Forest Service skips a chance to do things right


If you're like me and can't keep up with the Bush administration's last-minute policy changes, you might have failed to notice a recent announcement by the U.S. Forest Service. In its rush to tie up loose ends, the Forest Service is hammering out new internal agency guidance documents, called "directives." 

These directives guide the management of both the agency's overburdened transportation system and its network of recreational trails. But what the agency is attempting to do now will leave us with a lopsided playing field when it comes to quiet recreation. Managing our national forests is no easy task, and at best it is a balancing act among many competing interests. In the countdown to the end of the Bush administration, any attempt at achieving true balance appears to have been abandoned.

In its Dec. 9 final Travel Management Directives, which go into effect Jan. 8, 2009, the Forest Service ignores the goals of its 2005 Travel Management Rules, which were supposed to identify and put into place a minimum transportation system. A real analysis would have asked where access was needed for management and recreation and noted where resource damage was occurring, and it would have identified any roads and motorized routes that were poorly designed or under-maintained. Moreover, the 2005 rule required the Forest Service to decide whether to keep a road or motorized route or abolish it and take it off the map. 

Unfortunately, the final directives also contained loopholes to this requirement, and most forest managers have taken advantage of them. They've rushed to complete the process as quickly as possible without answering any of the basic questions, leaving them once again flying blind as they try to manage their growing network of roads. Without study and analysis, forest managers lack the information necessary to make informed decisions. The draft directives on travel management procedures that were published for public comment in March 2007 provided better guidance than the final directives. Apparently, it took the Forest Service 21 months to figure out how to wiggle its way out of the commitments to sound management it almost made in its draft directives.

As for trails, a separate guidance document called the Trails Classification Directives -- issued in an interim final form in mid-October after more than two years of delay -- start out by setting a good tone for future management. They offer firm guidelines for trail maintenance and construction, but sidestep recreational planning by creating a confusing and subjective process for determining how trails should be classified.

For example, how does the Forest Service determine whether a trail is open to everybody -- from hikers and people on horseback to drivers of all-terrain vehicles -- or limited only to certain kinds of users? You might assume that the agency would involve the public in important decisions like these, but you would be wrong. The agency has adopted no official system at all. In some cases, it uses a previously existing analysis; in others, it asks agency old-timers to recall what kind of use was originally intended for the trail in question.  Then, without further analysis or any public involvement, the agency assigns a use for the trail and maintains it accordingly. If trail users don't agree with that assessment, they just have to speak up and try to get it changed after the fact.

This isn't planning; it's winging it. The Forest Service is hiding from public involvement and refusing to take a comprehensive look at both recreation and the travel system.

The Forest Service needs to understand what's happening on the ground; it needs to know who's using its network of roads, motorized routes and recreational trails as a whole, and determine what parts of it are truly needed, what uses are appropriate, and which roads, trails or uses may be causing too much resource damage or too many recreational conflicts.

Sidestepping these contentious issues in a last-ditch effort to lock in a one-sided policy does a disservice both to our national forests and to those of us who love these special areas and visit them often.  If you're curious about how the new trails classification directives might affect you, call or visit your local ranger district office. What you discover might be surprising.

Sarah Peters is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She works for Wildlands CPR in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Jeff Heinen
Jeff Heinen
Jan 12, 2009 11:50 PM
As we've seen over the passing decade, the Forest Service has become a federal servant to California, Montana, Idaho, and many others. Their only real "directive" is fire suppression. Addressing the management issue is the right place to start, because such a critical agency acting steward to our public treasures is expected to act responsibly. However, recognize the issue of a constricting budget putting pressure from every corner of the cubicle on the dwindling staff left to make do in the Recreation Planning Department. When your budget is frozen two months into the "heavy use" season by Fire, you're often left with hardly a leg to stand on. Seldom are these issues ignored by the those who have dedicated their careers to protecting the resource, and it is entirely possible that it took 21 months to "wiggle" out of their last deficit and regain their composure.
I could be wrong, but I would imagine that NEPA requirements were fulfilled within respect to public input. In fact I'm well aware of it. As for the information, well it is expensive. Analyzing all of the roads that have been fruitlessly engineered over half a century can be a real struggle for an office that is generally the smallest in the building.
USFS and Public Opinion
Bryce Marston
Bryce Marston
Jan 13, 2009 09:56 AM
I worked for the USFS closing non-commissioned forest roads and I know for a fact information about the project was presented to the public (I was at the meeting). However, the general public was not interested and did not show up for any meetings to voice their opinions. Now they are complaining about "their roads" being closed on the forest. All summer long, I was out surveying every inch of closed road recommending treatement to minimize resource damage. In total, I surveyed over 100 miles of road, and all but a few miles needed work. Stream crossings were of particular importance. 90% of sediment in forest streams is due to the road systems. This increase in sediment impacts the fisheries, channel characteristics and ecosystems of stream networks. The simple fact is this. These roads are not supposed to be here, were never supposed to be there in the first place. Yes, the USFS should have managed their forests more efficiently in the past, preventing these roads from being created in the first place. However, most of these roads are created by ATV's and motorcycles driving on old logging roads that were closed but had not yet completely recovered. Once motorized vehicles get onto these roads, rehabilitation becomes very difficult. The USFS is simply trying to do what is best for the forest ecosystem.
planning and site specific analysis happens at the local level
Jan 13, 2009 12:22 PM
It should be noted that the recent update of directives was not an analysis but rather meant to provide greater consistency on the ground and across the agency. Travel management plans are completed on a Forest by Forest basis. Below is a quote from the Federal Register regarding Travel Management Directives:

“The final directives provide policy and procedural guidance to Agency officials implementing the travel management rule. Travel management decisions implementing these directives are made with appropriate site-specific environmental analysis and public involvement. The final directives have no effect on the ground until designations of roads, trails, and areas are completed at the field level, with opportunity for public involvement, as appropriate.”

