The Forest Service sets off into uncharted territory

  • 12-square-mile portion of Targhee National Forest

    courtesy Targhee Nat'l Forest
  • Jim Gerber in pit that blocks forest road in Targhee

    Todd Wilkinson photo
  • Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck

  • Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council

    photo courtesy ONRC
  • ATV damage in Hedges Mtn. Roadless Area

    photo courtesy Montana Wilderness Assn.
  • Clark Collins of Blue Ribbon Coalition

    phot courtesy Blue Ribbon Magazine
  • John Gatchell of Montana Wilderness Association

    courtesy Mont. Wilderness Assn.

TARGHEE NATIONAL 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 management.

"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."

"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 National Park.

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 around them.

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.

Dombeck was 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, 10/25/99).

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 protection.

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 West.

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 vehicle access."

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 be.

Explosion on the Targhee

"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 supplies.

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 year.

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, 1/22/96).

The scientific evidence and a road-maintenance backlog that has climbed into the billions of dollars convinced Dombeck to declare his road-building moratorium.

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 Targhee.

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 trails.

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 staff.

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 meeting.

"We must nip it in the bud," she said, and vowed to keep tank traps from spreading to other forests.

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 forest roads.

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 and conservationists.

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 bulldozers.

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 use.

"Earthen berms aren't stopping ORVs," he says. "They're being driven around right now."

Growing clout

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 West.

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 process.

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 reached.

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 says.

"When the land managers cater to the anti-OHV elitists, it only encourages (ORV riders) to be more unreasonable," says Collins.

Environmentalists 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.

Montana 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."

The "sneak 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 nationwide.

"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 agency.

"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 notified."

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 areas.

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.

"Our backcountry is taking on an urban feeling with traffic, congestion and noise. The feeling of wildness is disappearing."

Money makes a difference

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.

The 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.

"Off-road 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 horse trail.

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 Tribune.

"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 any more."

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).

"Public 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 race.

"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 them."

Saving what's left

Few 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 office.

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 system.

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 track.

"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," Craig said.

"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 adminstration's resolve.

"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."

Dombeck 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. n

Todd Wilkinson writes from Bozeman, Mont. HCN Senior Editor Paul Larmer and Associate Editor Greg Hanscom contributed to this story.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A convert to conservation

- One forest takes on roads

- ORVs run wild and free in Utah

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