsaw.

  3. The South San Juan, which is huge, was down to one Wilderness ranger a few years ago. The place can’t be managed or maintained with the Forest Service’s creaking, unrealistic methods—regarding the latter, I know one trail is essentially abandoned and I bet a bunch of them are—and the ranger was talking, in desperation, about using drones or other aerial means to preserve a Forest Service presence in it.

    Against this practical problem, what we have is a theological reaction about “restraint and humility.” I wish Wilderness management could be run on conservation principles, not religious precepts.

    But the Forest Service made the bed it finds itself lying in when it strangely ordained, many years ago, that it would use only Paul Bunyan-style tools in Wilderness, even though the Wilderness Act allows for chainsaws, wheelbarrows, etc. As I understand it, the NPS and BLM do use modern tools to maintain their Wilderness areas. It’s only the Forest Service that limits itself in this bizarre fashion, when the Wilderness Act doesn’t require it to do so.

  4. I will also lend my voice to those favoring common sense and practicality in this day and age, over language from 1964. This is a good agency decision, well within the legal framework. Agencies interpret statute through regulation and policy, a bureaucratic reality that to me does not fit the narrow lliteral read of Wilderness Act, or any other laws for that matter. I respect line officers who will make a tough call when faced with budget constraints, safety concerns for employees and public, and the endless political push to add more wilderness acres.

    I get spiritual arguments, humility before nature, those are real and noble ideals. I just don’t think they should be the firm rule 100% of the time, and slippery slope is not a valid argument. In my experience the FS has a strong culture of overall respect for wilderness protection and integrity to its minimum tool decisions. Environmental groups play a valuable role in demanding transparency, as usual. But I do not think this lawsuit is worth anybody’s time and hope a judge will toss it on agency deference.

  5. It sounds like this would go away if BLM FS and NPS wilderness policies were harmonized if what Lourenço says is true. How hard would it be to change internal policies? So it does seem a bit theological, while I recognize Steve’s slippery slope argument. When theology (or ideas about things) meet things (chain saws, trail miles) there can easily be disagreements. If there is a rule for x number of heartbeats in a group, should there be a rule for how far apart groups have to be? Is it less Wildernessy, as Lance suggests, to have more crews with crosscut saws in for longer periods? In those Wildernesses I have often been woken by overflights by jets, so untrammeling is seemingly applied to some things, and not others.

  6. I have to say I’m surprised by some of the comments on this post. The Wilderness Act is a law, not a “theological” reaction. There are certain activities that are allowed, and some that are not. That is the way the Forests are managed.

    That being said, there are procedures for dealing with exceptions and some exceptions are needed. This press release is obviously one-sided and does not deal with what process was followed. But jumping to the conclusion that chainsaw use in wilderness should be automatically approved is too far for me. That Wilderness designation should mean /something/!

    • I think why people call it “theological” is that the law is based upon beliefs (I’m sure they all are) but the Wilderness Act in particular and as currently managed is full of questions that seem almost theological in the most abstruse meaning of the word. But perhaps it would be more correct to say “ideological”.

      For example, should whitebark pine seedlings that have been selected to be resistant be allowed? Or how many heartbeats separated by how much distance? And so on.

      Plus, in my experience, there can be a quasi- religious aspect to some Wilderness folks who have almost a priest-like aura of authority about what can be done or not done, beyond the Handbook. As if they are the guardians of a temple, but it looks like just another land designation to others. (Sorry if that sounds… er… heretical).

      • Yes, Sharon is quite right. The Wilderness Act itself, though containing some romantic language that in retrospect may not have been ecologically and/or anthropologically accurate, isn’t the problem. It’s the well-meaning but blinkered devotees that have barnacled themselves around the Act, quite often misinterpreting its language (as in the lawsuit we’re discussing here), along with problematic Forest Service management practices, The two phenomena have combined to produce many, many ironies.

