Chainsaws in Wilderness on the San Juan- The Ferebee Letter and Two Questions

Many thanks to Anonymous for finding this informative piece on the issue in the Durango Herald. It did raise some questions in my mind, though, perhaps worthy of discussion here.

First, as I pointed out in a previous comment, there is too much snow to imagine that the FS would be doing this for a very long time period this summer. Here is the Ferebee letter:

As indicated in my May 31 letter, snowpack conditions in these two wilderness areas are highly unusual for this time of year, ranging from 500% to more than 700% of normal as of May 30. Reports by trail crews and scouts over the past week indicate that access into the backcountry to perform trail maintenance work will need to be delayed even further than initially forecasted. Avalanches have blocked many trails and those trails are unlikely to be accessible until late in the year. Given these unexpected and extraordinary conditions, it is unlikely that we could access our wilderness trails to begin work by July 8, and therefore it is also unlikely that we would realize any substantial benefit from the use of chainsaws to clear trail obstructions during the period authorized by my May 31 letter.

Avalanches and heavy snowpack have created changed conditions. We expect significant resource damage to have occurred, more so than what was anticipated from the time of my original and amended decisions, which now must be further addressed. Therefore, we will reassess the overall needs, considering these changed conditions, as related to wilderness and non-wilderness trail impacts. I am rescinding the approval to use chainsaws that was conveyed in my May 7 letter, as amended by my May 31 letter, until our assessed needs are completed.

It is expected that trail clearing with non-motorized equipment and trail reconnaissance will proceed to the extent feasible, with priority being given to safety, and reduction of the potential for resource damage and impairment of wilderness values. Some elements of my May 7 decision will proceed as planned. Specifically:

1. Identify and maintain a record of trail segments encountered during maintenance activities that meet the “jackstraw” standard of 40 or more downed or leaning trees per mile obstructing the trail route, particularly those that are not able to be cleared with non­ motorized equipment this year.
2. Study and report on the efficiency of using non-motorized saws to clear trails in the wilderness; and
3. Study and report on the efficiency of using chainsaws to clear trails outside of wilderness, and how those efficiencies would be affected by lack of proximity to motor vehicle travel routes that are typical in wilderness.

In addition, publicity surrounding this proposal has elicited interest from several new sources in providing volunteer and other labor to perform trail clearing with non-motorized equipment.
Both Forests should fully explore these offers to determine if they may in fact provide viable sources of skilled labor that would reduce the need to perform trail maintenance with chainsaws in the future.

My first question was surprise that there are people out there willing to volunteer to do trail maintenance, who have only offered since they heard about the possibility of chainsaws in Wilderness. It would be interesting to know who these folks are, so that forests might find out how they could be missing potential sources of volunteers.

Second is that the article in the Durango Herald quotes:

While the number of downed trees seems daunting, former trail crew members have told Pearson there is not much of an advantage to using chain saws because the heavy saws and gas must be packed into the wilderness to clear trails, Pearson said.

“It’s not really demonstrably needed to get the job done,” he said of using chain saws.

I have never cleared trails in Wilderness, but I have spoken to people who clear trails who think that they can get more done with chainsaws. I wonder why people disagree about this.. does anyone have any insights?

Here is a link to some people in Oregon who seem to disagree with Pearson on this.

9 thoughts on “Chainsaws in Wilderness on the San Juan- The Ferebee Letter and Two Questions”

  1. Hi Sharon,

    You previously stated that the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional forester, Brian Ferebee, was your former boss. Since that’s the case, couldn’t you contact Forester Ferebee to get an answer to your first question (RE: It would be interesting to know who these folks are who have volunteered to do motor-free trail work in designated Wilderness)?

    • Matthew, I don’t usually contact people directly, and work through public affairs. To that end, I could call San Juan public affairs and ask them for the names of these groups. Last time I called them, though, they said the topic (chainsaws in Wilderness) was being handled by the Region. The last time I asked for something from this office, I didn’t get it.

      Brian has had many employees in his career (including Jim Zornes who commented). If he answered every employee’s questions (including retired folks) he’d have no time to write or rescind letters, nor all the other tasks that RFs need to do.

  2. It seems to me the Ferebee letter is spot on; maybe a bit of hindsight, but certainly a changed condition as more eyes gain advantage to the amount of snowfall and avalanche damage.

    I returned from three weeks (a bit north of the San Juan) and have never seen the avalanche frequency to that extent. I have heard the 500% snowfall loads and it looks like a lot more than that. Trails I tried to reach were not accessible to the trailheads, due to impassable roads. I can only imagine what damage the resource has endured.

