By Todd Wilkinson
FOREST, Idaho - Jim Gerber is staring me in the eye and he doesn't
look happy. He's tall and lean, wears his gray hair clipped in a
buzz cut, and he's angry. The U.S. Forest Service has dug itself
into a hole, he says, and he's hell-bent on digging the agency out,
and putting it back on the road to multiple-use land
"Environmentalists turned me into
what I am," says the 30-year Forest Service veteran and retired
timber sale planner. "You can't trust them, and the moment you do
they force the federal government into doing something idiotic like
"This' is a deep crater along a popular
hiking trail leading to the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, and
Gerber is standing in the bottom of it. The Forest Service has used
backhoes to dig dozens of these "tank traps' to block forest roads
across the Targhee, near the western boundary of Yellowstone
Instead of tanks, the barriers are
built to stop another kind of army - thousands of off-road-vehicle
(ORV) riders who use the Targhee's maze of logging roads as a
playground. The Forest Service says tank traps are often the only
way to keep ORVs off closed roads. Drivers ignore signs, and when
the agency puts up gates, they cut the locks or create trails
Although Gerber isn't an ORV
enthusiast, he's insulted by the traps. "These are like big
billboards erected by the government that proclaim, "We don't want
the public on our national forests - stay out!" What has the world
come to when we have to build tank traps to keep Americans out of
public lands they own?"
Welcome to the
post-timber era and to the latest struggle over who controls the
public lands. Roads are an issue on every national forest in the
West, and each forest has its peculiar twists. But the Targhee and
its tank traps are as good a place to start as any.
The situation here is a heritage dating back to
the 1960s, when the Forest Service built thousands of miles of
roads to give timber companies access to beetle-chewed lodgepole
pine trees. From the air, those roads wind and spiral through the
clear-cut forest like elevation lines on a topographic map. They
were an efficient help to loggers, who harvested a lot of trees
here. But today the roads and their traffic are also an efficient
way to decimate the grizzly population, and over the past decade
the bears' threatened species status has forced the Forest Service
to try to close many of them.
The grizzlies and
concerns over elk habitat pushed the Targhee into the road-closing
business ahead of other forests, but now there is pressure on most
forests to do the same. There is also increasing pressure on the
agency to stop building new roads. Today, roads, rather than mines
or dams or grazed land, are at the center of the West's struggle to
figure out the future course of the region's public lands.
This road fight is the most vivid example of how
the Forest Service, which once proudly called itself the greatest
road-building agency in the world, is changing. Forest Service
Chief Mike Dombeck fired the first major shot last year, when he
declared an 18-month moratorium on new logging roads on 33 million
acres of unroaded forest land (HCN, 4/27/98). The moratorium, which
ends in October of 2000, was to give the Forest Service a "time
out" to study the impacts on wildlife, water quality, and scenery
of its 373,000 miles of roads.
attacked by many Western senators and representatives, but a month
ago he picked up a valuable supporter when President Bill Clinton
told the Forest Service to spend a year designing a plan to protect
40 to 60 million acres of unroaded forests (HCN,
Activists cheered Clinton's directive,
especially in Idaho, Montana and the Pacific Northwest, where the
lion's share of roadless forests in the West remains. They have
pushed without success for nearly two decades to pass legislation
that would permanently protect many of these lands as wilderness.
They see the directive as a pretty good substitute for legislated
But the two initiatives go beyond
imposing quasi-wilderness status on some roadless land. Dombeck and
Clinton have thrust the Forest Service deeper into something the
agency has thus far avoided: clearly defining its new role in the
An enormous amount is at stake. There is
the potential to return tens of millions of acres of roaded and
logged acres to roadless status over time. And there is also the
potential to extend administrative protection to roadless lands
that are currently subject to road-building and logging.
If they were only up against the timber
industry, Dombeck and Clinton would have it all their own way. The
cut on public land has dropped by two-thirds in the last decade,
and the industry is in decline and out of favor with the public.
