When is a Roadless Area Roadless?

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | July 23, 2008      
Colorado backcountry skiing.
Mountain Gazette, “New Yorker” of the West.

Read through the July Mountain Gazette last week; their mountain biking theme issue. A few pages after a useful fireworks how-to that describes proper technique for shooting bottle rockets at people, the obligatory land use article caught my eye.

In “The Golden Rule,” author Doug Schnitzspahn covers the Roadless Area Conservation Rule from a bicycle environmentalist perspective.

I found Doug’s take interesting for two reasons. First, he makes it clear that “The Schism” exists between mountain bikers and legal Wilderness. In his words, “as more Wilderness is created, more singletrack is lost.” (Note that here at WildSnow we capitalize the “W” when we refer to legal Wilderness.) Second, this leads him into a short (by Gazette standards) discussion of how lands covered by the Roadless Rule are the “sacred ground of the mountain bike,” BUT, that the “future of these lands will never be safe until they are legally protected by more than a clever rule.”

It’s about time someone on the enviro side said out loud that the Roadless Rule has an element of bogosity. In that vein, Doug concludes that we perhaps need “a complete rethinking of the concept of wild lands.”

While Doug’s “rethinking” appears to involve typical my-recreation-is-holier-than-yours thinking (as in muscle vs motor ), at least he’s busting the issue open.

I’ll take it farther: In my opinion, the Roadless Rule is nothing more than a values construct and political distraction with weird unintended consequences.

Why do I think that? Granted, if the Roadless Rule makes it easier to control damaging development on our public lands, it has an upside. Yet attempting to set land management policy based on road building, and defining land values by the existence or lack of roads, is in my view a simplistic view that has little basis in reality (plenty of wonderful backcountry land has roads nearby). More importantly, the rule actually allows roads and mechanized recreation!

If any proof of that exists, take the rule itself, which is fairly clear in most areas but puffs smoke when it comes to one rather key subject: it fails to adequately define what a road is (and may never be able to do so since it allows mechanized travel).

One important paragraph says it all:

“A trail is established for travel by foot, stock, or trail vehicle, and can be over, or under, 50 inches wide. Nothing in this paragraph as
proposed was intended to prohibit the authorized construction, reconstruction, or maintenance of motorized or non-motorized trails that are classified and managed as trails pursuant to existing statutory and regulatory authority and agency direction.” (from The Rule.)

Did you read that? Yep, “Roadless” areas can have all the motorized travel you want, so long as it’s on a designated “trail,” and in our area at least, only used by ATV’s and their ilk (this is official policy as reported to me by a USFS source). In other words, a “Roadless” area can be overrun by motorcycles and ATV’s so long as they’re on “trails,” while some mellow family futzing around in their Jeep is legally fenced out.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Coming soon to a “Roadless Area” near you – Polaris Ranger RZR. Yep, it has a 300 lb. cargo capacity, tows 1,500 lbs — and most certainly takes a ski rack.

I’ve written here before about how trying to shut out “Jeep” 4×4 recreation from the backcountry has led at least in part to the ATV boom (which I readily acknowledge is in certain areas a scourge of nearly biblical proportions.) So now we have a rule that shuts out regular 4×4 “Jeeps” and allows ATVs on “trails”? Hello, what in the world were you thinking!?

Despite the ranting about how the Roadless Rule is some kind of gift to wilderness preservation and muscle powered recreation, I can’t help but see that it’s not, with a capital N.

As Doug says in the Gazette from his enviro biased yet well reasoned perspective, “Recasting the role of bikes in roadless lands will require…a complete rethinking of the concept of wild lands.”

Ho hum, sounds like what we do here at WildSnow.com on occasion, where we chuck spears at the sacred cow of legal Wilderness, and have long advocated for some sort of “backcountry” designation that controlled development while at the same time blessing recreation. Of course our version includes motorized in the mix. And why is that bad? If the vaunted Roadless Rule allows motorized trails, and the Rule is like holy water to environmentalist folks, then what’s wrong with asking for the same thing, only a version that’s more honest, obviously welcoming of recreation diversity, and less obsessed with roads or lack thereof? In other words, something more than a “clever rule?”

(Note: The ATV manufacturers are not stupid. They’re selling “side by sides” faster than REI sells backpacks. These are nothing more or less than a downsized Jeep, but so long as the side-by-side is 50 inches wide or less it’s allowed on many (if not most) ATV trails. Thus making a mockery of the “Roadless” Rule.)

