An Illustrated Guide to Impacts of Different Agency Policies with Regard to Chainsaws in Wilderness: Guest Post by Cindy Chojnacky

This was submitted as a comment to an article posted June 27 by Steve Wilent titled “Forest Service denies pleas to chainsaw logjams in the Pasayten Wilderness.” It is running as separate post to include photos which show examples of neglected trails in Forest Service wilderness. The author has also written on the “perfect storm” of climate change-damaged trails and less field presence by the Forest Service on this blog inspired by fire-damaged trails in the Gila Wilderness (”


Based on personal experience, the Forest Service’s strict interpretation of Wilderness Act to use only “minimum tool”…e.g., only crosscuts in wilderness—is resulting in many legacy trails becoming lost in Forest Service wilderness. Here are some examples.

White Cloud Wilderness, Idaho—big avalanche to cross into a lake basin.


In Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho, a legacy trail loop suitable for stock  followed Big Queens-Little Queens rivers. The 1992 Idaho City Complex Fire burned Johnson Creek Trail connecting the two river trails; resulting overgrowth of ceanothus is now chest high for two miles of trail crossing the creek. A trail crew with power brushcutters could clean up the trail in a few days.

In northern part of Sawtooth Wilderness, lots of down trees on Redfish Ridge Trail

A few miles north on same trail near Redfish Lake as soon as we passed the wilderness boundary we saw excellent clearing of the trail—open to mountain bikes—with chain saws.

One more example from the East: down logs in Mary’s River Wilderness on the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. A wilderness manager told me a lack of certified hand-sawyers was forcing abandonment of certain trails.

By contrast, the National Park Service uses chainsaws if needed. For instance, only crosscut saws are used in the  Saguaro Wilderness near Tucson because the area is small and minimal “logging” (cutting out logs) is needed. By contrast, in Olympic National Park (Daniel J. Evans Wilderness), chainsaws are freely used to clear the huge old- growth Douglas-fir and western red cedar. This is an extreme example of a person-size chainsaw cut many years ago!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also uses some discretion in wilderness to carry out its main mission which is wildlife protection. In the Kofa and Cabeza Prieta wilderness areas in southern Arizona, FWS uses “cherry stem” (excluded from wilderness) roads to drive and maintain water sources, improves natural tanks (like the one below) and even hauls water to human-made tanks and pools in dry periods for desert bighorn sheep.

All three agencies base their management practices on Wilderness Act: Section 4. (c) Prohibition of Certain Uses, which states no motorized equipment in wilderness.

However, Park Service and FWS seem to make liberal use of a disclaimer which starts the list of restrictions: “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” According to Section 2. (a), the purpose of wilderness is the use and enjoyment of the American people. We think it is necessary to keep trails open for public “use and enjoyment,” and so does the Park Service. Fish and Wildlife Service reasons that its main purpose for large wilderness areas it manages (which are also wildlife refuges) is wildlife, hence a broad interpretation of the wilderness restrictions.

The wilderness “purpose statement” in Wilderness Act of 1964 comes in where Congress explains why it was establishing the wilderness preservation system. The Act’s STATEMENT OF POLICY SECTION 2 (a) states an intent to “secure for the American people…the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness,” and to designate wilderness areas which “shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people.” Therefore, the purpose for wilderness is people’s use and enjoyment—e.g., wilderness experience.

The task of management agencies is also spelled out: “these shall be administered in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness…” Unimpaired could be called wilderness quality. “In such manner” is the job of wilderness administration with wilderness quality the means for achieving the Act’s purpose or end: people’s use and enjoyment of wilderness (experience). Much wilderness research, management and activism have focused on wilderness quality—and particular overused areas have received the most study and management concern. We have argued that focus only on wilderness quality or character—the means—if ignoring the overall purpose or end—wilderness experience— could  treat the wilderness visitor as a threat or nuisance.