But now that we have left the industrial age,
motorized recreation has come on the scene to oppose the new roads
policy. Longtime allies of the timber industry recognize the shift
from extraction to recreation. "The president has very skillfully
tried to focus the American people and the press's attention on
logging," says Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. "But about 80 percent of
this is (about) access: snowmobiling, camper access, off-road
The roads battle promises to be
as controversial and bitter as the timber wars. It pits the
environmental community and its allies in the White House against
the industry-backed ORV lobby and its friends in Congress. In the
West, on the ground, the ORVers seem to have the advantage. They're
mechanized, they're passionate and they're determined to hold all
the ground they have and to gain new ground. Meanwhile, hikers,
horseback riders and wildlife enthusiasts do not yet seem fully
aware of what is at stake, and how crucial the next year will
Explosion on the
"Nothing is worse for sensitive wildlife
than a road," writes forest ecologist Reed Noss, a board member of
the Society for Conservation Biology and an advisor to the
Wildlands Project. Two decades of study, he says, have shown that
roads fragment and destroy wildlife habitat. They are death traps
for rare, threatened and endangered species ranging from snakes to
grizzly bears. Sediment washed off roads by rain and runoff can
clog streams, destroy fisheries and foul municipal water
Roads offer easy entry for poachers and
weeds. Unmaintained, they are human safety hazards, and heavily
used, they shatter the silence of wild places. Says Noss, "The net
effect of all roads is nothing short of catastrophic."
Noss is not alone in his beliefs. In 1997, 169
forest scientists asked President Clinton to protect all roadless
areas greater than 1,000 acres. Two hundred and thirty scientists
sent a similar letter to Vice President Al Gore the following
Events on the ground amplified the
scientists' resistance to roads. Take the Clearwater National
Forest in north-central Idaho, where scientists had warned for
years that building roads across its steep batholithic slopes was a
recipe for disaster. Sure enough, during the wet winters of
1995-1996, hundreds of landslides, many the result of logging
roads, flushed tons of soil into streams, where native fish
populations were already suffering (HCN,
The scientific evidence and a
road-maintenance backlog that has climbed into the billions of
dollars convinced Dombeck to declare his road-building
The logic that drove Dombeck to the
moratorium, and the forces that are driving some forests to
obliterate or at least close roads, are nowhere clearer than on the
Targhee, where a 30-year, 1 billion-board-feet clear-cutting
program, aimed at combating pine bark beetles, created thousands of
miles of roads. That program peaked in 1978, when timber companies
pulled 107.4 million board-feet of timber off the Targhee. The
harvest then hovered between 46 million and 84 million board-feet
each year up to 1990, when concerns over grizzly bear habitat, elk
migration, watersheds and raptors such as goshawks and owls brought
it tumbling down.
By 1992, the cut had dropped to
21 million board-feet, mirroring what was happening throughout the
national forest system. By the late 1990s, it dropped below 10
million. The loggers left the woods, and right behind them came the
Forest Service, closing roads. Between 1992 and 1993, under
pressure from environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, the agency closed 1,245 miles of roads on the
For environmentalists, that was not
enough. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Earthjustice, then
the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, sued in 1993. The road network
on the forest was so dense, they claimed, that grizzlies were
driven out of their habitat or killed by poachers using the roads.
Earthjustice's senior attorney Doug Honnold says, "Closing roads is
the simplest way to give these animals habitat security."
In a 1994 out-of-court settlement, the Forest
Service agreed to study its road density, consider closing roads
and ban summer cross-country driving in more than 300,000 acres of
bear habitat. In 1997, in its revised forest plan, the Targhee
banned clear-cutting and all motorized travel in 59,000 acres of
grizzly bear "secure" areas. It also announced it would close more
than 400 miles of logging roads and ORV
Targhee Forest Supervisor Jerry Reese
ordered his staff to post signs on closed roads, but quickly
discovered that ORV drivers ignored them, particularly during
hunting season. Fences, gates and beefed-up law enforcement also
failed to stop ORV recreationists.
"We had locks
cut, posts sawed off, cutting torches, you name it," says Alan
Silker, with the Targhee's recreation
Finally, Reese called in backhoes to dig
the "earthen berms' or tank traps that so angered Jim Gerber.