Have at it commenters! Should we sell our family Jeep and get a side-by-side ATV? Seriously, what’s going on with making a big hoopla of the Roadless Rule, and having it become a way to manage ATV recreation areas? And where do our bicycles fit in?


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23 Responses to “When is a Roadless Area Roadless?”

  1. Randonnee July 23rd, 2008 11:00 am

    Great topic!

    I have been dreaming for a few years of buying a 6 x 6 amphibious ATV that can be fitted with tracks for snow, and also a snow blade. Perhaps this year? The real reason (I would explain to my wife) to own such a $12k toy, of course, is to keep the parking areas and areas around the house clear of snow… : )}

    In the spring, just to keep the gas from going bad : )}, I could run the tracked 6 x 6 up some roads with partial melt and drifts to go ski touring. The blade would perhaps relieve a few hours of shoveling through drifted-in sidehill road in order to get to the goods using a snowmobile.

    In regard to ATV/ motorcycles, we were mountain biking last week on a remote, lightly-used USFS Road, and on singletrack USFS trails and saw some motorcycles- we enjoyed watching them actually, not too many. I noticed that on a Trail through the meadow just downslope of the road was frequent (legal) motorcycle traffic, while my family biked in peace with no traffic at all on the road above and within sight of the trail below. Interesting, the pressure for use because of few legal opportunities for motorcycle riding on USFS trails.

    We have few legal ATV-allowed areas in this USFS District, but one area that ATV use is allowed has a road system to high-elevation Wenatchee Mtns. powder skiing in a beautiful basin with several nice peaks surrounding it. The area was mined for gold from the first settlement of this area, the old roads washed out. In the 70’s private timber firms pushed a new road in over a ridge, thus we few knowledgeable Wenatchee Mtn ski tourers found new access. Anyway, that road system allows ATV use, such as my wished-for tracked 6 x 6 with snow blade… : )}.

  2. Sierra Journal July 23rd, 2008 11:10 am

    I encourage everyone to read up on the history, motivation, success and limits of the Roadless Rule on Wikipedia before jumping into this (if you haven’t already of course). It has a brief but informative entry.

    It’s a very complicated thing with some very real flaws (and I’m certainly not an expert), but come on man, it protects 58.5 million acres of wildlands from logging. That can’t be bad in my book. I’m not concerned whether the land is protected under a big “W” or a little “w” or whatever else you want to call it. Just so long as it’s protected from development and degradation. The roadless rule does that.

  3. Lou July 23rd, 2008 11:17 am

    Sierra, hear you about logging, but not sure we need to “protect” all our backcountry land from it. Seems like when done in a controlled fashion, logging might be useful for us and the forest. Just like I don’t view the word “road” as a swear word, neither do I look at the word “logging” that way.

    But don’t get the wrong idea, as mentioned in my blog above, I’m fully aware that we’ve got to manage our public land in a way that keeps development like logging at levels that are compatible with recreation, and of course the tree cutting would need to be done in ways that keep the forest healthy.

    Did you write or edit the Wiki article? Everyone, here is the link.

  4. Randonnee July 23rd, 2008 11:32 am

    In my home area, one of the Proposed Roadless Areas during the 1990s has well-used and maintained roads. I drive or snowmobile those roads regularly. Fortunately, that area was left out of Roadless Area Designation, and rightly so. Ethics, facts, reason, all sometimes fade away from Bureaucracy, but at least in this case the end result was sane.

    Another area here has an old road system that goes quite high on formerly private timberlands, ownership was traded to USFS in the 1990’s. Lack of funds for maintenance has allowed the roads to become rough and overgrown somewhat. That road system allows close access to beautiful subalpine peaks and valleys and lakes within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Great recreation in all seasons, known to locals. As has occurred countless times, USFS wants to gate these roads at a low elevation and require several extra miles hike through clearcut slopes.

    The reason given from someone at USFS is that a Memo came down about reclaiming Road miles in potential Grizzly Recovery Areas. The irony is that in winter, gates or no gates, this is a main highway for snowmobilers to trespass into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, even on one cut trail through the Wilderness forest that I found, all with the full knowledge of USFS Officials with whom I have had discussion.

    It seems that USFS likes to remove access down to 3000 ft. elevation here (my rule is to ski tour here at 4000 ft. and above), and a few miles back through logging-scalped areas.

  5. Sierra Journal July 23rd, 2008 11:46 am

    Thanks for the reply Lou. No wiki writing or editing here…. I just like to point to neutral, credible sources when potentially sensitive subjects like this come up. It’s nice for everyone to have some baseline facts to work off of… thanks for linking.

