Wilderness Trails and Trammeling: Cindy Chojnacky

This is a photo I found of a Weminuche trail. but this is rather minimal deadfall compared to what I’ve observed. Other photos invited.

I thought I’d repost Cindy Chojnacky’s comment as I think she made a number of points that added to the original topic here. I would only add that I have also noticed, specifically in the Weminuche Wilderness which was the topic of our early discussions, the phenomenon she describes of “”social trails” around down trees, spaghetti paths through boggy areas and/or trampled mud around broken/unrepaired bog bridges” in areas blocked by deadfall.

Here’s what she wrote:
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.

14 thoughts on “Wilderness Trails and Trammeling: Cindy Chojnacky”

  1. Environmental groups are never going to work on finding solutions to disperse visitor use in wilderness areas because their goal is to eliminate public access to these areas entirely. Letting trails deteriorate and become impassable due to lack of maintenance driving increased visitor concentration and resource damage on popular trails are both things that help their cause, as they perpetuate a downward ratchet of increased restrictions and decreased access.

    We’ve seen their endgame in wilderness areas in Oregon with many hiking trails subject to restrictive permit systems allowing only a dozen people a day. Exclusionary ideology supplanted the original goals of the Wilderness Act a long time ago and these are the results.

  2. Patrick, I don’t think that all environmental groups can be tarred with the same philosophical brush.
    Still, I think Cindy has a good idea to “pursue a new entity dedicated to wilderness management.”
    I’d sign up!

    • True. Perhaps I spoke a little too broadly. I think many of them have this philosophy though, particularly the major ones. I have yet to see groups like the Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, etc. do anything except attempt to decrease public access to wilderness areas and public lands in general.

      • No, you were right. I recognize this mentality because I share it myself. I can’t stand the giant SUVs and jacked-up pickup trucks that swagger down our roadways. I always want the price of gasoline to rise to $6/gallon to get them off the road or at least signal to their owners that they are idiots. I’m sure it’s the same mentality among the Wilderness fundamentalists: humans are an infestation and the fewer of them in our sacred cathedrals the better.

        As for Great Old Broads for Wilderness, was there ever a more embarrassing name for an organization? (Well, maybe Riverkeeper or Earthjustice.) And how many of GOBFW members are there? I’d bet a few dozen at the most. I bet it’s a Potemkin village. I wonder who funds it.

    • Um, no, but thanks for thinking of me, anonymously, of course.

      P.S. I was actually the moderator who approved Cindy’s comment, and I thank her for participating in this blog.

  3. Can’t stop laughing. I’m with Greg on this one, chainsaws, mountain bikes, bulldozers, heck build a six lane interstate with numbered exit ramps so y’all don’t get lost.

    The word “management” and “wilderness” are two words that just don’t fit together. I want to point people to the first part of a quote up above.

    “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,

    Sorry for the caps, don’t know how to bold. Trails themselves are a modification. If trails develop from people walking, so be it, but organisations setting about cutting trees, signage, bridges, and digging into hillsides I can’t see. Just walk. Because there is no trail is not a restriction. Get a compass and a map if you can’t figure it out otherwise.

    Wilderness requires no funding, no management, nothing at all except to just be let be. Leave it alone. There’s enough acreage in the vast BLM and National Forests to fight over bike trails, ski lifts and open pit mines. Leave the wilderness to people who like being in Wilderness, and so future generations have places that aren’t criss crossed with humanity for people to enjoy in the place in it’s natural state.

    • Som.. that may be true in many places. In other places, overuse is causing resource issues. I remember our wilderness management folks making sure hikers and outfitters are following the rules and getting involved in issuing permits. I even remember one head-splitting discussion about a large group that wanted to go on a trail through Wilderness and the 25 heartbeat rule (how far apart would they have to be to count as a different group for that rule? Would the impacts on wildlife/the wilderness experience be less with more space between them but taking the group longer to get across? Should the group be broken down in size, or not allowed to go through Wilderness?).

