Why Chainsaws Matter

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Why Chainsaws Matter

by George Nickas

 

Bill Worf, 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 their 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, and then became the first Forest Service wilderness program leader. 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 the wilderness the Wilderness Act sought to protect wasn’t an undeveloped recreation area, but a place where we let nature be—a commitment to humility and restraint. Accept Wilderness on it on its own terms, and use only the lightest touch when allowing for the public uses (recreation, science, education, etc.) it provides.

Congress prohibited chainsaws because motorized tools are about domination—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 are the antithesis of restraint. They embody the attitude that our convenience, impatience and demands come first, that we aren’t willing to slow down and meet nature on its own terms, and that there aren’t a few wild places left beyond the reach of our attempts to dominate and control.

Authorizing chainsaws to clear trails, as the US Forest Service regional forester for Region 2 recently did strikes a blow to this foundational tenet of the Wilderness Act itself, and 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 for allowing their use—not enough trail crews to clear trails the traditional way—was essentially an admission that the Forest Service has failed miserably to maintain an adequately staffed or trained 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 funds from field crews to pay the salaries of foresters, engineers, or other desk-bound bureaucrats and putting “wilderness” in their job descriptions to make the transfer seem legit. But the main effort was putting the emphasis on creating “partnerships" with volunteer groups to mask the fact the wilderness program was being gutted. Its freshly minted directorship for Wilderness was charged with building partnerships, not rebuilding the agency’s flagging wilderness program. 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 Weminuche and South San Juan Wildernesses 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.


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George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

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What’s Wrong with Monitoring Inactive Volcanoes in Wilderness?

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

Wilderness Watch recently objected to a Forest Service decision to allow permanent seismic monitoring stations in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington state. If this decision doesn’t change, the Forest Service would fail to protect and preserve Glacier Peak’s wilderness conditions consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act. Beyond Glacier Peak, any Wilderness—including those surrounding seismically-active Yellowstone National Park or elsewhere—would be damaged by the installation and servicing of any kind of permanent monitoring stations.


Wilderness is a uniquely American idea and ideal. We are incredibly lucky we still have some of it left. The framers of the Wilderness Act constantly reminded us that we would have to practice humility and restraint to keep it around. That means that all of us, visitors, managers, and other users, have to be willing to do things differently in order to preserve Wilderness for present and future generations. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary. That’s why the recent proposal for permanent instrument installations raises concerns.

The 1964 Wilderness Act includes safeguards against permanent installations and structures in designated Wilderness, even if done for scientific purposes. Section 4(c) of this landmark law states, “…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” (Emphases added.) The law therefore prevents the installation of permanent seismic monitoring stations in Wilderness as well as the landing of helicopters or use of any other motorized equipment to service the stations.

The Wilderness Act does provide a very narrow exception to allow otherwise-prohibited activities, but only where such activities are necessary to preserve the area’s wilderness character. To date, the Forest Service has utterly failed to prove that degrading the Glacier Peak Wilderness with permanent structures and installations, the landing of helicopters, and the use of any other motorized equipment is the minimum necessary for preserving the area’s wilderness character.

Wilderness Watch supports scientific research in Wilderness. It is one of the primary reasons for wilderness designation and one of its greatest values. Like other activities in Wilderness, however, scientific research has to be done in a way that protects the other values of Wilderness and doesn’t include those things that the law prohibits, such as the use of helicopters for access and the installation of permanent structures. In other words, like all other wilderness visitors, including Forest Service or other wilderness managers, researchers should walk or use packstock to access Wilderness and carry in their supplies.