    And I hear ya. People need wood and loggers (and even developers) need to be brought into the discussion to help manage this stuff sustainably. But the vast majority of national forest land is still available to them – even with the roadless rule. It’s just that this is one of the single greatest conservation successes of the last 50 years. Don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, ya know?

  6. Lou July 23rd, 2008 12:07 pm

    10-4 Sierra, I’m looking at this from a recreation perspective, not conservation. I believe it misses the mark in that respect. As for conservation, other than the disaster our forests have become because of poor management such as too much fire suppression, I’m sure it works well in many ways.

    As for Wikipedia, it’s usually more neutral than op-ed writing such as blogging, but I’m not giving it a total pass.

    For example, the Wiki has no external link to crit of the Roadless Rule. Perhaps someone can stick a link in there for WildSnow.com (grin)?

  7. Dongshow July 23rd, 2008 12:13 pm

    a little off topic but I can’t resist. Forget the ATVs people, get a Japanese Mini Truck! They’re cheaper, more fuel efficient, can tow or haul more, andtab are far more comfortable. They’re not hard to find, and with a 4 speed high/low transmition, 3″ lift and big tires added on, it will still be cheaper then a side by side wheeler, plus it can easily lug the whole family around.

    Good article, it’s very true about improvements in motorized technology making the “road less” designation a bit of a farce. In Europe, there are roads everywhere and big W wilderness is non existent, but one is able to easily wander off the road and recreate completely free (for the most part) of motorized vehicles. Yet in Alaska, with nearly the entire state road less wilderness it’s rare to venture off and not hear 4 wheelers, snowmobiles, fan boats or a couple bush planes. With the current toys available its naive to think that a lack of roads will stop all motorized recreation. Increasing fuel costs is far more effective.

    I’m all for stopping land development, but shutting areas off and treating them like some autographed football at the top of your fathers bookshelf which you can only stare at, but never enjoy, is idiocy.

  8. Lou July 23rd, 2008 2:37 pm

    Dongshow, my Jeep trackwidth is only about 65 inches, when it was stock 1949 with skinny tires it was definitely much closer to the 50 inch width that would make it an ATV. The whole “roadless” thing is indeed weird. I can’t help but thing there must have been a better way to go about controlling development.

    Glad you see the point of today’s blog, which is simply “let’s keep improving how we do land management.”

    Oh, and by the way, after seeing how you guys pass the time in AK, I figured you were probably one of the guys throwing fire crackers around in that MG article. Eh?

  9. George T July 24th, 2008 4:15 pm

    We seem to love our wilderness and national forests to death. By prohibiting logging and controlling forest fires unnaturally we now have pine beetles inching up Mt. Sopris. Looking at the forests around Leadville, I see “dead forests” with limited wildlife. Go to areas with smart logging and they are full of wildlife and diverse forest fauna and flora.

    Smart conservation based logging and the resulting roads are not always a bad thing. I believe we can have great backcountry/wilderness areas, but the approach lacks common sense. We don’t have to ruin the Wilderness, but we have to either allow forest fires to make it real wild or allow logging to create diverse forests. Conservation does not prohibit logging or roads.
    As for biking in the wilderness I am in favor of bikes having equal rights with horses and cattle. Hike up Capital Creek (Wilderness) and you will see more damage from cattle than bikes could ever create. Nothing like fresh cow pies to make me feel like I am back in the Wilderness. There is something wrong with horseback riding being more Wilderness Friendly or primitive than self propelled bikes.
    Now roads, jeeps and ATVs are another level of intrusion and potential destruction. I agree with Lou that jeeping into the backcountry should not be taboo, but the limitations should be on all motorized vehicles or at a minimum designate single track trails (motorcycles and bikes) and double track (jeep, ATV, motors, etc.). Teocalli Ridge (Crested Butte) is a great example of single track designated for motorcycles, biking and hiking, while the valley floor has jeep roads. This area offers great recreation and backcountry experiences for all. OK, skewer me for using common sense instead of PC ideology. George

  10. Toby July 24th, 2008 4:18 pm

    I am watching the Tour De France reading all of this and I am wondering if anyone knows how western Europe handles these types of access issues?????

  11. Ski Pro July 24th, 2008 4:20 pm

    I would love an ATV for all purpose including terrain covered in Snow, ahhhh now I want one, but $12,000 is alot

  12. Adam olson July 24th, 2008 4:22 pm

    I feel the Roadless Rule and Wilderness Act are more based in environmentalism, and not conservationism. The environmentalist wants things they way they were. This is like walking forward on the trail but looking back over your shoulder to judge your progress. “I remember when……….” is a very common theme when talking to an environmentalist.

