Wilderness Watch: Wilderness represents a commitment to humility

Back in May, we discussed and debated the issue of chainsaws in designated Wilderness following the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to secretively approve “a policy to violate the Wilderness Act by allowing chainsaws to clear obstructed trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan Wildernesses” in Colorado. That USFS decision was followed by a lawsuit from the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Wilderness Watch and Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and shortly after the lawsuit was filed the USFS rescinded their approval of chainsaws in Wilderness.

Over the weekend, Wilderness Watch’s George Nickas penned the following oped in the Durango Herald.

Wilderness represents a commitment to humility
By George Nickas, Wilderness Watch

Bill Worf, the Forest Service’s first wilderness program leader and Wilderness Watch’s founder, liked to tell the story of when, shortly after the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, engineers at the Forest Service Development and Technology Center expressed interest in developing a “silent” chainsaw.

Their rationale was that if the newly passed wilderness bill prohibited noisy machines, a really well muffled chainsaw would pass muster since only the operator would hear it.

Bill told them not to bother – the Wilderness Act didn’t ban motorized equipment simply because it made noise, but rather because it represented a level of technology that was not in keeping with the ideals of the Wilderness Act.

Bill would have known. He served on the Forest Service task force that wrote the regulations and policies for implementing the Wilderness Act. Prior to that, as forest supervisor overseeing the Bridger Wilderness in northwest Wyoming, he had the opportunity to lead wilderness bill author and chief lobbyist Howard Zahniser on a trip into the Bridger.

Bill credited his time with Zahniser with helping him to understand that wilderness isn’t merely an undeveloped recreation area, but a place we accept on its own terms – a commitment to humility and restraint. This means using only the lightest touch when allowing for the public uses (recreation, science, education, etc.) wilderness provides.

Congress prohibited chainsaws because motorized tools are the antithesis of restraint – they allow humans to transform the landscape quickly and easily to meet our ends rather than transforming our own attitudes and desires to accommodate the landscape.

Chainsaws embody the attitude that our convenience, impatience and demands come first, that no place is beyond the reach of our attempts to dominate and control.

Authorizing chainsaws to clear trails, as the Forest Service regional forester for Colorado and Wyoming recently did, for the South San Juan and Weminuche wildernesses, strikes a blow to this foundational tenet of the Wilderness Act.

That’s why Wilderness Watch and our allies challenged his decision in court.

But there’s another reason the decision to allow chainsaw use should concern all who care about Wilderness.

The regional forester’s rationale – not enough trail crews to clear trails the traditional way – was essentially an admission that the Forest Service has failed to maintain an adequately staffed wilderness program. At a moment’s notice, the agency routinely assembles hundreds of firefighters, planes and heavy equipment to attack even a small wildfire, but from its nearly 30,000-plus employees and $5 billion budget, it can’t pull together a handful of trained trail crews to help clear the trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan wildernesses.

Why is that?

About two decades ago, the Forest Service effectively abandoned its wilderness program and outsourced the job to volunteers.

It began by diverting wilderness funds to pay the salaries of desk-bound bureaucrats, putting “wilderness” in their job descriptions to make the transfer seem legit. But the main effort was on creating “partnerships” with volunteer groups to mask that the wilderness program was being gutted.

So today, while many wildernesses have volunteer “friends” groups trying to keep trails open or plug holes elsewhere, the agency’s program of a professionally trained and skilled field-going wilderness force has – to borrow a phrase from Bob Marshall – faded like a south-facing snowbank under a June sun.

The real lesson from the proposed chainsaw assault on the wilderness isn’t that the Forest Service is ignoring the Wilderness Act – that’s hardly news at all.

The most important takeaway is that Forest Service leadership has so decimated the agency’s wilderness program that using chainsaws to clear trails is even being discussed.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national conservation organization dedicated to protecting the lands and waters in the National Wilderness Preservation System, headquartered in Missoula, Montana.

11 thoughts on “Wilderness Watch: Wilderness represents a commitment to humility”

  1. This is a good point. This maintenance problem is not unique to Wilderness areas either. The offroading community has ran into the same issue with four-wheel-drive roads in the National Forest. The Forest Service rarely has the money or personnel available to perform even basic maintenance on ML2 roads. Moreover, Forest Service rangers rarely ever patrol these roads, which makes enforcement of off-trail issues extremely difficult, while the fact that local ranger district offices are closed on weekends when most people are in the mountains makes it impossible to reach anyone to report problems or illegal activity.