        The overarching irony is that so much about Wilderness management misses the target on conservation. If conservation were the chief aim of Wilderness managers, as it ought to be, commercial packstock trains would be banned and even lone horseback outings would be strictly regulated, if not prohibited entirely. Visit the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming or the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington and you’ll encounter a mess.

        If there weren’t so much hypocrisy about these abusive travel modes, the people opposing mountain biking might have stronger arguments about aesthetics, although it would still be the case that the Wilderness Act, correctly understood, allows for human-powered travel even if mechanically assisted.

        • Lourenço, it would be interesting to start with what we know today and given the current amount of trammeling (overflights, climate change, etc.) determine through some sort of rational open process what are the most important things “not to do” and the rationale for that. We would have to deal with the nitty gritty of things (too many people, dog and horse (?) waste, noise pollution, cellphones) plus the likelihood of successful law enforcement with the current number of warm bodies to do it. If only so many horses, should outfitters be prioritized or not? There’s a great deal of complexity to all this. It would be interesting to regulate based on facts rather than ideas and court cases IMHO. I recognize that it is “the law” but laws leave room for interpretation.

  7. The FS didn’t limit itself by banning chainsaws and wheelbarrows, Congress—with overwhelming public support—limited what tools could be used in Wilderness. Motorized equipment (chainsaws) and mechanical transport (wheelbarrows) are prohibited by law unless they are “necessary” and the “minimum required” to preserve Wilderness. This exception was and should be expected to be rare. Clearing trails is hardly necessary to preserve wilderness. It’s not a policy choice, it’s the law.

    Many people, as is obvious from these posts, believe “Wilderness” is little more than a primitive recreation area, hence the rules shouldn’t apply to the FS when it is only trying to enhance recreation opportunities. But wilderness is much more than that. Call the underpinnings of the law “philosophical”—as if that is somehow a bad thing—, but the reasoning behind banning these tools in Wilderness is to promote a much more light-handed approach to administration. Let the Wilderness be, accept it on its own terms, and use only the lightest touch when allowing for the public uses (recreation, science, education, etc.) that Wilderness can provide. Limiting the tools that can be used helped to foster an ethic of restraint that respects and perpetuates this goal. In other words, the means are as important as the ends. To the contrary, allowing motor vehicles or motorized equipment perpetuates the attitude that prevails most everywhere else; our convenience, impatience and demands come first, yielding to natural processes and the whims of nature be damned. The Wilderness Act called for a different approach.

    That other agencies might be more liberal in their use of motorized equipment doesn’t mean the Forest Service should follow suit, in fact it’s the opposite (by the way, BLM doesn’t clear trails with chainsaws). Long past time the NPS show some respect and fidelity to the laws it’s supposed to implement.

    George Nickas
    Executive Director
    Wilderness Watch

  8. I am in agreement with Connor Flynn. The Wilderness Act presents a challenge to both the users and the maintainers. Users use primitive means for camping and hiking. Maintainers are also challenged in packing in bridge equipment or using cross-cut saws and learning the techniques of using them.
    When on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area I had a nice discussion with the Forest Supervisor about chainsaw to open up a blowdown area. His comment was if one uses a chainsaw to quickly cut the downfall, then why not use trailbikes to quickly access the area, and then why not use a helicopter to even quicker access. Good Supervisor.
    We did have an exception with an extremely large blowdown or avalanche debris and was permitted to use chainsaws after public notice, a specific time during the day, and a specific length of time.

    It seems like on the San Juan there was no public involvement or rationale as to the need for mechanized equipment. Use of such equipment used to be reserved for Regional Forester Approval. Still should be if this has changed as it helps keep decision in context with the real problem.

  9. It looks like they did receive RF approval. And this looks like the rationale.. note “six weeks” and “supervised”. Check out the photo.

