The U.S. Forest Service rescinded its decision to allow chain saws in two Southwest Colorado wilderness areas, at least temporarily, because of heavy snowpack that will keep trail crews out of areas in need of trail maintenance.
The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional forester, Brian Ferebee, approved the use of chain saws in May to remove bark beetle-killed trees obstructing trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.
The Forest Service planned to use chain saws because beetle-killed trees are falling so quickly across the forest it can’t keep trails clear using crosscut saws, Forest Service staff previously told The Durango Herald.
Conservation groups challenged the use of chain saws and filed a lawsuit to block their use. The groups argued using chain saws would violate federal law that prohibits the use of motorized equipment in wilderness areas except in emergency situations.
Ferebee reversed the contentious decision to use chain saws in a letter sent to forest supervisors Monday based on reports that avalanches are blocking trails.
The snow conditions make it unlikely the Forest Service would see any “substantial benefit” from chain saws because the work would have to be delayed until after July 8, Ferebee said.
He rescinded his decision to allow chain saws until the agency’s “assessed needs are completed.” A request to the Forest Service for clarification about what completing “assessed needs” entails was not immediately returned Tuesday evening.
Conservation groups, including Great Old Broads for Wilderness, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Wilderness Watch, applauded the Forest Service’s announcement in a news release.
“We encourage the Forest Service to use its time between now and next year to develop a plan that comports with both the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act,” said George Nickas with Wilderness Watch.
Conservation groups previously argued in a lawsuit that the Forest Service’s decision was made in secret and the agency should have sought public participation to come up with alternative plans to clear trails.
The lawsuit will now be dismissed after the announcement, said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Going forward, conservation groups will keep a “close eye” on the Forest Service because it seems as if the agency is leaving the option of using chain saws open, he said.
However, Pearson said he was hopeful the agency would embrace volunteers to help clear trails without the use of chain saws.
In Tuesday’s letter, Ferebee directed his staff to explore working with groups interested in helping clear trails with non-motorized equipment. He asked staff to research whether the groups can provide “sources of skilled labor that would reduce the need to perform trail maintenance with chain saws.”
The Forest Service is charged with managing vast areas impacted by the beetle outbreak that started on Wolf Creek Pass. 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.
While the number of downed trees seems daunting, former trail crew members have told Pearson there is not much of an advantage to using chain saws because the heavy saws and gas must be packed into the wilderness to clear trails, Pearson said.
“It’s not really demonstrably needed to get the job done,” he said of using chain saws.
While plans for chain saw use are on hold, Ferebee directed Forest Service staff to study their use. His letter outlined these following goals for his staff:
Identify trail segments with 40 or more downed or leaning trees per mile. Study and report on the efficiency of using non-motorized saws to clear trails in the wilderness. Study and report on the efficiency of using chain saws to clear trails outside of wilderness and how those efficiencies would be affected by a lack of proximity to roads.[email protected]