    Faced with the choice of either maintaining 4WD roads ourselves or seeing them closed, 4WD clubs have stepped up to adopt trails and take over most maintenance tasks, from installing kiosks to blocking off unauthorized routes to repairing washouts or clearing avalanche debris. The latest trend in travel management is re-designating Forest Service roads as motorized trails, which makes them eligible for maintenance grants from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife OHV fund. Clubs can then apply for grants from that fund and use the money to perform maintenance the Forest Service historically was responsible for.

    I think it’s pretty clear the Forest Service isn’t doing near enough to manage recreation on every type of trail, motorized and non-motorized, wilderness or not. How did things get this way, and what can be done about it?

  2. As a longtime Forest Service employee, it was pretty much of a joke when we heard of the attempt to develop a “silent” chainsaw, pretty much of a contradiction in terms. During the 70’s – 80’s when we were still “allowed” to go into wilderness and do trail work, we very much looked forward to using axes and hand saws to clear trails, considered it a worthwhile task entering what we considered “sacred” ground. Don’t know if anybody working in FS today still understands that.
    Where “About two decades ago, the Forest Service effectively abandoned its wilderness program and outsourced the job to volunteers.” is basically true, the issue is more complex. One of the reasons for “diverting wilderness funds ” can be directly linked to an onslaught Forest Service wide of having to defend against lawsuits challenging most proposed activities that had environmental impacts outside of wilderness areas.

  3. In regard to Tom Wenk’s interesting post, I suppose that is exactly what the FS higher ups told the agency people: it is the damn lawsuits why your budget is being cut. That begs the question as to why some whistleblower or conservation group in the know didn’t take the agency to task for alleged misuse of funds—robbing wilderness funds to pay for timber sale lawsuits. I think the answer is the FS’s budget is so inscrutable, nobody except possibly those at the very top, know how money is shunted around, hidden, etc. GAO criticized the FS a couple of decades ago for its complete lack of transparency in accounting. Little has changed.

  4. Gary Macfarlane’s point is well-taken. One of the fundamental problems is the lack of Congressional oversight. Without it, the FS won’t give Wilderness it’s due. In the late 1980s Congress (thanks to Rep. Bruce Vento and his wilderness ranger-fellow) did perk up and asked GAO to look into how the FS spent the funds Congress allocated to it for wilderness management. Rather than try to describe what GAO found, I’ll paste below the intro to that report. It helps explain why many of us don’t think giving the FS more money will solve anything. Unfortunately, shortly after this short burst of Congressional interest, Congress has turned a blind-eye.

    GAO/RCED-92-33 Wilderness Management. November 1991

    “To help ensure that Forest Service wilderness areas are protected and allowed to maintain their natural conditions, congressional funding for wilderness management increased by almost 80 percent from fiscal years 1988 through 1991. However, of the $44.7 million designated by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for wilderness management in fiscal years 1988 through 1990, $16.4 million, or 37 percent, was reprogrammed to other activities. This reprogramming left $28.3 million to be spent on wilderness management. Affected by the reprogrammings, expenditures for wilderness management that had increased from $8.5 million in fiscal year 1988 to $10.2 million in fiscal year 1989 decreased to $9.6 million in fiscal year 1990.

    Of the $28.3 million spent on wilderness management, $10.5 million was used for wilderness management expenses-primarily salaries and administrative costs-at organizational levels above the district offices. The remaining $17.8 million was spent on wilderness management at the district level. In this regard, the Forest Service reported that 112 of the over 500 district offices that managed at least a portion of wilderness areas experienced reductions in funding for wilderness management in fiscal year 1990, including some that had earlier identified funding and staffing shortfalls.

    The Forest Service reprogrammed these wilderness funds without complying with House Committee on Appropriations procedures, which require prior approval by the Committee. Such approval was not sought by the Forest Service. Contrary to Committee procedures, the Forest Service’s internal guidance to the agency’s budget managers did not require that the Committee’s approval be sought prior to reprogrammings, as long as specified output targets were not reduced for the program or activity from which the funds were reprogrammed.” However, the Forest Service has not established measurable output targets for wilderness management.

    The Chief of the Forest Service has, over the past several months, described a number of steps to be taken to ensure that (1) designated funds are spent as intended by the Congress, (2) the Committee’s reprogramming procedures are followed, and (3) there is greater accountability over funds designated for wilderness management. The Chief has indicated that the Forest Service’s Program Development and Budgeting Handbook, which serves as guidance to field offices, would be revised accordingly, although this had not been done as of September 6, 1991, Refining its accounting for expenditures and establishing output targets are additional steps the Forest Service should take to improve accountability over expenditures of wilderness management funds and the performance of wilderness managers.”