    Ferebee’s letter (he used to be my boss too) leads a path forward to truly analyze impacts and adjust accordingly…

    • I commented on the prior post before seeing this one, but this comment takes me back to my main point with the original post on the lawsuit – the Forest needs to “truly analyze impacts.” And this letter looks like they are trying to avoid saying “oops, we forgot to do that.” I don’t think the difference between these tools is newly discovered science (which is how the letter makes it sound).

  3. Which saw to use?
    I’ve done lots of saw work on trail crews and fire crews and my choice of saw depends on the situation. If I’m going to need to walk in very far I much prefer crosscut; a crosscut weighs a lot less than a chainsaw and my lunch weighs a lot less than a gas can. My lunch is the fuel for my cross-cut. Crosscuts always “start up” whereas chainsaws can be annoying and not always start when you need them.
    Crosscut is fine for bucking logs and clearing trails. If I’m going to be doing falling to build fireline or a new trail I prefer a chainsaw for speed and control.
    In Wilderness Areas I have only used crosscut and that’s the way it should be.
    BTW – I now lead volunteers on trail maintenance projects approx. 10 days each year.

  4. I keep running across the word “resource” in reading. I wonder what “resource” is being referred to. I read it in the second paragraph of the Ferebee letter, and later on in a comment. The only resource I can imagine in Wilderness is the wilderness aspect itself. While I support the use of resources in non wilderness settings, such as timber harvest, grazing etc, I look upon big W Wilderness differently. The “untrammeled by man” part would certainly include cutting a trail through jack strawed downed timber to the tune of 40 trees per mile. To my mind maintained marked trails and commercial outfitting operations have no place in designated Wilderness.

    There is an area NE of Steamboat Colorado that experienced an extreme wind event a decade or more ago. Half the trees are down all lying in one direction over a large area. The opening of the canopy allowed in the sun, grasses and low bushes grow, the deadfall provides safe places for elk and best of all outfitters with horses can’t go there. The area is still accessible, the only necessity is that one walk.

    If people riding horses want to clear a trail, let them have at it, but to facilitate commercial use of Wilderness, financed with FS dollars for contractors etc… leave it to return to nature, go around, or walk.

    • Som, those may be your preferences, but many Wildernesses do have marked trails, and do have outfitters. I have seen plenty of hikers outfitter-cleared trails. It seems to me that the relationship between outfitters and non-outfitters can be harmonious.Perhaps our argument is for a separate X-Treme Wilderness designation?

  5. Wilderness trails cleared on national forest

    After clearing hundreds of trees from wilderness trails this summer, the U.S. Forest Service is catching up on wilderness monitoring with help from local volunteers.

    Trail crews cleared fallen trees from all the trails in the Savage Run Wilderness and Encampment River Wilderness, including removing more than 800 trees from along the 16-mile Encampment River Trail. They also cleared most trails in the Platte River Wilderness and Huston Park Wilderness.

    “It was more work than they anticipated, and there were more trees that were down than we even thought,” Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said. “A lot of work was done this summer just cutting dead trees off of trails.”

    Volunteers from Common Outdoor Ground got the work started earlier this summer by conducting an assessment of the trails and noting areas with down trees, missing signs or other damage. Advance work on the part of volunteers allowed crews to better use their time.

    “That allowed the crews that came on board and worked with the Laramie Ranger District and the Brush Creek-Hayden District to go out and be really efficient with the work they did this summer,” Voos said.

    Wyoming Conservation Corps and American Conservation Experience contributed 7,680 hours of work. American Conservation Experience volunteers, based in Arizona, spend up to 12 months in the program, usually with an eye on a future career in land management.

    Volunteers with a group called Wilderness Outreach spent 960 hours working on the Douglas Creek Trail. The Ohio-based leadership-development organization enlists men from the Catholic Church to build trails.

    The trail work should continue next summer, depending on funding.

  6. Matthew, thanks for sharing. Those folks are doing tremendous work!

    I should point out, though, that those two Wyoming Wildernesses are 15K and 10K acres, while the Weminuche and the South San Juan Wildernesses are 500K (3/4 the size of Rhode Island, as the website says) and 159K. There are also issues of amount of blowdown, distances from sources of volunteers, ruggedness and so on that we don’t know enough to compare but we can imagine that there would be practical reasons that it would be more difficult to get trails cleared in the San Juans.


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