The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional forester, Brian Ferebee, approved the use of chain saws to clear bark beetle-killed trees obstructing access to the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas between June 1 and Aug. 17.
“Removing obstructions will enhance visitor safety, improve access and reduce resource damage that occurs when visitors bypass dead and downed or leaning trees, which can create social trails, trample vegetation and cause soil erosion,” the Forest Service said in a news release Thursday afternoon.
The Wilderness Act was passed into law in 1964, and it stands as the strictest form of protection for wild areas, not allowing any forms of mechanized use. Today, there is an estimated 111 million acres and 803 wilderness units in the United States.
Exceptions for mechanized use in wilderness areas include emergency situations such as firefighting and helicopter landings. But for the most part, exceptions are granted only when mechanized use solely benefits the environment.
But some wilderness advocates say allowing chain saws to improve recreation is an inappropriate, even unlawful, use of the rule.
San Juan Citizens Alliance director Mark Pearson wrote in a letter to the Forest Service that although some user groups may be “inconvenienced by deadfall across trails … the fact of that inconvenience does not rise to the level of the Forest Service attempting to administratively ignore the lawful dictates of the Wilderness Act.”
Anne Dal Vera, who recently retired, worked as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service for 30 years, 19 of which were in the San Juan National Forest. She said trees in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas died about 10 years ago during the intense bark beetle outbreak in Southwest Colorado. Now, the trees are starting to fall over, a situation she estimated will be a tough reality for another decade or so.
Despite the hardship the downed trees bring to the Forest Service and recreational users, it does not warrant breaking the laws laid out in the Wilderness Act, she said.
“It’s a huge problem, but this is not an emergency that requires a huge effort with motorized equipment,” she said.
Jason Robertson, Forest Service deputy director for recreation, lands and minerals, said chain saws have been allowed in wilderness areas in the past, usually after a major storm event like a hurricane or a tornado that knocked down vast numbers of trees.
In the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas, however, trees have been falling down at a slower pace, but with such frequency the Forest Service can’t keep up with clearing trails with cross-cut saws, Robertson said.
“We see this as a unique situation,” he said. “It’s unusual, but it’s not prohibited.”
Some areas, Robertson said, have 40 downed trees per mile of trail. In the worst spots, there are as many as 100 downed trees per mile.
“We want to protect the wilderness, but we also want to make sure people have access to the wilderness, and right now there’s effectively no access with so many trails closed,” he said.
George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said the purpose of the Wilderness Act is to protect wild areas, not provide recreational opportunities.
Nickas added that Ferebee’s “unprecedented” decision is a “disservice” to all who have fought for wilderness areas over the years. He said the move sets a precedent that other Forest Service districts might follow, posing a risk that the Wilderness Act could be chipped away.
“It’s just antithetical to the whole spirit and intent of the Wilderness Act,” he said.
Robertson said he understands concerns about allowing chainsaws into the wilderness, but he said the Forest Service is in a difficult spot.
“I don’t think it sets a precedent,” he said. “The situation we’re facing with the beetle kill is unique, and it is extreme. We’re in a hard place, but we’re trying to be responsible and do the right thing.”
Both Pearson and Dal Vera said the Forest Service was likely pressured by outfitters to clear the trails, resulting in the allowance of chain saws. Dal Vera said some of her former colleagues are “not supportive of this decision” but are afraid to speak out.
“Wilderness is not there for human comfort or convenience,” she said. “It’s a place where we can go slower, and accept the fact it’s going to be difficult.”
The decision, Robertson said, was internal with the Forest Service, but did take into account input from outfitters, local governments and other recreational users. He said chainsaws will only be used in areas with the heaviest tree fall under Forest Service supervision.
“We’re not trying to pull a fast one over anybody,” he said. “And we don’t want people to go crazy and think wilderness is open to all motorized use, because that’s not the case.”
The Weminuche Wilderness is Colorado’s largest wilderness area, at nearly 500,000 acres, north of Durango. The South San Juan Wilderness encompasses about 159,000 acres, east of Pagosa Springs.
The number of acres designated wilderness has been updated.