A coalition of conservation groups has sued the U.S. Forest Service for its recent decision to allow chain saws for trail work in two wilderness areas in Southwest Colorado.
The Forest Service announced earlier this month it would skirt the protections in the Wilderness Act, which prohibits motorized use, to allow chain saws to clear downed bark beetle-killed trees across trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, said the Forest Service’s decision was done in secret and is a clear violation of the Wilderness Act. The conservation groups include the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Wilderness Watch.
The groups seek for the decision to be overturned and for the courts to force the Forest Service to include public participation and come up with alternate plans for trail work.
“Wilderness exists for its own sake,” said George Nickas with Wilderness Watch in a prepared statement. “It represents a piece of primitive America free of motors and technology that have allowed humans to dominate so much of the planet. It is not the role of the Forest Service to alter wilderness to appease impatient managers or visitors.”
A spokesman for the Forest Service did not immediately return requests seeking comment.
In a previous interview, 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 major storm events that knock 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 crosscut saws, Robertson said.
The trees were killed over the past decade during the massive beetle outbreak that started on Wolf Creek Pass. Now, about 222,000 acres have been affected in the Weminuche Wilderness, which is Colorado’s largest wilderness area at about 500,000 acres. In the 158,790 acre South San Juan Wilderness, about 60,600 acres have been impacted.
“We see this as a unique situation,” he said. “It’s unusual, but it’s not prohibited.”
The conservation groups, though, argue inconvenienced trail users does not rise to a level that would allow the Forest Service to skirt the Wilderness Act, saying the act explicitly bans use of motorized equipment to make trail maintenance easier.
Anne Dal Vera, a retired wilderness ranger for the San Juan National Forest, said axes and crosscut saws are capable of handling the work. She said a crew of 10 people in 2005 cleared more than 3,000 downed trees with hand tools.
The conservation groups also fear the Forest Service’s decision will set a precedent for using chain saws and potentially other motorized equipment in other wilderness areas across the U.S., and potentially chip away at the Wilderness Act.
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.
“We need wild, untouched places where we can retreat from civilization and remember what we deeply value,” said Shelley Silbert with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness in a prepared statement. “These special places allow us to take a step back and think about our human imprint.”
The Forest Service’s Robertson said previously he does not believe allowing chain saws in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas will set a dangerous precedent.
“The situation we’re facing with the beetle kill is unique, and it is extreme,” he said. “We’re in a hard place, but we’re trying to be responsible and do the right thing.”