Our organization also supports public safety and a better understanding of seismic activity. Warning signs of an eruption, which are usually detectable outside of Wilderness, tend to be normal for Cascade Range volcanoes. Such warning signs generally precede any eruption by a significant length of time. Increasingly, researchers are also able to monitor seismic activity remotely, even from satellites. But if monitoring must be done inside designated Wilderness, it must comply with the Wilderness Act and not degrade that specific Wilderness.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service typically does not analyze any alternatives beyond the proposals submitted by the U.S. Geological Survey or other researchers. First and foremost would be the question of whether monitoring stations near or just outside the Wilderness could provide any useful monitoring data. These data may not be quite as detailed or complete as data collected from inside the Wilderness, but would likely be adequate. Unfortunately for the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Forest Service hasn’t even looked at this sort of analysis. The Forest Service has simply failed to uphold its obligations under the Wilderness Act to protect Wilderness and merely rubber-stamped the proposal to degrade this spectacular Wilderness.

Wilderness Watch believes the federal wilderness agencies can do better and should devise plans that uphold the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act, and not simply cast aside this important national inheritance because it causes some inconvenience and challenge for researchers. We needn’t so easily sacrifice our shared wilderness heritage just for a few additional data points as is often proposed.

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kevin proescholdt

Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula and focused on the protection of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

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Mount Washington Wilderness Protected From Invasive Ecological Meddling

By Gary Macfarlane


Gary Macfarlane
Conservation groups recently learned that the Forest Supervisor of the Willamette National Forest has withdrawn the draft decision on a proposal to conduct a “prescribed fire” in a portion the Mount Washington Wilderness. Three conservation organizations--Wilderness Watch, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and BARK—filed a formal administrative objection to the Scott Mountain Prescribed fire in Wilderness Environmental Assessment. The Forest Supervisor’s decision ended the objection process. While no reasons were given as to why the draft decision was withdrawn, points raised by the organizations certainly played a role in that decision. For the time being, the Forest Service will not subject this portion of the Mount Washington Wilderness to intensive ecological manipulation. Wilderness, by law, is to be untrammeled, which means that areas designated as Wilderness are to free from direct human control.  In addition to the manipulation, the Wilderness would have been marred by numerous helicopter flights to light fires in the Wilderness.

 

Mount Washington is one of the original Wildernesses set aside by the 1964 Wilderness Act.  It lies in the central Cascade Range in of Oregon and lies between the Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters Wildernesses.  Mount Washington itself is a 7,800 foot Cascade mountain that dominates the northern part of the Wilderness. The extensive lava fields in the south, lakes, old forests, and recently burned areas create a great diversity of habitat for many species of mammals and birds.

 

The organizations noted in their objection several key points including:

 

Human-ignited fires are inconsistent with the Wilderness Act. Wilderness is supposed to be “in contrast” to areas where humans dominate the landscape. Further, natural lightning-caused fires tend to burn differently than agency-prescribed fires because the agencies usually choose times to light fires than when they burn naturally.

 

Trammeling Wilderness is not consistent with the best available science. The forests in this part of the Cascades are well within their natural range. These forests burn infrequently and intensely. This part of the Wilderness is one of the few areas in the nearby region that has not been recently burned by natural fire or been dedicated to logging. It is already very diverse because this older forest remains intact within a larger landscape that has largely burned in the recent past or has been logged.

 

The Forest Service did not show that this project was necessary for preservation of the area as Wilderness. Indeed, the objectors noted it would detract from the Wilderness because of the intentional human manipulation of the landscape and the extensive use of helicopters.

 

The Scott Mountain project is emblematic of the lack of support among many wilderness managers to let nature be.  Efforts to reshape these areas in the vision of managers is a growing phenomenon resulting from agency policies that downplay the central tenet of the Wilderness Act—that Wildernesses are to be left wild and untrammeled.  Let’s hope the project’s initial demise is a signal of things to come.

 

Gary is the ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, an advocacy group in central Idaho's Wild Clearwater Country. For nearly 30 years, Gary has been one of the country's most dedicated public lands' activists working throughout the Intermountain West and Northern Rockies. He serves on the WW board of directors.
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Wilderness Intended as Refuge from Bikes and other Mechanization

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

Several recent opinion pieces from around the country[i] have asked why mountain bikes cannot be allowed to ride in Congressionally-designated Wildernesses.  A new mountain biking organization has even had a new bill introduced in Congress (S. 3205)[ii] to open all Wildernesses in the country to mountain bikes and chainsaws.  But the short answer to their question is that allowing bicycles in these areas would defeat the very purpose of setting aside and protecting these areas as Wilderness.

