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Wilderness represents a commitment to humility

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.

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