Many environmental groups that fight agency exemptions such as chainsaws for clearing excessive down trees after fire or microbursts see themselves as protectors of wilderness quality or character. However, they have a conflict of interest on this issue since they are funded by donations from the public solicited for various battles to “protect the wilderness” from allegedly harmful federal agency management practices. This is an easy sell to people who want to support wilderness emotionally and financially but may not know much about policy details of the Wilderness Act.

24 thoughts on “An Illustrated Guide to Impacts of Different Agency Policies with Regard to Chainsaws in Wilderness: Guest Post by Cindy Chojnacky”

  1. Steve, I understand your perspective concerning the use of chainsaws in designated wilderness areas, but I don’t understand this statement, “Many environmental groups that fight agency exemptions such as chainsaws for clearing excessive down trees after fire or microbursts see themselves as protectors of wilderness quality or character. However, they have a conflict of interest on this issue since they are funded by donations from the public solicited for various battles to “protect the wilderness” from allegedly harmful federal agency management practices.”

    I don’t understand why this is a conflict of interest.

  2. Just another addition, maybe everyone else knows this but chain saws are allowed for fire suppression in FS wilderness.. here’s what The Hotshot Wakeup reported when I asked him “are chainsaws allowed in FS Wilderness for fire suppression?”

    “99/100 times yes.

    Sometimes there are protocols when we do it.

    Transport rules, fueling rules, and on the rare occasions a biologist will chill and check for mating mammals and birds.

    But often we just let it rip but use MIST tactics.

    (Minimal impact suppression tactics)”

    So there’s that.. OK for fire suppression, but not OK for trail maintenance.. ever..

  3. From my front door its less then 10 miles to the closest Pecos Wilderness trail, If I had a notion to carry a chainsaw up there and use it, no one would be the wiser, last LEO retired last year and was not replaced, but because I’m an old (school) kind of guy I carry a boy scout axe and a flat file, and if I find a downed tree about 12″ or less I’ll have a go at it. Bigger trees need a saw of some type, each to his/her own.

    • If everyone just recreated virtually, we wouldn’t need this discussion… oops I guess it’s a virtual workshop not a workshop about virtual recreation :).

  4. Not sure where this case from 2010 ended up, but the “minimum requirements” option does require some justification and maybe the Forest Service considers the bar too high. (One would think the bar would be lower for temporary chainsaw intrusions, although the stumps would be permanent.)

    “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overstepped its authority by building two water tanks inside a Western Arizona wilderness area to help bighorn sheep living in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, a federal appeals court panel ruled.

    The wildlife service failed to prove that the 13,000-gallon tanks were needed for bighorn sheep, thereby flunking a key requirement for building permanent structures inside federal wilderness areas, said two members of a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Under the Wilderness Act, permanent structures are not allowed “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements” for administration of wilderness areas.”

  5. Cindy Chojnacky wrote ” For instance, only crosscut saws are used in the Saguaro Wilderness near Tucson because the area is small and minimal “logging” (cutting out logs) is needed.”

    My winter home is just a few miles east of the east unit of the Saguaro Wilderness. Lots of Saguaro, but I have NEVER seen the slightest hint of tree in the Wilderness.

    I suspect a cross-cut works pretty well on a Saguaro cactus.

    Trails in Wilderness are the same as logging roads on a timber sale. They are a necessary evil to accomplish resource objectives. Looking at Forest Service Wilderness map you will see the footprint of Forest Service engineering from the 1930’s and 1940’s. I guess folks consider trails a “cultural artifact” protected since most are now over 50 years.

    I do remember the days when Wilderness folks discussed adding TRAIL FREE areas in Wilderness by removing unneeded and unnecessary trails. Not much discussion these days.

    Hiking a wilderness trail is not far removed from hiking to Yosemite Falls or Nevada Falls. Your still a tourist “walking between lines” established by some long ago Federal employee. Hardly, the reason for establishing a Wilderness.

    Trails are a Henry David Thoreau Wilderness. Trail less is a Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall Wilderness.

