Forest Service denies pleas to chainsaw logjams in Pasayten Wilderness

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Backlogs of maintenance and routes littered with massive numbers of toppled trees have dramatically decreased trails available for exploring the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington.

Some horsemen say equally impenetrable barriers of bureaucracy are keeping the U.S. Forest Service from addressing the need for emergency use of chainsaws.

They say a one- or two-season blitz with restricted tools would help wilderness managers catch up to the ravages of wildfires.

Trails aren’t just becoming inaccessible, the horsemen say. They’re being lost, maybe forever.

28 thoughts on “Forest Service denies pleas to chainsaw logjams in Pasayten Wilderness”

  1. I hate to say it, but these are WILDERNESS areas. You cannot expect all of the “amenities” that you might find outside of a wilderness area.

  2. This is somewhat similar to the case for repairing the road into the Glacier Peak Wilderness area in Washington.

    ‘Public lands are everyone’s lands, and everyone deserves a voice in their management’ is one position, that usually accompanies lawsuits. Those same lawsuits then cause changes that make public lands, particularly wilderness, accessible only to those with the means and ways (free time/vacation time, money). So it becomes ‘Wilderness for who?’.

    It’s hard to make people care about wilderness and wild places when they can’t get to them. When trails are not maintained, they are lost, and it is forever (unless a truly committed person or group goes out on their own, damn the USFS).

    • Hear hear! Pre WWII and acknowledging CCC projects to build road access to forests, USFS land was primarily accessed by well maintained trails. Hand saws, axes, horse power for transportation of people and supplies. Seasonally staffed and maintained fire lookouts, fires spotted and men rode or walked to put out one tree and small fires.

      Today, Wilderness has become the blow torch to threaten, and all too often, destroy private lands. Fire victims and the plaintiff’s bar have paved a trail to a surefire money pit: electric power monopolies. The sovereign can do what it wants with no punishment or road to responsibility dictated by a polarized congress with a clear tyrannical urban majority. Victims can suck up some vote buying nominal FEMA and EPA assistance to remove “hazardous” materials before the private property owner can access his or her own land. At the point of a gun. Locked gates. Closed roads while litigation rots trees that will fall onto roads and rights of way. The idiot public and courts have yet to understand that even no leaves or no needles burnt trees still lean to sunlight, once in the easement or right of way, road. That is where the tree leans to seek sunlight, the side with the most limb weight.

      Trails are expensive to maintain. The purist Wilderness designation precludes non animal powered tools. So you have foot or equine access to the work site. Time. Then hand saws and axes. Those need skill to operate and skill to sharpen. Then a place to rest, eat, and then the trek to the trailhead; wash, rinse and repeat. The issue of trail maintenance should be paid for from fire funds. My reasoning is maintained trails make for more fires to be extinguished surely and sooner, and much easier ingress and egress for fire teams of two or more persons.

      Fighting wilderness fire using helicopter rappelling fire fighters, or smoke jumpers where possible, is expensive. So are closed highways, or traffic impeded transportation infrastructure which is idle capital and manpower multiplied thousands of times. Well maintained trails lessen risk and increase reward. Maybe it is time to have a specially trained Wilderness fire fighting effort. Actuaries can do the accounting, economics, of damage NOT TO FEDERAL FORESTS BUT TO PRIVATE ASSETS THAT PAY TAXES TO SUPPORT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.

      You can provide a lot of Wilderness fire fighting for the billions of losses of private assets and uninsured property. Then add the now increasing consumer costs if the public utility overseers allow the electric monopolies to pass on liability damages and punitive damages gained from juries and judges. In Oregon, 70% of any punitive damage awards are immediately garnished by the State of Oregon. No idea of when plaintiff’s bar gets paid, before the State absconding with the money or after. No matter, the million dollar award for punitive damages is less than $300,000 for the victim. You can buy a lot of trail maintenance with the dough lawyers are making from federal origin woodland fire burning private land and assets, and killing folks.

      I would hope that someone with a better understanding of why trails are of so little importance to federal land managers, the fops in D.C. and at the Chief’s office.

  3. Pure madness. I’ve seen the same thing on the trail past Eagle Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness, which is blocked by massive piles of downed trees from an avalanche that will likely never be cleared. Trying to climb over that was one of the most exhausting and probably the most dangerous hikes I’ve ever done. It basically makes it impossible for anyone to reach the upper valley.