 

Congress passed the Wilderness Act to protect the wilderness character of these places, not to establish recreation areas. Wilderness preserves the great silences of lands removed from the influences of modern civilization.  Wilderness is free from human domination or manipulation, where ecological and evolutionary processes may continue unhindered by humankind.  Wilderness provides places where wildlife can thrive without being startled by zooming human machines.

 

In order to protect wilderness character, Congress and the framers of the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibited bikes (and other intrusions of modern civilization) from Wilderness while writing and passing this landmark law.  The law specifically says, “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”[iii] (Emphasis added.) Bicycles are obviously a form of mechanical transport; the law can’t be much clearer than this.

 

This issue is not about the physical differences in trail damage by bikes versus horses, this is not so much about trail safety, nor is it about whose mode of outdoor transportation is better.  This issue is about protecting the wild character of Wilderness.

 

Under the Wilderness Act, Wilderness is a sanctuary for wild animals and wild processes to occur, and a sanctuary for humans to escape the influences of our modern industrialized civilization.  Like other sanctuaries, Wilderness must be treated with humility and restraint.  Part of that humility and restraint lies in how we approach and travel through Wilderness.  Mountain bikes and other machines are no more appropriate in Wilderness than they might be in other sanctuaries like Washington National Cathedral.

 

Mountain bikers sometimes claim that Congress didn’t specifically mention bicycles in the Wilderness Act so therefore they must be allowed.  Such an argument is merely wishful thinking, just as would be claims by all-terrain vehicle owners or snowmobilers that the Wilderness Act didn’t specifically enumerate their choice of machine transport.

 

Mountain bikers sometimes claim that the U.S. Forest Service didn’t specifically ban bikes until 1984, but that’s an intentionally misleading claim.  For starters, Congress banned bikes from Wilderness in 1964, and it doesn’t matter a whit whether the Forest Service waited to specifically mention bikes in its regulations.  If bikers did ride in Wilderness after 1964 (in that era before mountain bikes were invented), they did so illegally. Moreover, the other three federal agencies that administer Wilderness (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management) all specifically banned bicycles in designated Wilderness in their initial regulations and there was never any doubt about or challenge to the rules.

 

The 1964 Wilderness Act has served the nation well in the 50-plus years since it was enacted.  It protects these special places from activities that degrade their wilderness values, including mechanical transport and mountain bikes.  As a nation, we need to continue to use humility and restraint in how we treat our Wildernesses, and that includes not weakening the Wilderness Act.  The new bill in Congress (S. 3205) would allow mountain bikes to invade these sanctuaries.  That bill must not pass.  There are many, many areas for riding bicycles, but Wilderness is not one of those places.

 

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kevin proescholdtKevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch[iv], a national wilderness conservation organization.  He has written widely on Wilderness, including Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness[v] (1995) and Glimpses of Wilderness[vi] (2015).



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Of Wolves and Wilderness

George NickasOf Wolves and Wilderness
By George Nickas

“One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Right before the holidays last December, an anonymous caller alerted Wilderness Watch that the Forest Service (FS) had approved the use of one of its cabins deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (FC-RONRW) as a base camp for an Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) hunter-trapper. The cabin would support the hired trapper’s effort to exterminate two entire wolf packs in the Wilderness. The wolves, known as the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek packs, were targeted at the behest of commercial outfitters and recreational hunters who think the wolves are eating too many of “their” elk.