    We need LESS trails in Wilderness and more trails on public lands outside of Wilderness.

    • I agree! There are ancient routes that traverse wilderness and to me those should remain (but not necessarily be maintained with chainsaws – how did indigenous people maintain these routes?), but others? I too remember the days of “trail free” and letting FS-created trails disappear in wilderness.

    • Vladimir,
      “Trails in Wilderness are the same as logging roads on a timber sale. They are a necessary evil to accomplish resource objectives.”

      I think that depends on your philosophy the point of having Wilderness.

      • As a $10 American (naturalized citizen) Wilderness is a unique American concept.

        Even in countries such as Canada and Russia where wilderness is common it is not viewed as”good”. In Russia’s case it represented the Gulag and in Canada corporate exploitation.

        My mother was stunned when I graduated from forestry school and got a good paying job with a consulting firm. What she had a problem with was that good paying job and me sleeping on the ground in the back country of Sequoia National Park didn’t make sense to her.

        Wilderness is important to America and its culture.

        That is the point of having Wilderness in America. And that is why I have a problem with the NPS definition of Wilderness as biological and physical rather than cultural.

        The Forest Service, bless its heart, with primitive skills understood that wilderness is more than just ecosystems. It is part of the history and culture of America.

        Over the years, with the technological innovations in back country travel Wilderness has become easier to access and experience. We need to make it more difficult to access to honor our cultural history. To experience Wilderness is to understand America and its cultural history.

        I never felt that I left the world behind until I went off-trail in a Wilderness area. On trail, I was just a tourist, not that much different than a hiker to lower Yosemite Falls.

        The point of having Wilderness is that it is part of America’s soul.

        • Vladimir, your writing is very beautiful and I like how you said “it’s part of our soul”. Because there is Wilderness the philosophy and Wilderness the statute and the regs and the reality on the ground, and then there is Wilderness as a marketing tool. I think these are all different things. Mine is not philosophical at all.. it’s given that there is this land, identified as such, by these statutes, given what’s going on today, what’s the best way to manage it (or not)? For me, philosophy doesn’t directly enter into it. I’m more about “interpreting the statute.” Because any listing of what’s in and out has a certain lack of philosophical consistency, e.g. chainsaws for fire suppression OK, for trail maintenance not OK; how many heartbeats? and so on, all the many decisions that people have to make.

  6. This is an excellent post, thank you for highlighting the impractical stance of the Forest Service on this issue, compared to other Fed agencies. The primary driver of this in my 23 year career is FS employees at Regional and National offices who abuse their positions by allowing their personal bias against human use and enjoyment of wilderness into every local decision. These staff treat wilderness character as dogma in a highly unfair and unprofessional manner. And because of the ridiculous FS culture of collegiality (has gotten far worse since Dialogos) Forest Supervisors will rarely if ever stand up to them and make decisions without their concurrence. The same is true in biology and cultural resource programs – instead of requiring staff to inform decisions based on science law and policy, and to support multiple use mandates from Congress, they are allowed to be biased advocates for their personal views of “protection” of a resource. It’s time for the FS to require supervisors to end this nonsense and show these employees the door. The idea that the agency should be run like a family and not a business is a ridiculous affront to American taxpayers.

    • Okey, in my experience, not all FS employees play fair (sigh). If you tick someone off, they can stab you in the back and make your life miserable, and tell everyone else you are bad so you don’t get a job anywhere else (in the 80’s in Region 6, I used to call this “Management by Gossip” except they were mostly men doing it-because there were mostly men in general, so there’s probably a better word). I think that’s why some people are hesitant to push on employees. That would be a great discussion to have with current employees. Hopefully it’s not a factor anymore.

      • Hi Sharon: When men do it, it’s called “vicious gossip.” Or “backstabbing.” Seems to be a human condition that won’t go away.