ORVers were also livid. The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a Pocatello,
Idaho-based alliance of off-road enthusiasts, roundly criticized
Reese. Idaho Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth (now Chenoweth-Hage)
attended a Blue Ribbon rally, and later excoriated Assistant
Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons during a House subcommittee
"We must nip it in the bud," she said,
and vowed to keep tank traps from spreading to other
The commissioners of Teton and Fremont
counties imposed emergency weight restrictions on county roads to
prevent the Forest Service from moving heavy equipment to other
Then, in October 1998, a Forest
Service ranger found an unlit gasoline bomb on the doorstep of her
office. A note attached to the bomb threatened the Forest Service
Jim Gerber says he
understands the anger that led to the threat. On a single road, he
has counted up to 24 tank traps. All told, the Targhee has spent
$300,000 on tank traps, he says. "The Greater Yellowstone Coalition
and Earthjustice should be happy with this. I wish these
environmentalists would take their elitist ideals elsewhere."
Finally, last October, faced with a lawsuit from
the Blue Ribbon Coalition and Gerber's Citizens for a User Friendly
Forest, the Targhee called off the
According to Silker, the forest has
closed 85 percent of the roads up for closure, and the remaining 15
percent await a ruling on the lawsuit. But, he adds, more than half
of the roads that are "closed" are still in
"Earthen berms aren't stopping ORVs," he
says. "They're being driven around right now."
The Targhee shows how hard it is to close
roads in the face of organized local opposition, which may be why
the Forest Service has called for so few road closures around the
The timber industry and ORV riders have
also organized at a national level. Last summer, a collection of
groups, including People for the USA and timber industry
associations, sued the Forest Service over Dombeck's road-building
moratorium. They argued that it violated national environmental
laws by cutting the public out of the decision-making
Also party to the lawsuit were ORV
groups like the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which are burgeoning all
over the West. Only 20 years ago, the Forest Service estimated that
off-road vehicles accounted for 5.3 million visitor days
nationally. Eight years later, the number had grown to 80 million,
and by 2020, the agency expects 118 million ORV visitor days. Some
officials believe that figure may already have been
The principal organizer for ORV users is
Clark Collins' Blue Ribbon Coalition, which boasts 500,000 members
(a figure Collins gets by adding the membership numbers of his
affiliate organizations) and receives significant funding from ORV
manufacturers and timber companies (HCN, 12/9/96). The coalition
has strong political backing in the West. Among the group's "best
friends' listed in a recent newsletter are Idaho Sen. Larry Craig,
Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas and Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah. Also on the
list is Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who recently introduced the Forest
Roads-Community Right-to-Know Act, H.R. 1523, which would require
the Forest Service and BLM to consult with local elected officials
before closing any roads.
Collins' position is
that the Forest Service is being manipulated by "anti-off-highway
vehicle (OHV) hate campaigns' orchestrated by environmentalists. He
says local ORV clubs maintain trails and roads the Forest Service
and the BLM cannot afford to maintain. Horseback riders and hikers
benefit from this work, and then try to kick ORV riders out, he
"When the land managers cater to the
anti-OHV elitists, it only encourages (ORV riders) to be more
unreasonable," says Collins.
contend that ORV riders make up a tiny percentage of public-lands
users, yet destroy the experience for everyone else. They are
sounding the alarm that ORVers are pushing into trails formerly
used only by hikers, horseback riders and motorcyclists, turning
them into two-tracks and roads.
conservationist and ORV policy-expert Frank Culver says they
started that by launching "a sneak attack that blew a hole in
Forest Service regulations just wide enough to allow ORVs to go
where they had never gone before."
attack" was the cancellation of something called the "40-inch
rule." The rule had kept ORVs and four-wheelers off thousands of
miles of agency trails by allowing only vehicles that are less than
40 inches wide.
The Forest Service says it widely
advertised its intention to cancel the rule in 1991, but just five
comments were submitted to the federal record
"Nobody knew about it, and if the
conservation community had, you know there would have been a major
uproar," Culver says. "Abolishing the 40-inch rule was arguably one
of the most significant natural resource decisions the Forest
Service has ever made, and the agency didn't bother to even write
an environmental assessment."
