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.