      • Many current employees are part of the problem I was trying to highlight. Personally I do not believe it has anything to do with male or female, or trying to move to get promoted, if that’s what you mean. Your experience sounds different from mine. I don’t feel I’ve ever been backstabbed, I just believe the FS culture contributes to a strong bias against multiple use and humans in general. Back to topic – the wilderness program is poorly managed by the FS when you look carefully at the statue and how other agencies interpret it.

  7. Of all the agencies and private companies I worked at the Forest Service was the worst. They pretended to be above “internal politics”, but in the end it always came out.

    I worked for a consulting firm as my first professional job. As I was signing the health plan papers I asked my boss for company policies and priorities.

    His answer was….

    1) The land. Don’t screw up the land.
    2) The client. Meet their objectives, don’t compromise rule 1.
    3) The company. We are a business we need to make money.

    I carried that forward when I worked for the NPS, Forest Service, and BLM. It is a pretty good professional code of ethics. For three, I just substituted the agency and made sure that I met their objectives.

    As to my relationship with him. He told me that he did not want to hear from me if things were going well. HOWEVER, if it the first sign of things heading south, I was to call him and ask for help.

    He also said, that I needed to tell him when I thought he was wrong….ONCE. Prepare my best argument and we would settle it. After that implement the plan.

    Unfortunately, it was my first professional job and I carried it forth into my professional career in government.

    It ruined my career in the Federal government.

  8. I am joining the party late on this topic, but have some things to say. My experience with Wilderness Areas precedes the act. I back-packed into the Mt. Jefferson Primitive Area with my family in 1956, and have visited many areas ever since. I am a big fan of Wilderness Areas, but at the same time feel strongly that we are living a big lie.

    This Big Lie is that while preserving the land, we have not preserved all of the natural processes. Fire suppression has gone on in Wilderness like everywhere else, disrupting the natural fire cycles. The agencies that manage Wilderness, along with the public that uses Wilderness collectively sweat the little stuff while ignoring the colossal impact of disrupting the natural fire cycles. In my view we need to start doing prescribed fire in Wilderness Areas, to undo the damage of decades of interference through fire suppression. One small step in this would be to allow the use of chainsaws in National Forest Wilderness. It is absurd that it is permissible to carry out fire suppression in Wilderness, but not to allow chainsaws to repair trails!

    • Hi John: I agree that we need to return “natural fire cycles” to designated Wilderness areas. Where I guess that we disagree is in the definition of “natural.” I am nearly 75 and have also camped and fished in areas that were subsequently made into Wilderness. Many of these areas have huckleberry fields, camas meadows, rock carvings, obsidian debitage and other evidence of long-term human use and occupation preceding current land use designations. In my experience, it is only natural for people to systematically gather and burn firewood, follow existing trails, and set fire to the landscape from time to time, whether on purpose or not. Thus, the “natural” fire cycle for a huckleberry field might be intervals of 10-30 years, with adjacent areas swept clean of most dead wood on an almost annual basis. Does that mesh with your thinking, or are you defining natural fires as lightning- or volcano-caused events?

      • Bob- You added another layer of complexity to the discussion by introducing indigenous fire. I would say we not only have ended indigenous fire in what is now “Wilderness”, we also have eliminated most lightning caused fires as well, leaving many “pristine” areas biologically impoverished for a lack of fire. This problem is largely un-recognized by the Wilderness using public. We are on the same page.

        • Thanks Anonymous. Another problem is that more than 99% of the US population does not ever visit Wilderness Areas — and those that do are typically young and middle-aged white adults able too afford transportation, necessary gear, and time off from work. They don’t seem to want historical accuracy in their surroundings so much as privacy and exclusive use opportunities, without paying for them. Based on possibly outdated research.

          For many years I have lobbied USFS botanists and forest managers for an assessment of endemic wildflowers and their responses to the predicted recurring wildfires that have taken place in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the past 35 years. Apparently they don’t see the purpose in performing such inventories. Or they don’t want to share their findings for some reason.


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