The rule change
had not gone unnoticed within the
"Allowing wider vehicles to use trails
may cause trails to become roads," warned Midwest Deputy Regional
Forester Floyd Marita. "When is a trail no longer a trail?"
"Instead of building roads, the agency has its
engineers over-designing hiking trails and making them 50 to 60
inches wide to accommodate ORVs and snowmobiles," says John
Gatchell with the Montana Wilderness Association. "What they have
done is create mini-roads."
Gatchell claims the
Forest Service has also opened to ORVs thousands of miles of horse
and foot trails on the Helena, Deerlodge and Gallatin national
forests simply by altering forest visitor maps.
According to Gatchell, "The public was never
He claims that ORVers have built
dozens of new trails without authorization. In the Big Belt
Mountains just outside Helena, Gatchell says off-road vehicle
riders have driven right up the central ridge, scarring the slopes
with eroding tracks. "The road has gutted the heart of the area,"
he says, "and it won't rehabilitate on its own, because there is so
little soil to begin with."
Roz McClellan, a
Colorado activist who started the Rocky Mountain Recreation
Initiative, says motorized trails have proliferated on most Forest
Service lands in Colorado, including many roadless wilderness study
On the Rio Grande National Forest in
southern Colorado, the Forest Service decided not to recommend
wilderness protection for seven areas it had identified as
candidates in the 1970s, McClellan says. New or expanded motorized
trails had changed their character.
backcountry is taking on an urban feeling with traffic, congestion
and noise. The feeling of wildness is disappearing."
Money makes a
The Forest Service has an incentive to
listen to ORV fans: tax dollars. In 1991, then U.S. Sen. Steve
Symms, an Idaho Republican and ally of the Blue Ribbon Coalition,
introduced the National Recreational Trails Fund Act, commonly
known as the "Symms Act." To fund trail building and maintenance,
it gave the states a portion of a national gas tax levied at the
pump on all vehicles.
Theoretically, 30 percent
of the funds are dedicated to create and maintain motorized trails,
30 percent for nonmotorized trails, and 40 percent for "multiple
use." In practice, agencies have spent the bulk of multiple-use
funding on projects that benefit ORV users.
Symms Act also allowed the Forest Service to circumvent
environmental laws by empowering forest managers to widen trails
without public review.
The act lapsed in 1997,
but last summer, congressional Republicans resurrected it with a
bill that will spend $270 million over five years building new ORV
trails and improving old ones on national forests and BLM lands.
Chris Wood, an aide to Forest Service Chief
Dombeck, says the environmental community could learn a lesson or
two from the Blue Ribbon Coalition. At a time when the agency is
shifting away from timber revenue, leaving forests scrambling for
money, trail money is a way for forest supervisors to make trail
and road maintenance high priority.
vehicle users have been strategic in ways that environmentalists
have not been," says Wood. "They are organized, they speak with one
voice, they work their political connections, they volunteer to
help the agency maintain trails, and they are effective. Those are
attractive attributes if you're trying to capture the attention and
sympathies of Forest Service field managers."
Their effectiveness can be seen in Utah. Earlier
this year on the Dixie National Forest, District Ranger Marv Turner
widened a horseback and hiking trail with a small bulldozer called
a "Trail Cat" at the behest of local all-terrain vehicle users.
This happened even though agency maps identified it as a foot and
After complaints from
environmentalists and several Dixie forest employees, Forest
Supervisor Mary Wagner ordered Turner to restore the trail to its
previous condition. "We need to be up front and not do things
behind closed doors," she told the Salt Lake
"There are 3,500 miles of roads and
trails already open to ATVs on the Dixie," said Liz Thomas of the
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "They don't need to be making
In Colorado, the agency recently
released its plan for the White River National Forest, the most
heavily recreated forest in the country, and called for closing
some roads, many user-created ORV trails and some mountain-biking
routes. That has angered many recreation groups and members of the
Colorado congressional delegation, who are seeking to delay the
plan's implementation (HCN, 10/11/99).
land managers are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they
try to enforce the laws, the ORV groups will make trouble for them.