    DENVER, CO., May 9, 2019 — Regional Office Officials announced today the approval for a time-limited exception for chainsaw use within the Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness areas. The exception will allow Rio Grande and San Juan National Forest employees, partners, and volunteers under Forest Service supervision to clear bark beetle-killed trees that are obstructing access to the wilderness. The approval does not provide free rein to use motorized equipment in wilderness areas.

    The supervised use of crosscut saws and chainsaws will be allowed for up to six weeks between June 1 and August 17. Trail work will be dependent on resource availability and weather conditions. Removing obstructions will enhance visitor safety, improve access and reduce resource damage that occurs when visitors bypass dead and downed or leaning trees, which can create social trails, trample vegetation and cause soil erosion.

  10. I will say, cross cut saws are quicker and safer both to learn and to use. If you’ve got a pair who knows what they’re doing, along with some Pulaskis, I’d rather clear trees with a cross cut.

    • Great point Eric. Back in the day, my wife was a USFS Wilderness Ranger in the Goat Rocks and William O Douglas Wilderness areas for two years, and before that was on the trail crew of the Wenatchee National Forest out of Naches, WA for a year. She has the same opinion as you about chainsaws. Also, for whatever it’s worth, she’s just 100 pounds, but was able to “pull her weight” with the cross-cut.

  11. I don’t see how constructed trails are compatible with Wilderness anyway. Let the deadfall lie where it may, people who know how to walk will walk around or through it. Maintained trails, marked on maps, with signage and bridges do a lot more to detract from my wilderness experience than a chain saw would. The purpose of Wilderness isn’t convenience of recreation or for outfitters to have an easy path to carry high paying clients.

  12. Dear George et al – I could support the use of cross-cut saws and non-mechanized methods when we had some wilderness and lots of non-wilderness alternatives. However, in my 30+ years on the Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon Wild drew and got designated much of the recreational lands on the forest as a means to prevent any timber cutting. That is a mighty big hammer to use. As a result, over 85% of the Forest within a day-use drive (2-3 hours) is now designated wilderness or closed to public entry (Bull Run Watershed). Hundreds of miles of trails, including the most popular trails and low elevation trails where brush grows so fast, it can obliterate sections of trail within 3-5 years, is now required to be maintained with hand tools. If this meant clearing some reasonable amount of blow down with cross-cuts – no problem! But it means trying to brush out heavily vegetated trails with loppers – one stem at a time – mile upon mile. Trust me when I say even the most dedicated wilderness volunteer is not up for weeks of brushing a few trail miles with hand tools! And we have had trails virtually closed due to hundreds of blown down trees – mostly larger than the 28″ diameter in the Colorado examples above! Yes, you can get an exemption after the expense of all the additional planning and the legal appeals that follow by Wilderness Watch, and other groups.

    I never understood how the NPS could brush out wilderness trails with brush saws but not the USFS under the same Wilderness Act! If your intent is to allow these trails to grow in or become unuseable due to brush and large logs (many impassable due to steep side slopes), then where should the large majority of users go for a day hike? There are few non-wilderness trails within a day user’s drive of the Portland-metro area. I support minimum tools within reason to achieve the objective. It cannot and should not be a one-size fits all. Where low elevation trails are being brushed in, I could support having 3 days every 3 years for each trail, to use brush saws or other mechanized tools to do necessary maintenance not reasonably achievable with trail crews, volunteers, weed whackers, handsaws and loppers. Ditto with large amounts of large blow down. You could advertise those days to avoid impacting those wishing not to hear a mechanized tool. Requiring considerable time in red tape planning and effort and cost in getting skilled cross-cut sawyers or large crews to brush hundreds of miles of wilderness trails is akin to letting the trail become obliterated and once again become wilderness, which I think is your objective. When you have lots of front-country non-wilderness recreation trails, that might be admirable. Otherwise please provide a realistic solution. I would at least hope the purists who advocate no mechanized trail maintenance are spending weeks and months helping maintain the affected trails in question – especially brushing – with loppers – one stem at a time – bring your ipod and earbuds!


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