Did the U.S. Forest Service break the law when it skirted the protections in the Wilderness Act – which explicitly prohibits motorized use – to allow chain saws in two Southwest Colorado wilderness areas for trail work?
“The decision is the most extensive authorization of chain saw use ever permitted in the National Wilderness Preservation System, yet the Forest Service authorized it without notifying the public, without providing an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed action, and without analyzing the proposal in an environmental assessment,” according to a lawsuit filed last week.
A review of documents obtained by The Durango Herald sheds light on Forest Service officials’ rationale when they announced earlier this month that chain saws would be used to clear downed trees killed by the bark beetle outbreak that now block trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.
The Wilderness Act, passed into law in 1964, stands as the strictest form of protections for public lands, not allowing any forms of mechanized use. Today, there are an estimated 111 million acres and 803 wilderness areas in the United States.
To obtain an exemption to the laws in the Wilderness Act, a Forest Service district must submit a “Minimum Requirements Decision Guide” to the regional forester that outlines different reasons why certain regulations should be waived.
The Forest Service submitted a “Minimum Requirements Decision Guide” on April 4 that outlined its reasons why chain saws should be allowed in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas, arguing the workload to clear downed trees was too much for the agency using hand saws.
About half of the Weminuche Wilderness, which is Colorado’s largest wilderness area at 500,000 acres, has been hit by the beetle outbreak over the past decade or so. In the 158,790-acre South San Juan Wilderness, about 60,600 acres have been affected.
Now, the Forest Service says the trees are falling down at an “extreme” rate, officials said, cutting off access and, in some instances, closing entire trails to recreational users.
In its justification, the Forest Service admits there is no provision in wilderness legislation that addresses the need to clear felled trees. And, the agency wrote the proposed project doesn’t hold any necessary purpose to protect or preserve the wilderness character of the place.
Instead, the Forest Service says the project is needed to provide trail access to the public, as well as for permitted outfitters and guide camps. Because of the sheer number of downed trees, and the short window for work over the summer, agency officials said it needed to bypass the Wilderness Act for the use of chain saws.
The ultimate decision, however, was left up to Brian Ferebee, the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain regional forester. On May 7, Ferebee approved the request, but noted he was “concerned about the impacts to wilderness character” that chain saw work would have in the two wilderness areas.
As a result, Ferebee placed certain restrictions on the project, such as limiting work to no more than six weeks between June 1 and Aug. 17 and requiring a Forest Service staffer to supervise work.
“The magnitude of obstructed trails across these two wilderness areas, and the potential resource damage that will occur if we do not open these trails to wilderness visitors, warrants the rare and limited exception to allow chain saw use,” Ferebee wrote.
A spokesman with the Forest Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Herald had asked for a list of instances where the agency allowed chain saws in wilderness areas.
In a previous interview, Jason Robertson, the Forest Service’s lead on the project, said chain saws have been used in wilderness areas in the past, but usually in circumstances after a major storm knocked down vast amounts of trees.
Two weeks after the decision was announced, a coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service, arguing the need to clear trails does not rise to the level of an emergency situation that would justify skirting the Wilderness Act.
“If (the decision) stands, the wilderness character of these areas … will be injured irreparably for decades,” the lawsuit said.
The conservation groups say that while the Wilderness Act recognizes recreation is an appropriate use, the law clearly “makes the mandate of wilderness preservation paramount.” The Forest Service put hikers and outfitters ahead of wilderness in its decision, the groups say.
Though the Forest Service was not required, the conservation groups said the agency should have engaged in a public comment period and conducted a full-scale environmental analysis.
The conservation groups have also maintained the work can be done by hand.
“The Forest Service did not meaningfully consider and analyze non-motorized alternatives,” the lawsuit says. “The Forest Service only evaluated whether it could attempt to justify the decision (to use chain saws).”
At the heart of the conservation groups’ complaint is the risk that allowing motorized use for trail work could chip away at the Wilderness Act and could be applied to other areas of the U.S. where bark beetles have ravaged forests.
The Forest Service’s Robertson said allowing chain saws into the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas would not set a precedent for other Forest Service districts.
But Robertson’s statement appears to be contradicted by his supervisor’s own words in his letter approving the project. Ferebee said he wants a detailed report of how many trees were cut, total miles of trails cleared and summary of the project.
“Your reports will help determine if any future chain saw allowances are justified and needed to administer wilderness in the Rocky Mountain Region,” Ferebee wrote.
The Forest Service did not respond to requests seeking to clarify Ferebee’s statement.