Idaho’s antipathy toward wolves and Wilderness comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked to protect either in Idaho. But the Forest Service’s support and encouragement for the State’s deplorable actions were particularly disappointing. Mind you, these are the same Forest Service Region 4 officials who, only a year or two ago, 
approved IDFG’s request to land helicopters in this same Wilderness to capture and collar every wolf pack, using the justification that understanding the natural behavior of the wolf population was essential to protecting them and preserving the area’s 
wilderness character. Now, somehow, exterminating those same wolves is apparently also critical to preserving the area’s wilderness character. The only consistency here is the FS and IDFG have teamed up to do everything possible to destroy the Wilderness and wildlife they are required to protect.

Middle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho: Where nine wolves were killed by IDFG's hired hunter-trapper. Photo: Rex ParkerMiddle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho: Where nine wolves were killed by IDFG's hired hunter-trapper. Photo: Rex ParkerWilderness Watch, along with Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Idaho wildlife advocate Ralph Maughan, filed suit in federal court against the Forest Service and IDFG to stop the wolf slaughter. Our suit alleges the FS failed to follow its own required procedures before authorizing IDFG’s hunter-trapper to use a FS cabin as a base for his wolf extermination efforts, and that the program violates the agency’s responsibility under the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve the area’s wilderness character, of which the wolves are an integral part. Trying to limit the number of wolves in Wilderness makes no more sense than limiting the number of ponderosa pine, huckleberry bushes, rocks, or rainfall. An untrammeled Wilderness will set its own balance.

The FS’s anemic defense is that it didn’t authorize the killing, therefore there is no reviewable decision for the court to overturn, and that it was still discussing the program with IDFG (while the trapper was in the field killing the wolves). Unfortunately, the district judge sided with the FS and IDFG, so we filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Rather than defend its action before the higher court, Idaho informed the court that it was pulling the trapper out of the Wilderness and would cease the program for this year. In the meantime, nine wolves are needlessly dead.

We will continue to pursue our challenge because the killing program will undoubtedly return. The Forest Service can’t and shouldn’t hide behind the old canard that “the states manage wildlife.”  Congress has charged the FS with preserving the area’s wilderness character and the Supreme Court has held many times that the agency has the authority to interject itself in wildlife management programs to preserve the people’s interest in these lands. Turning a blind-eye is a shameful response for an agency that used to claim the leadership mantle in wilderness stewardship.

Wilderness Watch expresses its deep appreciation to Tim Preso and his colleagues at Earthjustice for waging a stellar legal battle on our behalf and in defense of these wilderness wolves.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch. George joined Wilderness Watch as our policy coordinator in 1996. Prior to Wilderness Watch, George served 11 years as a natural resource specialist and assistant coordinator for the Utah Wilderness Association. George is regularly invited to make presentations at national wilderness conferences, agency training sessions, and other gatherings where wilderness protection is discussed.

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Seeing What All the Dam Fuss Is About

By Jerome Walker and Marcia Williams

After reading "A Dam Dilemma" in the Missoula Independent in mid-July, we decided to hike up to the Fred Burr Dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana to see what all the fuss was about. One of us is 74 years old and the other is from New York, had only camped once and had never backpacked, but we were powerfully curious.

The first night we packed in to a campsite 7.5 miles up Fred Burr Creek. That day we saw two other backpackers, but the next two days we saw no human being and enjoyed the quiet found only in Wilderness. By lunchtime of the second day we were at the dam.

photo 5 08 16 13The catwalk was constructed from nearby trees and not from sawmill boards.We noticed straight off that the partly collapsed catwalk that the private company, Fred Burr High Lake Inc., wants to repair by using a helicopter to bring in 682 pounds of boards, etc., was constructed from on-site trees, not from sawn lumber. The dam itself, which doesn't need repairs, was also constructed from on-site material. We wondered why the catwalk couldn't just be repaired using local materials again, as there were plenty of trees and deadfall around. There was a spillway to take care of any overflow, so a federal judge’s recent assertion that "leaving Fred Burr Dam unrepaired could do more damage to the Wilderness than a single helicopter" didn't make much sense either. (Federal Judge Donald Molloy recently ruled the Forest Service could authorize the private company to use a helicopter to transport materials for this minor repair to the dam.)

