The Common Thread – Forest Plan Revisions and so-called Wilderness Areas

When you hear that a national forest is planning on revising their Forest Plan, which is required every 10 to 15 years, you had better not turn your ear the other way or you may find your favorite snowmobile riding area closed. The forest service finds these plan revisions – how they are going to manage the forest in the future – as the perfect opportunity to create de-facto Wilderness, without even having to go through Congress. So pay attention to these plans, pay very close attention.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 states that ÔÇ£there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as wilderness areasÔÇØ. But what it doesnÔÇÖt say, is how to manage the land that the forest service would like to recommend as new Wilderness areas. ThatÔÇÖs where the forest service can get snowmobiling and all other forms of motorized recreation eliminated, and they have done exactly that.

Take for instance the White River National Forest in Colorado. This forest went through a forest plan revision a couple of years ago. The finished forest plan has many new areas closed to snowmobiles due to the fact that the forest service decided to manage them as┬áRecommended Wilderness┬áAreas, also known as Wilderness Study Areas. According to Mike Kenealy, forestry technician with the Sopris Ranger District in Carbondale, ÔÇ£All designated wilderness areas were already closed to motorized uses, but the forest plan identifies recommended wilderness areas that will carry the same management regulationsÔÇØ. So RWAs are treated just like Wilderness, but they avoid the official designation by Congress. Congress may never even designate these areas as Wilderness, but they are still treated as de-facto Wilderness and off limits to motorized recreation. There are also other ways the forest service finds to create these so-called Wilderness areas.

The Clinton Roadless policy is another good example. In case you thought this was done, I have news for you, it is far from dead. This policy, which affects some 58 million acres of federal land, will most likely appear in the forest plan revisions in some form or another. Even though U.S. District Court Judge Clarence A. Brimmer issued a decision in July concluding that the rule ÔÇ£illegally created wilderness areas and should be overturnedÔÇØ, most of this policy will still be implemented by the current Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service has recently stated that it plans to uphold this policy. If you recall, two of the three designations in so-called Roadless areas ÔÇô Primitive, and Semi-Primitive ÔÇô would not allow any form of motorized recreation.

For those of you in Washington State, or for those of you that recreate in this state, be aware that the Wenatchee/Okanogan/Colville (WOC) National Forests are currently going through forest plan revisions. These three forests will be combined for the forest plan revision. Although this is a several year process, it is never too early to get involved and provide comments to these plans stating your opposition to new Wilderness Areas or other closed areas. You can provide comment at their web site at Keep in mind, 45% of the 2.2 million acres that make up Wenatchee National Forest (WNF) is currently Wilderness. How much is enough? Our friends in the Washington Wilderness Coalition would tell you nothing less than 100 percent.

Washington could be next on the list to lose some of our┬áfavorite snowmobile riding areas to┬áRWAs or Roadless areas. The WOC forest plan revision team leader, Margaret Hartzell, has already publicly stated, “One of the reasons for doing the forest plan revision┬áis to determine suitable new areas for wilderness designation”. She claims the Washington State Wilderness Act of 1984 (section 5.b.2) gives the forest service in Washington State that authority. I was only able to find a summary of this act through my internet search, but she states that the act says “…and the Department of Agriculture shall not be required to review the wilderness option prior to the revisions of the plans, but shall review the wilderness option when the plans are revised, which revisions will ordinarily occur on a ten-year cycle….”.

In my opinion, we would be better off with more of our national forest lands returned to private ownership, which is the opposite of what has been occurring in recent years. Federal ownership has far too many regulations and it appears the forest service is heading in a direction of non-use, which is against the mandate of the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. It states, ÔÇ£This Act declares that the purposes of the national forest include outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed and fish and wildlifeÔÇØ. When was the last time you saw a large timber sale go through on national forest land? The private timber companies seem to do a better job at managing their forests and also allow plenty of recreational opportunities. Their timber is also far too valuable to let it all burn down, as so frequently occurs on our national forest lands. It should also be noted that Wilderness areas can not be managed to lessen the risk of catastrophic fires, as we have recently witnessed.

Take for instance US Timberlands. The company owns some 46,000 acres of land in the Teanaway river valley near Cle Elum that borders WNF. They allow many forms of recreation, and have allowed snowmobiles to use their land freely for years. They even allow a groomed trail across their property from a simple written request by the local snowmobile club. When this same club went to the forest service to request the extension of this trail 4 additional miles through national forest land, we were informed that this would require a Biological Assessment to the tune of some $50,000 or so.

Ok, so I got a little off track with my public versus private opinions. But the bottom line is, if you donÔÇÖt want to see your favorite riding areas closed during the forest plan revisions, get involved with the process from the beginning and stay involved. Make sure you let the forest service know why a certain area is so special to you. Once itÔÇÖs closed, getting it opened back up is nearly impossible.