UPDATE: Forest Service Rescinds Approval of Chainsaws in Wilderness

Here’s the latest press release from the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Wilderness Watch and Great Old Broads for Wilderness. It’s an update from the post on May 22, which can be viewed here.

Conservation Groups Applaud Forest Service Decision Rescinding Approval of Chainsaws in Wilderness

For Release: June 11, 2019

Denver, CO – Conservation organizations that filed a lawsuit against the United States Forest Service for their secretive approval to allow chainsaws in two southwestern Colorado Wilderness areas this summer are pleased that the agency has officially rescinded the ill-advised policy.

The Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized equipment except for in emergency situations. The groups argued that the inconvenience of obstructed trails did not qualify as an emergency and the policy would set a dangerous precedent, paving the way for future exemptions from the law. Current and former wilderness rangers for the agency spoke out against the policy, stating it was illegal and unnecessary. Heavily obstructed trails have been cleared using crosscut saws for more than 50 years.

“We’re pleased that in light of overwhelming public opposition the Regional Forester decided to withdraw his unlawful decision to use chainsaws in these Wildernesses,” stated George Nickas of Wilderness Watch. “We encourage the Forest Service to use its time between now and next year to develop a plan that comports with both the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act.”

The groups expect the Forest Service to re-evaluate how it can clear Wilderness trails in a manner that complies with the Wilderness Act and explore available volunteer and community resources to help them succeed.

“The Weminuche and South San Juan Wildernesses are wild and remote landscapes cherished by countless visitors and local residents. We urge the Forest Service to embrace management that elevates the defining wilderness character of these special places,” said Mark Pearson with San Juan Citizens Alliance.

19 thoughts on “UPDATE: Forest Service Rescinds Approval of Chainsaws in Wilderness”

  1. This news comes as a relief. We, the human infestation, shouldn’t enter Wilderness at all, but if some defilers do so anyway, they must enter Wilderness on its own terms, with humility and restraint, which means crawling over miles of deadfalls and falling off cliffs as the God of Wilderness wishes it.

    It is heartening to know that the impassable and disappeared trails in the South San Juan and the Weminuche will now be maintained by Wilderness Watch, Great Old Boards for Wilderness, and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. They will reverently use hand tools that have been consecrated in a Church of Wilderness service, to take place at dawn on the summer solstice. If they don’t succeed, so much the better. It will keep Wilderness, which has never been touched by humankind for 100,000 years, free of contamination by our unworthy species. Praise be!

    • Some of you boys who want to ride your bicycles in designated Wilderness areas (and open up Wilderness areas to other wheeled contraptions) sure can be clever, well, anonymously clever, I suppose.

      Fact is, plenty of longtime Wilderness Rangers support the safe and effective use of cross-cut saws and other non-motorized trail maintenance tools in Wilderness. Seems like the USFS had no problem effectively maintaining trails in such a manner for decades.

    • But back to the original idea that previous efforts have been approved for specific trails, is this press release accurate? It gives the impression that the act of using chainsaws in Wilderness is unique, not the idea that specific trails have been approved in other places. I guess the point of a press release is to tout the wonderfulness of the group releasing it, so strictly speaking accuracy is not necessary.

      • Sharon, it’s hard to know, but it seems a stretch to try to differentiate maintaining specifically named trails in a Wilderness with chainsaws from maintaining any trails that need the maintenance, without the needless extra step of listing them.

        The Forest Service has brought this mess on itself. The Wilderness Act lets it maintain trails with chainsaws anyway. Someone at the Washington, D.C., headquarters messed up badly many years ago with the self-inflicted chainsaw ban, the agency seems too clogged in its bureaucratic molasses to rescind the blunder.

        Thanks again for maintaining this forum. It provides excellent information and discussions.

  2. Matthew, you must not get out on Forest Service Wilderness trails very often. Some are, miraculously, well maintained. Others, many of them in my experience, have disappeared or are in a horrible state of disrepair. Why do you think the Forest Service wants to maintain the integrity of Weminuche and South San Juan trails with chainsaws? Because it knows methods dating back to the time of Washington Irving are inadequate. But, dream on!

    • Q: Why do you think the Forest Service wants to maintain the integrity of Weminuche and South San Juan trails with chainsaws?

      A: Because the USFS was very likely heavily pressured by impatient commercial outfitters, guides and horse packers.

      Also, I do get out on USFS Wilderness trails from time to time. However, my love and support of Wilderness is in no way shape or form defined by any personal recreational pursuits I may, or may not, enjoy.

      • Matthew, I tend to get my SW Colorado Wildernesses mixed up but the ones I have been in have been maintained by commercial folks who want to get in, because the FS does not have the bucks or person power to do it. And many other recreationists benefit from their work (like everyone who uses the trail).