    There is no legitimate environmental reason to prohibit the Forest Service from using chainsaws to maintain trails in Wilderness. There is no meaningful difference in environmental effects between cutting downed trees with a hand saw or chainsaw. This is solely about ideology.

    Once again wilderness ideology shows itself to be the enemy of recreation and the true purpose of the Wilderness Act itself – preserving natural spaces for the American people to enjoy. Nothing in the Wilderness Act mandates that trails in Wilderness can only be managed using tools that existed in the 19th century. Doing so defeats the entire purpose of the Wilderness Act and simply makes Wilderness inaccessible to everyone.

    • If a chainsaw is “motorized equipment,” it is prohibited by the Wilderness Act:

      36 CFR 293.6: Motorized equipment “…shall include any machine activated by a nonliving power source, except that small battery powered, hand-carried devices such as flashlights, shavers, and Geiger counters, are not classed as motorized equipment.”

      Maybe battery powered chainsaws, but “small” might be a problem.

      • I think there would have to be an amendment to the Act.
        One argument would be that the climate emergency and the increasing risk of catastrophic forest fires requires maintenance of trails.

  4. I’m sorry, I am one of the last timber beasts (timber beastie?🤣) to remember and work the glory days of Region 6, I’ve grown more trees than most people can even imagine. However, spending time embedded with the Wilderness philosophy and making decisions on Wilderness policy, I can safely profess it IS right to prohibit chainsaws in Wilderness for trail clearing. Howard Zahnizer would certainly support that decision!

    Untrammeled is not to be confused with expediency….

    • Jim, You are not the only one. As a youngun I followed Arlen Corey from the Albany Timber Fest to the timber line on the Mt Jeff wilderness with a boy scout axe & a crosscut saw, no chainsaw needed, and it is about ideology. That said, I’ve been flown by helicopter into a few Cascade wilderness areas.

  5. With climate change we can expect to see more of these situations, both inside and outside of wilderness. There are going to be times when you cannot get to your “favorite” place, perhaps for several years. And there are going to be times when roads and trails and recreation facilities have to be relocated because they are continually washing out. About 20 years ago on the side of Mt. Hood there were a series of glacial washouts that impacted the state highway – it took several years to rebuild the viaduct there in hopes that it would be able to withstand future glacial washouts. The scope and scale of these events is already exceeding our capacity to deal with them and they will continue to do so. This is the “new normal”.

    • You mean “ Backlogs of maintenance and routes littered with massive numbers of toppled trees” were caused by climate change? Once again, climate change has taken on the biggest “shape-shifting” phenomenon, and a danged good excuse for anything that might be a potential problem. Never mind the loss of timber management activities in these areas over the past 50 years, nor the philosophical mindset of why we have Wilderness in the first place….

      A good friend of mine, and a veterinarian (by the way) had a bumper sticker on his truck that read “Wilderness – land of no uses”….🤣. I always got a kick out of debates with him on Forest policy matters…. He was an old timer, who still lived in the same place he was born and raised; his father operated the very first Indian Agent post in the Upper Arkansas Valley of Colorado. I thought as he did, at one time, but understanding the true meaning of Wilderness healed my wicked ways….🤣🤣

  6. The “new normal” happened more than 30 years ago, when management of the National Forests and other public lands ceased.

    The Forest Service used timber dollars to subsidize the recreation program. When the subsidy ended in the 1990’s so did the Forest Service lose its ability to maintain the recreation program dependent on timber dollars.

    The Okanogan-Wenatchee had I believe 6,0000 miles of recreational trails and over 600 recreation facilities.

    I retired as the Recreation Program Manager for the forest when the WO announced a mandatory Recreation Facilities review.

    I thought we needed to close well over 40% of our trailheads and other developed recreation facilities. Downgrade maintenance of the 6,000 miles of consistent with funding. Probably an effective closure of 30% of the trails, and downgrade in maintenance for another 40%.

    Move the “specialized” recreational trails to a self funding model. For instance, the snowmobile program needed to move to a special use permit model where the state of Washington would be a permittee similar to ski areas.

    Motorized trails were even at that time primarily funded by user fees and taxes collected by the state of Washington and used for motorized trail maintenance on the Forest.

    Recreation users have no clue how expensive recreation facilities and trails are to maintain.

    Oh, after I left the Forest completed their Recreation Facilities Review and out of the 600 plus recreation facilities decided to close FOUR.