We're not winging it
Tukuhnikivats Ahtu
Tukuhnikivats Ahtu
Jan 14, 2009 08:02 PM
I've worked on travel management on three different forests, and we did involve the public beginning in 2005. I have spent weeks on end scrutinizing GIS along with an interdisciplinary team looking at public comments and working from our own knowledge of the Forest. We considered dispersed camping, access for landowners, hydrology, and fish and wildlife. Hell, we are putting seasonal restrictions for butterflies, elk, and deer. What people need to realize about travel management is that very few forests, if any, are doing anything on the ground other than signing. We don't have money for gates or berming, nonetheless decommissioning (where the road is ripped up or logs are felled to prevent use). This is a paper exercise. The roads will still be there. The only difference is that Law Enforcement Officers and Forest Protection Officers can give citations for those not obeying the Motor Vehicle Use Map. The Forest Service has spent millions collecting data for this even though no on the ground actions would occur. We have had to do thousands of miles of archaeological surveys because SHPO offices don't understand that the product of this project is nothing but a map. For a project that has been analyzed for four years on most forests, has cost millions of dollars in data collection, I would love to hear what would count as an "indepth" analysis. Did this author not to do any research other than look at the directives? You know, hardly any employee actually reads those, and we are all so far into Travel Analysis we're not going to change anything now. The directives are mostly meaningless.
not following directives sounds like winging it to me...
Jan 16, 2009 03:09 PM
It's precious to admit that you're not reading or following your directives, that's really law abiding of you. It's also neat that you're abdicating your management responsibility by refusing to take action beyond issuing a map. You're just plain wrong - the TMR does require you to decommission and enforce. I'm assuming you work on the Manti-LaSal, given your handle, Tuk. I'll submit your willful ignorance of your job requirements so that it becomes part of the project record. I hope you can do better in the future...
Directives are not law
Tukuhnikivats Ahtu
Tukuhnikivats Ahtu
Jan 19, 2009 04:26 PM
The travel management rule is the law, the directives are how the agency wants us to handle that law. All forests are following the travel management rule and we are law-abiding. It is not a job requirement to read directives before we are told to. When a new directive is issued we usually get a letter from the chief and/or regional forester a few weeks later with further direction on if/how to implement the directive. When we get that email, we read it and do as we are told. Notice that the rule went into effect in 2005, and that is when most Forests started analysis. These directives just became final a couple of weeks ago. Many areas are already done with travel management and have their motor vehicle use map. My point is that in those cases, the final directive will be meaningless. The author was making a big deal about these new directives, but failed to give any specific examples of how the new directives create loopholes in the law. How do they cut short public comment or analysis? I've read them and do not understand how she comes to that conclusion. The Forests are not abdicating responsibility by issuing just a map. That is exactly what the travel management rule calls for. It does not say we have to decommission roads. It says we need to have an effective, safe transportation system. We cannot decommission roads when we have no money. Believe me, I and my co-workers would love it if we could hire dozens of law enforcement officers and rip up the thousands of miles of unnecessary road, but the travel management rule did not allocate any funds to do this. The Forest Service does not even have enough money this year to fund their permanent employees.

I am not an employee of the Manti-La Sal nor have I ever been, but if it makes you feel better to submit my comments to them, please feel free. You can find out where to submit comments by visiting and looking up the Manti- La Sal.

It is good to be passionate about the land. If you really want to help implement travel management, write to your congressman and senators and tell them how federal agencies (Forest Service, BLM, Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service) do not have enough money to enforce travel management and decommission old roads.
Local Involvement
Jan 14, 2009 09:14 PM
Sarah Peters has eloquently ranted. I do not see any evidence of Peters involvement with the travel managment process in her local ranger district or forest. Instead of an emotionally charged opinion piece, I would rather read an article based on solid analysis of the facts.
hear hear
michael kirkpatrick
michael kirkpatrick
Jan 14, 2009 11:23 PM
i agree. an actual interview or quote would have been illuminating. as it is it's just someone's opinion, which is what someone's blog is for. maybe my standards for hcn are just too high.

that's not to say the agenda (and funding) of the forest service has not been hijacked, as i think most within the forest service would be first to admit. i hope some new direction helps restore all that's been broken over the past eight years. that, and some money.

"Writers on the Range" is opinion
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Jan 15, 2009 08:53 AM
Just a note to people commenting that the writer is simply stating her opinion. You're absolutely right -- because this is not a news story, it's an opinion column. That's why this article has the "Writers on the Range" label at the top, and another tag below that saying "Essay".

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Jodi Peterson
Assoc. Editor
true, but ...
michael kirkpatrick
michael kirkpatrick
Jan 15, 2009 12:08 PM
i'm a fan of writers on the range because it brings fresh voices into the arena. what it also usually brings are facts. editorials are of course going to contain opinions, but there's a difference between a person's firsthand observations of, say, the effects of natural gas development on their viewshed or their drinking water or their economy, and someone making assumptions about policy processes and implementation when they're not evidently privy to those machinations. it's a substantive difference, to me. but that's just my opinion.

thank you for your previous response.