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Chain Saws?

Should chain saws be used to clear ice-damaged trails within Federal Wilderness areas?

 The following letter from WODC Trails Chair Peter Smart
makes the case for upholding the policy of "primitive" tools only.

April 1, 1998

Donna Hepp
Forest Supervisor
White Mountain National Forest
719 Main Street
Laconia, NH 03246

Dear Donna,

I am writing today concerning the efforts to reopen trails that were damaged by the ice storm in January. Specifically, I am concerned about suggestions from some people that the ban on chain saws in Wilderness should be lifted. As WODC trails chair, I would like to state my opposition to any measures that would permit the use of chain saws in Wilderness. This is also the view of the WODC Trails Committee.

First, let me stress that we do appreciate the severity of the storm damage to many trails. As of March 7th, WODC volunteers had already spent over 200 hours clearing storm damage. The Dicey's Mill trail (which has the worst damage some people have seen anywhere) required three days to open just two miles of trail. Several more days will be required for a complete cleanup, including removal of trees now covered with snow. Being within the Sandwich Range Wilderness, this work was and will continue to be done entirely with hand tools.

For severely damaged areas outside Wilderness, such as Old Mast Road, we have and will continue to use chain saws. We have no opposition to their use where it is appropriate. However, since the majority of our 52 miles of trails lie within the Sandwich Range Wilderness, we predict that 1000-2000 of work will be required to properly clear all the trails. Towards this end we have scheduled volunteer trips for every Saturday from May through July, and will even be hiring a summer crew specifically to work on the storm damage.

Reopening Wilderness trails will be slow, and some hikers may feel inconvenienced that they can't maintain their usual pace on all trails. But if one of the objectives of Wilderness is to let "natural forces prevail", how can we justify the major intrusion of motorized equipment just to restore recreational opportunities, an activity that is not even one of the primary objectives of Wilderness?

I find it sadly ironic that many people who support Wilderness in principle, draw the line when the principle becomes inconvenient to their personal goals. How can we possibly expect others to respect the "restrictions" of Wilderness if we do not accept them when they effect us? To be more blunt: Wilderness is not just a way to stop logging so we can use the area as our private playground. Although many hikers probably supported Wilderness for that specific reason, they need to respect that it brings certain restrictions and responsibilities for them as well.

I should also touch on safety, since this is a common argument for using chain saws in Wilderness. No, we do not want anyone to be injured because they hiked an unsafe trail. But the solution to this lies as much in proper education (trailhead information) as it does in rapid clearing of the trails. Even an immediate all-out chain saw effort would not eliminate the hazards fast enough. Education and proper planning will still be required in order to have a safe and enjoyable trip. In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to improve the Wilderness information that is almost entirely lacking at trailheads. (We will be posting such info at Ferncroft, and already have detailed trail conditions on our web site www.wodc.org)

Unfortunately, even with the Wilderness regulations in full effect, there are those that may chose to ignore them. I was very upset to hear recently that some people may already have used chain saws to reopen trails within Wilderness! Unless there is a formal decision to lift the ban, I hope you will take steps to inform all forest users, adopters, and maintainers that the use of chain saws is a serious violation, and is not condoned. Not only is the use of chain saws intrusive, but in the wrong hands it can cause irreparable damage to the natural character of many primitive trails.

Finally, I should touch on the argument that "this isn't true wilderness anyway, so the restrictions are ridiculous!" While very little land in the lower-48 is true "wilderness", that does nothing to lessen the benefits afforded by the Wilderness designation. Even if these lands are just a little bit wilder, that is still an invaluable result. And while recreational pressures in the northeast may be a challenge for Wilderness managers, it is these very pressures that heighten the value of Wilderness, and make it even more deserving of protection.

Wilderness is not cheap. It requires a great dedication and cost to have and protect it. As the trail season progresses I will certainly find my convictions tested by the magnitude of the task that lies ahead. On the other hand, there is also great splendor and a renewed natural presence in the woods. We need to help others to appreciate that splendor, and to work in harmony with it, rather than sacrifice the very objectives for which Wilderness was established.

We must continue to improve awareness and support for these Wilderness issues. In the mean time, it is our responsibility as stewards of these public lands to protect them as best we can. Towards that end, I hope you will oppose any effort to lift the ban on motorized equipment, and work to maintain full compliance with all Wilderness management guidelines.


Peter Smart
WODC Trails Chair

CC:    Terry Clark, Saco District Ranger
          Eric Swett, Saco District Trails Supervisor


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