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