    When I took over the Recreation program I did a economic analysis of the program. The Okanogan-Wenatchee was the most important forest in Region Six for recreation. My analysis was that the Recreation program was bankrupt by classical economic standards. It is hard to move a program forward, when your option is keeping it from collapsing.

    While still working I did oversea a EA on chainsaw use in Wilderness after a particularly nasty winter. Between appeals and lawsuits we finally got permission from the courts to use chainsaws two plus years later. By that time, using emergency funding from both the WO and the state of Washington we cleared a significant portion of the trails. I believe one district actually used a chain saw to cut a down tree!! What a waste of public funds.

    I would never do that again. Preparing environmental documents just to get sued is a waste of taxpayers money.

    Congress needs to fix that, or the environmental community needs to grow up.

    The Forest is wise to just let the trails be for the time being. Looking at the fire history of the Pasayten Wilderness we will probably see around round of severe fires in a few years. That will remove the snags, logs, and remaining trees, as well as much of the soil fertility.

    At that point, the trail system can be rebuilt.

    • This reminds me of ..our discussions about the San Juan
      Here’s a piece by Cindy Chojnacky
      here’s another one..
      and a quote from GAO..

      In hunting for more information, I ran across a GAO report on this topic from 1970 (50 years ago!). Sometimes the internet is a wondrous thing. Here’s the link.

      In GAO’s view, the construction and presence of trails, bridges, and other facilities in wilderness and similar areas, as well as the presence of litter left in the areas by the users, are basically inconslstent with the ideal wilderness concept. GAO believes that, once decisions have been made to construct such facilities and to dispose of accumulated litter, the factors of economy and convenience as well as others should be considered in determining whether the use of motorized equlpment is reasonable and desirable in the circumstances.

      • Hi Sharon,

        Here’s another post about chainsaws in Wilderness made during part of that 2019 discussion/debate on this blog:

        That post included this following Oped from Wilderness Watch’s George Nickas.

        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.

        • The foregoing tract is a useful reminder that religious faith and public policy must be kept separate. “Restraint,” “humility,” “impatience,” undesirably “meet our ends,” etc.—such language is suited for a gospel of the type that people may sometimes present on one’s doorstep, but it could never legitimately find a place in the Federal Register. Such terms have no limiting principle, cannot be falsified, and have no foundation in science, ecology, or preservation, and therefore, as far as Wilderness management is concerned, they are entitled to no consideration. Let those who believe in such tenets adhere to them as private matters of conscience.

          • For whatever it’s worth, words like “humility” and “restraint” are, in fact, found directly in the Wilderness regulations/policy of various federal agencies.

            For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s General Overview of Wilderness Stewardship Policy says: “Maintaining wilderness character requires an attitude of humility and restraint.”

            • Thanks, Matthew. That is good to know. It’s evidence that agencies are being drawn in to Wilderness-as-temple rather than Wilderness-as-land. I would agree that some of the language of the Wilderness Act itself reads like scripture, and is revered in some quarters for doing so.

              I wonder how the USF&WS reconciles that precept with the effects of horses and packstock (though I doubt there’s any of that activity in USF&WS Wilderness areas).

      • Sharon,
        Some of the volunteers in the San Juan National Forest removing downed trees with crosscut saws were members of the South San Juan Broadband (Durango, CO) chapter of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. One of the former chapter leaders is a retired backcountry wilderness ranger who is well versed in training people to safely use the saws to clear deadfall (as well as being an expert on sharpening saws). She trained local women (some in their 70s) and they have helped clear a few trails in the area.

        By the way, that same group hiked into the Weminuche Wilderness and picked up more than 600 pounds of garbage. They partnered with the local chapter of Backcountry Horseman who brought the bags of trash out on horseback.

        • That’s great! I don’t think anyone is saying crosscut saws are bad… the question is “can all the trails that need clearing be cleared using only crosscut saws?”.

          • The answer is no, and the result is that hundreds and probably thousands of miles of Wilderness trail have been lost over the decades. The Wilderness Act allows for chainsaw use, but the USFS says it doesn’t, with scant grounding in the statutory text.

            It’s hard to imagine a nuttier management scheme, especially when the NPS and BLM routinely use chainsaws to maintain their Wilderness trails. People have theorized that the USFS does this because a faction within the agency dislikes Wilderness and wants to make it as unpopular with the public as possible. If so, it’s probably working, or will work eventually.