  5. As a long time user of the trails, I don’t fully agree with Mr. Nickas or Mr. Wenk. I also did work for the USFS for many years as well as a number of decades since as a volunteer. With the loss of revenue within the USFS from the fall of the timber industry, the USFS could no longer float the types of crews they once could. Many routine summer crews that did brush disposal, fire, and reforestation would also help with trail maintenance. The USFS lost these crews, and has had to deal with competitive grants for limited summer crews as well as volunteers. It is easy to say that Congress should infill the loss to boost crews, but discretionary funding has to compete with many other social needs. We advocates do our best to push for boosted revenue, but this effort produces modest results. Even the Recreational Trails Program funding which is a key grant maintenance fund is in the same gas consumption stream that LWCF is and even the newly hoped for fund through the Restorer Our Parks and Public Lands Act (which we hope to amend to include the USFS). These are all reliant on oil and gas revenue streams.

    The fact is too that many trees and infrastructure projects are difficult to deal with using just hand saws. The Wilderness Act does allow mechanized/motorized tool use as an administrative activity when necessary. It is better than blasting every large tree that is in the Wilderness (blasting is allowed since it is non-motorized). My stock group (Back Country Horsemen) do provide crosscut training and crosscut use, and we consider it a regular tool. I am certified myself. But cutting trees on steep side-slopes presents some serious safety risks to crosscut crews, particularly with 2-person saws and oddly placed wedges. Also because so many Wilderness trails go uncleared, there are now many rerouted social trails around the obstacles. Is that good for Wilderness? While I realize that hikers can step over logs, stock can not. I do realize that some don’t care, or if you reflect on ideal Wilderness policy from an office, you can debate what is going on from a safe distance.

    The USFS has been trying to find ways to manage their trails with limited funding. That is essential since the only other choice is not an impossible return to large well funded crews but rather the pragmatic solution – system trail closures. I realize that this may be the goal of some. As a recreational user, volunteer, and advocate, it is not my goal. I would like to see a more willing use of prescriptive chainsaw authorization in a window of time that have a minimum of wildlife disturbance to clear trails, and I certainly see this as supported by the Wilderness Act. This has done in the NPS for decades with virtually no impact on Wilderness users and wildlife. This allowance clearly gives ideology advocates and academics heartburn, though I question their skill at speaking for all of the authors and legislators who put effort into the Wilderness Act. I suspect there were likely many ideas and intents. Howard Zahniser though, did support stock use, and that means open trails. I’d like to see that happen. The Wilderness experience is not experienced in an office, in a report, or in a courtroom.

    • Jeff: Regarding your point “I would like to see a more willing use of prescriptive chainsaw authorization in a window of time that have a minimum of wildlife disturbance to clear trails.”

      In this specific case, which resulted in the lawsuit, the U.S. Forest Service approved motorized chainsaw use for the ENTIRE trail system within the ENTIRE South San Juan and Weminuche Wilderness areas. This decision was made with zero public input. I raised this exact point on this blog back in late May 2019. What the Regional Forester did in Colorado was indeed potentially precedent-setting and hardly seems like the type of “prescriptive chainsaw authorization” you mentioned.

  6. I remember once we had a small salvage sale of some blowdown and we used silent logging. This was so we could get a waiver and log during the spring when logging noise was prohibited for various reasons. The logger muffled his machine through some 55 gallon drums of water I believe.
    I think he also had a hydraulic chainsaw. It worked pretty well. This was the one and only time we were allowed to try this. Salvage logging pretty much disappeared. (Except after some of the catastrophic fires.)
    There was also a time when a new ” Wilderness” was created that had roads in it. They were going to have to decommission these roads by hand, but common sense prevailed and they received a waiver to use machines.

    The FS is pulled in so many directions, has to answer to every environmental groups concern, study alternatives for any planned action, that it is no wonder that there so much work that never gets done in the woods.
    (And no wonder why they like fires. It is pretty much like a blank check with no studies necessary. But it sure has made a mess of our forests here in Southern Oregon.)

  7. Electric chainsaws are now very quiet and have the advantage of being lighter than a motorized chainsaw. There is still the sound of the chain cutting, but there is no revving or idling of the engine.

    • Agreed – electric chainsaws are very quiet, and even using crosscut saws makes some noise. But might an electric motor on a chainsaw help make a case for motorized bicycles in wilderness? They’re quiet, too.

  8. Wilderness maintenance costs should only be paid with money generated from fur trading, gold panning, and other pioneer enterprises. If that can’t cover costs, bring on more effective and efficient maintenance methods.