Hiking up to the dam we crawled over or ducked under some deadfall, but these need only to be cut with crosscut saws as a matter of routine trail maintenance for both horses and people to pass easily. At no point did we see switchbacks that would have been impossible for horses to negotiate, as the Forest Service maintains, and for sure there seemed no need for dynamite to "widen the trail", as they also claim. We also observed manure (view a video of the where the manure was seen by clicking here) all along the trail up very close to the dam itself, so clearly some horses were able to make it up there fairly recently, as we figured nobody would helicopter in manure.

photo 9 08 16 13 2This is the sharpest switchback we saw, which could be easily negotiated by a horse without any blasting with dynamite, as the Forest Service alleges would be necessary. In fact, very near this spot we found horse manure on the trail.Later we read Renee Morley's letter to the Independent in which Morley agreed, as just about everybody does, that "unnecessary helicopter flights are detrimental to Wilderness and degrade the law". Then Morley reversed course and let the Forest Service off the hook due to their lack of funds to maintain trails so that horses can pass.

Still later we learned that the Forest Service had spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an Environmental Assessment required by Fred Burr High Lake, Inc's 2010 request for use of a helicopter in Wilderness.  This expenditure wouldn't have been necessary had the Forest Service simply insisted in the first place that the corporation, which owns the dam and water rights, obey the Wilderness Act. This would require either packing in repair materials or using on-site materials, as had been done in the past. More importantly, it raises the serious question of why the agency is spending taxpayers' money to analyze a private company's project on its private dam?

Now the Forest Service has to spend more of our taxpayer money to defend against litigation brought against them for failing to uphold the law. Since these funds, which Congress appropriates to the agency to manage Wilderness, are being wasted, maybe that's why there's not enough money left to hire crews to maintain the hiking trails in Wilderness or to build new trails, which was not the case in the past.

ImageThe Wilderness Act of 1964 (we will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year) is very clear about prohibiting ANY motorized equipment such as helicopters in Wilderness whatsoever except for rare life and death rescue situations and in rare cases where such use is necessary as the minimum requirement for proper protection and administration of the area as Wilderness. This principle is fundamental to the very concept of Wilderness. Maybe the Forest Service needs to take another look at the law and spend our taxpayer money more wisely. That could go a long way towards untangling the so-called "dam dilemmas" throughout Wilderness.

Jerome Walker, M.D.
National Board, Wilderness Watch
Missoula

and

Marcia Williams
Missoula

Jerome Walker's introduction to Wilderness Watch and Wilderness began when his late wife, Melissa served 10 years on WW's board, including a term as vice president. A retired neurologist, Jerome has concentrated on wilderness photography for the last two decades. His images can be seen on his website (jeromewalkerphotography.com). 

Marcia Williams, who is new to Wilderness but learning fast, is from New York and currently lives in Franklin, TN, where she founded and heads up Independent Trust Company.  Because of her background in finance and investment she currently is serving on Wilderness Watch’s finance committee. 

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Snow Kiting In Wilderness

by Kevin Proescholdt
kevinproescholdt 02 18 13I recently came across an on-line forum asking whether “snow kiting” is allowed in Wilderness.  While snow kiting in Wilderness might still be a rather rare activity, the question bears quite heavily on a variety of activities and the future of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, snow kiting is an offshoot of kiteboarding (a water sport), but conducted on land and on snow.  Like kiteboarders, snow kiters use large inflatable kites – some are similar to parasails – that allow the wind to pull them along or to jump and glide in the air for seconds at a time.  Kite lines run to a snow kiter’s harness and handle, which are used to maneuver the kite.  Though many snow kiters use snowboards, some telemark and alpine skiers also use kites as part of their sport.

