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Back Country: a designation whose time has come

Debate has been going on for several years about possible alternatives to the limited range of land protection designations available for federal lands.

ByTom Crimmins

In November 2000, The Forest Service released the Roadless Area Conversation Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). These rules were adopted in an attempt to protect the 58.5 million acres or 31% of all of National Forest System (NFS) lands from development. The FEIS documents a decision to "Prohibit Road Construction, Reconstruction and Timber Harvest Except for Stewardship Purposes Within Inventoried Roadless Areas."

"The litigation and debate surrounding these lands continues to deplete agency resources, restrict responsible management and draw the discussions away from what is necessary to truly protect the land."

In general, the public supports protection of these lands. A large number of comments received through the rulemaking process supported protection. In a recent Idaho survey, 66% of the respondents supported protection of the Roadless Areas. However, a number of organizations have challenged the Forest Service decision. The primary arguments are not a conflict between protection and exploitation but a disagreement on the specific actions that are necessary to provide appropriate protection to these areas.

Background

In 1972, the Forest Service began the first review of NFS Roadless Areas. This study was known as the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) process. The intent within the agency, at that time, was to identify areas that met the criteria and then make a determination of which areas qualified for inclusion in the Wilderness Preservation System.

One of the criteria, in this 1972 process, for inclusion of an area in the roadless inventory was that primitive roads would be ignored unless they were constructed or maintained with mechanical equipment. Initially, this did not represent a significant problem because of the plan to review each area for evidence of mans impact on the landscape prior to making a Wilderness suitability determination. Old, historic roads that had recovered to the point of being virtually unnoticeable could be included within Wilderness while other roads that were still being used or clearly showed evidence of mans activity would be excluded. The problems with this criterion surfaced later after the Forest Service had made their Wilderness recommendations to Congress. There was strong disagreement from the Wilderness advocates over the areas that were not recommended for Wilderness. In addition, the discussions surrounding this disagreement fostered the public perception that all of these areas were, in fact, pristine and without any roads. This was clearly not the case.

In an attempt to reduce the controversy and conflict over the first review, the Forest Service undertook a second review (RARE II). This review added additional lands to the Roadless Area Inventory because of the modification of the size criteria. The initial review was limited to areas of 5000 acres or more while the second review included areas of 1000 acres or more. This second review resulted in the 58.5 million acres in the current inventory. As part of this review, the Forest Service again made Wilderness suitability determinations. These recommendations were again sent to Congress through the Land Management Planning process. In the 21 years since this last review, Congress has designated some of the areas as Wilderness and not acted on some others.

Instead of reducing the controversy surrounding Wilderness recommendations this second review only served to expand the area under disagreement. Wilderness advocates, using the perception that all of these areas were pristine, pushed forward with their efforts to include all areas as designated Wilderness without regard to the Forest Service analysis. This controversy continues today.

The latest action by the Forest Service was an attempt to placate the Wilderness advocates and to resolve the controversy once and for all. As clearly evidenced by the numerous lawsuits challenging the decision and the continued pressure to make all the areas Wilderness, this effort was again a failure. The litigation and debate surrounding these lands continues to deplete agency resources, restrict responsible management and draw the discussions away from what is necessary to truly protect the land.

Proposal

History has shown that administrative action has been unable to resolve the underlying conflict associated with these lands. It is imperative that Congress take some specific action to put this issue to rest. Congress needs to establish a land designation that provides the protection the public demands for these lands while at the same time providing the managing agencies the necessary management flexibility to respond to recreational demands and address critical concerns of forest health, fire prevention and wildlife habitat enhancement.

In general, most of the lands included in the Roadless Inventory reflect an undeveloped, back country character. Evidence of mans activities may be present and obvious to a knowledgeable observer. However, this evidence is not dominant and the landscape is generally perceived as possessing natural, primitive or backcountry characteristics. It is important that these characteristics be maintained under any land designation category established by Congress.

These lands provide a very valuable resource for recreational activities that allow people to experience and enjoy these natural appearing landscapes. They provide opportunities for people to escape from the pressures of large crowds and the more developed world. This can include a wide range of recreational activities including hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling or use of off-highway motorcycles, ATVs and 4-wheel drive vehicles. At the same time, many of these lands are threatened by insect and disease epidemics and by catastrophic wildfires that could destroy the very values that the public wants to see preserved. Therefore, it is essential that this land designation also allow the managing agencies the ability to apply the minimum level management to deal with these threats.

Any management activities that are planned for these areas must also be subject to all the existing laws, regulations and policies that address the protection of the environment as well as cultural and historic resources. The public land management processes must also apply to these lands. In this way the public's ability to participate in and influence the process is preserved.

The establishment of a Congressional Back Country land designation can achieve all of these objectives. The land will be protected and the public will still be able to experience and understand the values of these unique areas and the countless court cases and legal challenges can be reduced. Congress needs to begin the process to make this new land designation a reality.

Legislative Objectives

The following is a list of desired outcomes from the identification of Congressionally Designated Back Country. The legislation that is drafted should include necessary wording to ensure that these results can be achieved.

The Legislation should:

  • Provide a method to protect areas that may not qualify for Wilderness designation as a result of the presence of incompatible facilities or uses.
  • Emphasize the need to provide for a wide range of recreation opportunities within the designated areas including motorized and mechanized uses where appropriate.
  • Require an inventory of all developments including: roads, routes, travelways, trails, cabins, or other human caused development or disturbance.
  • Require an analysis of all existing routes to determine the environmental effects of the routes in their current conditions.
  • Identify the funding required to relocate, reconstruct or maintain the existing routes to ensure compliance with existing environmental requirements.
  • Not preclude management activities to protect the health of the forest within the designated area.
  • Not preclude vegetative management activities that are designed to reduce fuel loading and wildfire intensities.
  • Continue to allow management of the designated area by the agency having original jurisdiction.
  • Preserve the backcountry or primitive character of the lands while still allowing "light touch" or compatible management activities.
  • Provide an opportunity to experience a more primitive form of recreation without significant developments for the enhancement of visitor comfort.
  • Provide a recreation opportunity where the visitor can experience a relationship with the natural conditions of the lands.
  • Allow management and maintenance of the recreation roads, trails and facilities using the most efficient and effective means.
  • Encourage management of roads, trails and ways in a manner that will minimize the conflicts between these travelways and the environmental resources.
  • Allow management activities necessary to maintain and improve wildlife habitat.
  • Preserve any valid existing rights that exist at the time of designation.
  • Allow for commercial or permitted events and activities that are appropriate to the character of the area and that support the recreational or other purposes.
  • Maintain the rights of the owners of private lands included within the designated areas.
  • Ensure adequate access to included private lands as necessary to allow reasonable use and enjoyment of those lands.
  • Require an annual report to Congress on the status of the designated areas including a description of the areas in the system, regulations in effect, expenditures for management and maintenance of the area, amount and type of recreation use and any other information they deem appropriate.

    For additional information contact: Tom Crimmins, Trail Consultant, 12662 N Avondale Loop, Hayden Lake, ID 83835 -- (208) 762-2298

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