            • L. in my limited experience with (some) FS Wilderness folks, some can be fairly purist about Wilderness. See Vladimir’s comment- he thinks we need fewer trails or at least fewer managed ones. I’d think the existence of those folks would be more likely to be the reason. Also perhaps historically Wilderness specialists have been more or less exempt from the hurly-burly of projects and permits and interdisciplinary discussions so may have been left to their own devices in ways that other specialists are not.

          • The question is “can all the trails that NEED clearing…..”, should they be cleared in Wilderness.

            Not a fan of chainsaws in Wilderness. Not a fan of cross-cuts, but prefer them to chainsaws. I remember a hike into the Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area in Idaho that was the equivalent of hiking five miles through a log yard. There were that many blow downs!!

            We need to explore other options.

            Back in 1974, on my first professional job I was in charge of a crew that was mapping EVERY last Sequoia in the back country of Sequoia National Park.

            A 10 foot diameter Giant Sequoia, fell across the trail a couple of miles from our camp. Next time, I was in town I told the NPS about the tree blocking the trail.

            A couple days later a Parkie, with a small day pack, showed up and asked the exact location of the tree. I repeated the directions, and thought typical government operation. Instead of sending a trail crew, they send ONE person out to see about sending a trail crew!!

            I was still in camp doing some paper work when I heard a very loud BOOM. The Parkie came down about 15 minutes later and announced that the trail was open.

            I went up there and it was perfect. It looked like the Giant Sequoia fell across the trail and broke up in the neighborhood of the trail. No round cut edges, just a very natural appearing Sequoia log.

            When we were faced with clearing the trails on the Wenatchee and were looking at our options other than chainsaws I called in the district trail managers and explored the possibility of “blasting” our way through the blow downs.

            It was no longer 1974, and even though every one of them had a blasting certificate they could not see a way to make blasting efficient enough to make it work. The new restrictions on blasting, almost all safety related, made blasting slow going. The days of trail clearing with a small backpack were long over.

            The trail system in Wilderness is a legacy of when trails were part of the Forest Service transportation system. I do remember the day the Chief’s memo showed up moving trails from Engineering to Recreation.

            My boss was elated. My comment was wait, somebody else was doing the maintenance for us, and we thought that was a bad deal??

            It is time to reduce the trail mileage in our Wilderness areas.

  7. Greg Nickles said….”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.”

    Congress did NOT prohibit chainsaws in Wilderness.

    The National Park Service uses chainsaws on their trails without special authorization.

    The difference is that the Forest Service includes a “social” view of Wilderness. That is why “primitive” skills are such a part of the wilderness culture in the agency. The National Park Service views Wilderness as a physical and biological construct. Which is why using chainsaws is no big deal for the Park Service.

    All that said, I agree with you that the Park Service is wrong and the Forest Service is correct when it comes to chainsaws.

    I miss that Recreation crew in Region One. Worf was a very interesting person.

    I don’t agree with any of your other comments. Congress never cared about funding Wilderness management, except as a political ploy.

    And we as those that have managed Wilderness, need to do some serious soul searching on “managing” wilderness. Some of the Wilderness Managers I have had to deal with, made Wilderness areas a totally regulated environment. Think about that. Wilderness and regulations?? Maybe limits on use instead??

    My personal pet peeve, is that we stop naming Wilderness areas after people. I think Ansel Adams regrets that he has a Wilderness named after him. What was wrong with the Minarets?? That is poetic for a Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness is a travesty.

    But they are now monuments to politicians and lobbyists.

    • That’s my understanding also. The NPS and BLM correctly understand that the Wilderness Act allows for chainsaw maintenance. The USFS has been coopted by the Wilderness-as-religion movement in this respect (see my other comment on this thread). Apologies in advance to anyone offended.

      • You think that’s bad, try reading the BLM’s Analysis of Management Situation document for the new management plan for Bears Ears National Monument. The BLM is openly endorsing and espousing native American religious beliefs and making them the express basis for proposed management actions (example, banning motorized recreation because mechanical noise offends the spirits of native ancestors). That document goes on and on about how the landscape is “sacred” and basically needs to be treated as a temple. Once that management plan is finalized, I bet there’s a good chance it gets struck down in court for violating the establishment clause of the first amendment.

    • I have thought that renaming the very familiar Olympic Wilderness as the Dan Evans Wilderness was a tasteless political action that made me very disappointed in Senator Cantwell. It was not what the people wanted, and I doubt it is what Governor Evans would have wanted.


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