Snow kiting in units of the wilderness system seems to have increased in recent years.  But I believe snow kiting violates the Wilderness Act, even though the federal agencies have been slow in writing specific rules spelling out such a ban.  I hope that soon, before this use becomes too entrenched in units of the wilderness system, all four agencies will ban snow kiting in Wilderness for two main reasons.

First, snow kiting violates the Wilderness Act, most notably its ban on mechanical transport in Wilderness.  U.S. Forest Service wilderness policy comes close to articulating a ban on snow kiting, by prohibiting (among other banned mechanical transport) hang gliders and parachutes, which are similar to snow kiting:

Forest Service Manual 2320.5
Mechanical Transport. Any contrivance for moving people or material in or over land, water, or air, having moving parts, that provides a mechanical advantage to the user, and that is powered by a living or nonliving power source. This includes, but is not limited to, sailboats, hang gliders, parachutes, bicycles, game carriers, carts, and wagons.


At least some of these specific prohibitions have held up in the courts.  A federal court upheld a Forest Service ban on sailboats on wilderness lakes, for example, in one of a series of court cases involving the Sylvania Wilderness in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in this case, “Certainly, Congress could rationally conclude that certain forms of mechanical transport, including sailboats and houseboats, should be excluded from the Sylvania Wilderness in order to preserve the ‘wilderness character’ of the property.”

The National Park Service also appears to have prohibited snow kiting in Wilderness, though under its regulations that govern aircraft (snow kiting meets its definition of aircraft in the Code of Federal Regulations) and “aerial delivery,” and not under its regulations prohibiting mechanical transport in Wilderness.  As a result, the Park Service has prohibited snow kiting in Glacier National Park’s Recommended Wilderness as well as in other national park Wildernesses.

In addition to violating the ban on mechanized travel, snow kiting runs against the grain of the types of recreation the Wilderness Act sought to provide.  The law defines Wilderness in part as providing “a primitive and unconfined type of recreation….”  Snow kiting is clearly not this type of primitive recreation envisioned by the Wilderness Act.

Second, beyond the legal violations, snow kiting should be banned in Wilderness because the activity makes Wildernesses less wild.  This is not about snow kiting’s physical impacts on Wilderness, but about our relationship to Wilderness.  Snow kiting is a modern transportation method, not one envisioned by the founders of the Wilderness Act or the ideals behind it.  It is not travel by primitive means.  It ignores the humility and restraint that Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser urged us to use in our relationship to Wilderness.

Wilderness is in part about preserving and experiencing these places from an earlier time and an earlier pace of travel, such as by foot, horseback, or canoe.  According to the Wilderness Act, designated Wildernesses are to be “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape….” If snow kiting and other yet-to-be-created transportation means are allowed in Wilderness, that contrast will be increasingly diminished and indistinct, and Wilderness will cease to be that special place set apart from modern civilization.  I believe that we must stand up for that distinction or we open the door to untold and unforeseen levels of non-human- or non-animal-powered transportation in Wilderness, making Wilderness little different from the rest of our human-dominated landscape.

I understand the concern expressed by some that any restrictions short of an outright ban on all mechanical devices (including, for example, a ski binding) would be somewhat arbitrary.  But it seems that the most reasonable, protective, and defensible rule is one rooted in the methods of travel in common use at the time the Wilderness Act was passed.  This is the approach a federal court took when several members of the Chippewa (also called Ojibwe or Anishinaabe) tribe challenged the prohibition on snowmobile use while exercising their treaty rights to fish in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.  The court relied on the fact that Band members traditionally accessed the area by canoe or on foot at the time of the 1854 treaty, and therefore the Wilderness Act’s ban on modern snowmobiles didn’t constitute an infringement on treaty rights.

If we don’t keep wilderness protections anchored to something solid like the primitive modes of travel contemplated in the law, what’s to protect Wilderness from any whimsical fad, recreational pursuit, or technological advance that comes its way?

Kevin Proescholdt is conservation director (and former board president) for Wilderness Watch. He has written extensively on the Boundary Waters, and wilderness policy and history.
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