        When trails are blocked, recreationists tend to go around them and make user-created detours, causing unnecessary (?) erosion, trampling, etc. Those are negative environmental effects, plus there can be safety hazards to the recreationists hopping around deadfall that may collapse. Maybe the best thing for the environment would be to not allow people in at all, but then the constituency for Wilderness might be reduced.

        • Hi Sharon,

          For whatever it’s worth I fully support Congress funding the U.S. Forest Service at much more appropriate levels to tackle the $300+ million trail maintenance backlog on national forests and grasslands.

          I also fully support Congress funding the U.S. Forest Service to address what at one point was a $8.4 billion and growing road maintenance backlog. In previous decades Congress only gave the USFS about 20% of the annual maintenance funding it needs to maintain the existing 380,000+ mile road system to environmental and safety standards.

          I should point out that when it comes to America’s “two party” political system, one party has systematically been more willing to defund the USFS than the other. I also believe that one party has been more willing to enter into public-private “partnerships” to try and off-set the lack of funding given by Congressional appropriators. This certainly has the potential to create a slippery slope where “commercial folks [“interests]” end up with more control of things like public lands, public schools, etc.

  3. It looks like Matthew and I agree on at least one thing: the commercial pack outfitting industry is the bane of Wilderness. I’d consider trading my desire for legalized mountain biking access in exchange for a ban on the outfitters’ despoiling of Wilderness areas.

    I don’t know how much commercial pack outfitting takes place in the South San Juan and the Weminuche. Someone should ask the Forest Service what’s motivating it to exercise common sense in trying to maintain those two Wildernesses. I’d be curious to know myself.

    • Or the Forest Service letter rescinding the decision is a snow job. Agency face-saving is an important management skill. Also money-saving. The snow-as-excuse might show up in the follow-up negotiations over whether plaintiffs should get attorney fees because they prevailed in the case.

      • Does anyone know when the decision to use chainsaws was made in relation to the “emergency” conditions that paved the way for such a decision? Media coverage tells me the decision was made long after tons of snow was already on the ground. How does one assess the condition and needed maintenance of trails when they are completely buried in snow?

  4. What’s the snag with people power? I’m all for benevolent neglect, but occasionally it’s just neglect. Is it lack of manpower, lack of funds to pay for it? Why be tempted to use chainsaws at all? Seems like there are plenty of landscapers and construction workers in the world. And each has an off season where a little extra work is always good. I’m guessing I”m not the only one to wonder this though.

    • Angelica, I think if you had the money, you might be able to find the people. And some people might not want to do that kind of work (away from home, tough) or if they want to might want to get paid OT and hazard pay and take up firefighting. But without the $ we will never know.

  5. Does anyone know when the decision to use chainsaws was made in relation to the “emergency” conditions that paved the way for such a decision? Media coverage tells me the decision was made long after tons of snow was already on the ground. How does one assess the condition and needed maintenance of trails when they are completely buried in snow?

  6. As the one trail crew person cited in the article says – who wants to haul chain saws and gas into the Wilderness to do the work? Clearly someone wasn’t asking enough questions here and being thoughtful before making a “decision” to allow chain saws in the wilderness.

    Wilderness regulations/standards in the Forest Service are quite a mish-mash and not consistent. My favorite is that the FS allows Fish & Game departments to stock wilderness lakes with non-native fish. These fish put native amphibian populations in a decline.

  7. https://durangoherald.com/articles/282197-victory-over-chain-saw-use-is-sweet

    Victory over chain saw use is sweet

    As a former ranger in the Weminuche Wilderness for San Juan National Forest, I was ecstatic to learn of the agency rescinding the approval to use chain saws in the wilderness area to clear trails.

    I applaud the organizations, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Wilderness Watch, and the San Juan Citizens Alliance for their quick action to bring this matter to the attention of the public. Now, more than ever, the public needs to get involved and speak up in matters of our public lands.

    As the remaining wild country shrinks in our nation, we must remember Aldo Leopold’s view that we belong to a community on this Earth, and in consequence, we owe a duty.

    Working as a wilderness ranger, I became intimate with the traditional cross cut saw to clear trees and found beauty, efficiency, and satisfaction in this tool. I personally feel that the demands of forest management cannot be met with current staffing cuts and budget decreases over the years. We must rethink, collaborate and be patient to mitigate the issues the San Juan National Forest is facing presently and for the future.

    Yet we must still maintain the high standards of the Wilderness Act that makes the Weminuche Wilderness unique. We must remember, as Edward Abbey states, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”

    Crystal Muzik

  8. The simple fact is that there are hundreds of miles of trails that are just disappearing due to lack of maintenance. The volunteers in our area are mostly older and not in any condition to hand saw timber. If there are going to be designated trails in a wilderness, there has to be a way to keep them up and power tools will enable existing volunteers to do it. The other option is since it is a wilderness, just let it be and people can just navigate through it the way pioneers did. I wonder how many of the people who opposed the chainsaws actually work trail maintenance.


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