  9. Ironically I was backpacking in a wilderness study area (Pioneers) this week and missed the post until now. Some good thoughts on wilderness and trails although I am only responding to the original opinion piece from a policy and a visitor (heavy wilderness user) standpoint.

    I agree with George Nickas that wilderness is “commitment to humility” and his critique of the Forest Service leaving its wilderness management work to volunteers. However, opposing chainsaws in wilderness to clear trails and—for that matter—much of Wilderness Watch emphasis is based on a wrong policy interpretation of the Wilderness Act that misses the purpose of Wilderness. Let’s look at the 1964 Act policy statement in its entirety:
    “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as “wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.”

    Wilderness exist for the purpose of public use and enjoyment. Perhaps wilderness should be preserved for its own sake but that is not the purpose of the Wilderness Act. Even the management requirement to leave wilderness unimpaired is for “future use and enjoyment.”

    Now, why is the Forest Service proposing to use chainsaws in the Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness? Nickas doesn’t say but I imagine trails are blocked by deadfall. So the Forest Service wants to restore public access to wilderness. By the way, only the Forest Service rigorously restricts chainsaw use in wilderness; Park Service does not always. This is not law but an agency policy or at best interpretation of law.

    With climate change increasing forest health issues and expanding fire size, fewer trails in wilderness are accessible to the public. That channels more people onto fewer trails in already heavily used areas, creating more “trammeling” of wilderness. Here are examples:

    Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, Virginia—Beautiful canyon trail Jerry’s Run used to be green meadow now full of shrubs and down eastern hemlock thanks to exotic hemlock wooly adelgid. Perhaps Forest Service has fixed this now but last time I talked to recreation staff, they could not get certified sawyer to clear trail.

    Mazatzal Wilderness, Arizona—Has fairly well-cleared Arizona Trail (by volunteers) on the crest but venture west into large network of rangeland trails no longer maintained by permittees and never restored after 2004 Willow Fire—and you battle miles of desert vegetation, dense woodland regrowth or down trees if you want to visit the state’s largest national forest wilderness.

    Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho—We hiked a lightly used trail (in this heavily used wilderness) connecting popular Hell Roaring and Redfish Lakes that was a mess of down trees —until we left the wilderness near Redfish and found a lovely trail nicely cleared by chainsaw.

    Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho—Friends of mine were turned back on epic trip through central Idaho with llamas because deadfall on famous Middle Fork of Salmon trail was not cleared. This trail contours on steep granite slopes high above the river—it would be life threatening to try go around the logs; after several days of hand-sawing they gave up on hiking Middle Fork.

    Wilderness Act restrictions are not about banning technology for the sake of banning technology. If so GPS, lightweight backpacking gear, satellite phones, etc. should also be banned. Furthermore—the Wilderness Act allows exemptions for existing uses that includes technologies. In the “Frank”, for instance, fly-in airstrips and lodge in-holdings with hydro-electric power dams were included in its enabling wilderness legislation. In some western wilderness areas, range permittees are allowed to improve water developments with a bulldozer! Many “wilderness” roads are routinely exempted or cherry-stemmed.

    Many legacy trails in premier wilderness areas like Zion, Sawtooth, Frank Church were built using dynamite, chainsaws and any other available technology.It seems that in an era where trails will not be cleared and public access lost in many log-jammed areas, that specific exemptions of chainsaws is actually in keeping with Congressional precedent. Good constructed, well maintained trails are probably the “lightest touch” possible for wilderness management. The alternative seems highly eroded overused trails, new game or “social trails” around down trees, spaghetti paths through boggy areas and/or trampled mud around broken/unrepaired bog bridges—a huge problem for dozens of national forest wilderness areas that I’ve visited in last decade since Forest Service stopped supporting routine trail crews.

    Nickas rightly notes that the Forest Service (and other wildland fire agencies) can pull together a firefighting force at a moment’s notice—but the agency’s fire focus is driven by politics and money. Hear the local Congressmen, ranchers and small communities start screaming if the feds don’t come to the rescue when wildfire threatens.

    Yes, it’s sad that the agency that launched the career of Aldo Leopold, named the first wilderness (Gila) and founded much of the philosophy in the Wilderness Act has so little commitment to wilderness today (except for some very zealous folks at the field level). But I would like to see the Non-Governmental Organization’s wilderness zeal going into creative solutions to disperse visitor use throughout our vast wilderness system and perhaps even pursue a new entity dedicated to wilderness management, rather than fighting the Forest Service in court and tying up what little effort is out there to keep wilderness available for public use and enjoyment.


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