      Here’s a few quotes from an R-2 Wilderness Guide.
      “Page 2 –There is pressure for greater emphasis on recreation management to accommodate increasing recreation use.
      Traditionally, the Forest Service has not limited recreation use in wilderness, nor has it always considered the consequences of dispersing recreation use into less-used areas of the wilderness.
      Page 5 – Wilderness uses range from:
      (1) wilderness-dependent uses (e.g. some spectacular long distance trekking or boating and primitive camping opportunities in areas of remarkable solitude; scientific observation; vicarious participation; some fishing and hunting in pristine environments; and spiritual rejuvenation) to
      (2) wilderness-associated uses (e.g. short hiking, picnicking, and camping opportunities; fishing; hunting; and observation of nature and scenery) to
      (3) wilderness-independent uses (e.g. mining, grazing of livestock, competitive events, and fishing for stocked fish.)
      Page 6 – Whenever one or more uses conflict, activities (or projects) that depend the most on wilderness conditions, should be favored. Favoring wilderness-dependent activities might call for reducing or discouraging – rather than eliminating – certain forms of some activities.”

      Here’s a link to the minimum requirement decision guide.. https://www.fs.fed.us/r2/recreation/wilderness/training/2011-winter-meeting/wilderness-group-size/groupsize-guide-120810.pdf

      • Thank you Sharon for the reply and especially for the link. In reading (and re reading) the USFS guide for group size I came to realize I’m in a completely different place from the FS. They seem to be mainly interested in managing use by outfitters, where as I’ve always had a problem with people using Wilderness as a business. I’d guess outfitting is grandfathered in. Not sure what guided horseback trips run these days, I know hunting is over a thousand per day, probably twice that for quality, not a thing for the 99%.

        Where as the FS looks at modern Wilderness trails as access for recreation, I look at them a mutation of the traditional trails that have existed for thousands of years before there were horses in these hills let alone lamas. I’ve certainly found unmarked horse trails in my wanderings, they ascend hills at a grade comfortable for horses and small trees are drug to the side, large trees they walk around, and never a saw or ax mark to be found. Some with no marks from horses, maybe only used once a year if that.

        No one is denied access to Wilderness due to a lack of trails any more than other people are denied access to Wilderness due to a lack of hard surface roads. I’m not anti people, and would never want to see access limited, even due to overuse. Things grow back, garbage melts into the land, I can see it in places that were once heavily used and now never used due to road closures. Heavy use in one area allows small W wilderness characteristics in others.

    • I’m serious, as in the first version of the STC bill from Senator Lee, which was to allow both bikes and chainsaws.

  4. I think it is a good idea to maintain our trails on public lands, wilderness or otherwise. (And in some places the BLM and FS do a great job.) Of course I don’t have a problem with chainsaws either. I think it is a good opportunity for collaboration between volunteers and pubic agencies. What is so difficult about that?

  5. I think Cindy is right to point out that the purpose of the law includes “future use” by humans, which reasonably could mean they are accessible by trail. I think a key term is “unimpaired,” which could allow temporary activities that don’t result in longer term impairment – such as chainsaws. But the substantive provisions of the law are overriding: “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act … there shall be no use of … motorized equipment (except in emergencies). I would think that in some cases, using chainsaws to clear trails for public use could be the minimum necessary, but the Forest Service has to respect the process for making that determination (and determining “emergencies,” which is what I think it failed to do in the Colorado example we discussed here: https://forestpolicypub.com/2019/05/22/forest-service-challenged-on-allowing-chainsaws-in-wilderness/).

  6. Yes, a number of Forest Service Wilderness areas could fairly be called Wildermesses. If the Forest Service had any nimbleness it would repeal its silly and ancient no-chainsaws edict (what is it, 40 years old?) and make a start at reopening the Wilderness trails that have been lost because of its blunder of decades ago. That this situation exists in the Weminuche (see the photo in the lead post) is no surprise at all.


Leave a Comment