And if they keep quiet, they deal with their own conscience," says
Howard Wilshire, board chairman of Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility, a whistleblower protection group. As
a senior geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Wilshire became
a target of ORV lobbyists in the 1970s, when he documented the
damage caused by ORVs to the Mojave Desert. His findings ended the
legendary Barstow to Las Vegas motorcycle
"Today, the only sensible thing for the
agencies to do is limit access. They can't go on providing access
forever. They couldn't do it for loggers and they can't do it for
off-road vehicles," he adds. "And the agencies, from the Washington
level on down, absolutely need to provide support and empathy for
their field personnel who are confronting the brunt of the
pressure. Their lives can be hell. We, the public, need to support
Saving what's left
forests, however, are addressing the roads issue directly. Many
environmentalists say they feel they're racing against time to
limit vehicle use, especially with the 40 to 60 million acres of
unroaded forest land.
"Unless something is done
to proactively protect these places, they are going to be gone,"
says Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "This is an
issue that I believe will catalyze the public on lands issues
because it's open-space protection at no cost."
Rait has been heading ONRC's national Heritage
Forests Campaign, an aggressive effort to protect roadless areas.
Over the past year, he has met with Forest Service and Clinton
administration officials, carried out a letter-writing campaign and
convinced editorial writers to push for protection. Rait even
followed President Clinton on his Martha's Vineyard vacation this
summer, with radio spots and newspaper ads asking Clinton to
protect roadless areas before he leaves
Since 1998, the Clinton administration
has received more than 300,000 comments supporting a strong policy
to protect all remaining roadless areas in the national forest
In Congress, 170 members of the House,
both Democrats and Republicans, sent a letter to the president
asking for a strong roadless policy. And in 1998, the House passed
by voice vote a bill drafted by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.,
to end subsidized logging on public lands and protect the bulk of
remaining roadless lands.
The campaign to protect
roadless areas continued this fall. President Clinton asked the
Forest Service to complete an environmental impact statement by the
end of 2000, and come up with a permanent rule on how the agency
will deal with roadless areas. It was a clear message to the Forest
Service that its road-building moratorium was right on
"The most exciting thing about the
announcement is that we have a president who is excited about what
the agency is doing," said Dombeck's assistant, Chris Wood. "We're
doing this as a team. It's been a long time since that's happened."
But even before Clinton had made his
announcement, a group of 35 Republicans, led by Idaho Sen. Larry
Craig, roasted the president for creating de facto wilderness areas
without public input.
"While the Forest Service
might like this step backward to feudal European policies, it is
completely unacceptable to us and those who use our public lands,"
"A lot of regular people who use the
public lands are going to be hurt by this," says Don Amador,
Western regional representative of the Blue Ribbon Coalition.
"Access for public lands is in grave danger."
Dombeck's 18-month moratorium expires in October
of next year, just weeks before the presidential and congressional
elections. Rait predicts roadless area protection will emerge as a
campaign issue. His evidence includes a survey by Republican
pollster Frank Luntz, which concludes that wildlands protection
commands enough support with Americans that it could influence
local and national elections.
Because the roads
issue resonates at so many different levels with both urban and
rural voters, Rait's organization intends to crank up the pressure.
But he and his allies are worried about the effect on the
administration of America's continuing attachment to roads and
cars. They fear that cracks are already appearing in the
"Driving for pleasure is
a great American pastime," Dombeck said in an October speech in
Madison, Wis. "More and more Americans are using forest roads to
enjoy the public lands. And this is as it should be."
But he later added, "In no way should we condone
the de facto development of unplanned or unauthorized trails and
roads. This places a special burden on the Forest Service to ensure
that roads and motorized trails are adequately signed, mapped and
marked for public use and enjoyment."
called for a new coalition of conservationists, ORVers and
governments to "work together, so that those who enjoy our forests
using off-highway vehicles may recreate and those that prefer the
solitude and silence may enjoy high quality experiences, as well."
At the moment, anyway, the coalition Dombeck is
hoping for seems out of reach. But the emergence of a public
coalition may be less important than the emergence of a new Forest
Service - one capable of again managing the national forest land
that has slipped out of its hands.
Todd Wilkinson writes from
Bozeman, Mont. HCN Senior Editor Paul Larmer and Associate Editor
Greg Hanscom contributed to this