    The Rules and Acts are a way of relieving the internal torment of the past, and are antiquated from their conception. They are not there for the forest, they are there to keep us out of the forest. The Roadless Rule and Wilderness Act are very elitist and discriminate against anyone who doesnt have legs or the perspective of John Miur.

    Conservation is quite the opposite. Loggers, hunters, ranchers, cyclists, hikers, skiers, and most outdoor activists for that matter, are far more conservationist in there perception of what the Wilderness is. They see it as something to be managed, enjoyed, and taken care of. To do this properly roads and trails are critical. Conservationists recognize the need to use mechanized travel with mechanical devices to help maintain the resources we all have.

    Making environmentalism a political tool is a sad thing. The Roadless Act was but a trophy to put on the mantel for President Clinton. And just like the Wilderness Act was put in place as retribution for the past.

  13. Tom W July 24th, 2008 4:23 pm

    The problem with conservation vs. environmentalism is that most users have the means to use the best practices and technologies available, but deliberatly choose not to due to cost. This ststement is aimed directly at the extractive industries and motorized recreation industries. So, untill these guys actually practice conservation; that is take care of the resource, I will support the road ban.

  14. Chad July 24th, 2008 4:25 pm

    I think this illustrates the way we need more of a “big tent” philosophy when looking at these kinds of issues. Die hard tree-huggers, backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, hunters, fishermen, jeepers, etc…- all of our clout combined, and it will still be a David and Goliath situation when Vail Resorts or Halliburton gets the next twinkle in their eye. We have so much common ground and there’s a lot of space out there- we can share!

  15. Sierra Journal July 24th, 2008 4:26 pm

    Chad: Couldn’t agree more… if there’s one thing everyone takes away from this discussion, I hope it’s that!!!

  16. adam olson July 24th, 2008 5:58 pm

    It would seem the “big-tent” philosophy is what got us here in the first place. Some politician far away has made all the decisions. Maybe the decisions about what goes on in the Roadless areas should be left to the state or even county governments.

    It seems misguided to manage from such a distance.


  17. Jim Jones July 25th, 2008 8:32 am

    The whole issue being discussed is simply a byproduct of too many people. Nothing wrong with Quad bikes, but when the road is bumper to bumper all day, that’s when the problems start. Someone came to SW CO and wrote an article about the Alpine loop and now there are literally thousands driving these roads every day. Now people are talking about limiting or charging to 4X4 on the roads.

  18. Mark July 25th, 2008 10:17 am

    ***Warning thread hijack coming**
    I am with you on the Japanese mini-truck thing. In South Dakota they are considered ATVs and can be driven on roads (paved and unpaved) as such. Do you have experience with them? Do you know if you can there are blades available for plowing snow?

    Mark B
    Physical address South Dakota, mental address Wyoming

  19. Lou July 25th, 2008 10:51 am

    Can you guys provide a mini truck link?

  20. Lou July 25th, 2008 10:57 am

    Jim, one could also make a case that building a few more roads could make a big difference in crowding. You have to admit that it’s an interesting USFS policy to be removing road miles, while motorized recreation is huge and growing.

    Before everyone jumps on me, I DO NOT WANT EVERYTHING ROADED. But I think there are places where we could have a few more backcountry “motorized trails.”

    I also say we should keep many of the trails rough. That slows people down and limits some of the use.

    As for charging to use roads on public land, wow, that sounds terrible!

  21. Frank July 25th, 2008 2:12 pm

    You all look at the problems lou posits (including lou) with an eye towards there being a magic solution floating in the back of some bored Einsteinian blogger that will bridge every single view point. Sorry but it ain’t a gonna happen.

    Fires are good and a far more cleansing way to manage a forest than say logging. But like the little Bostoner who decided that he wanted a house in the mountains–and then whines like a little puppy when the deer eat their flowers, the elk tear up their yard, the mountain lions eat their pets, the bears rummage through their garbage, the Wal-mart is too far away–so too goes fire mitigation.

    The mountains are getting crowded and landowners send up a clarion call whenever the neighboring forest is listed for a prescribed burn, “What if the winds kick up? What if the fire takes my house? What if, What if…” Well the logical response is that “At least if we start it and manage the fire your house is reasonably safe whereas a wildfire offers no such safety net. (especially if the trees are touched by beetle kill/drought etc.)”

    Lou wants immediate plowing of any and all roads that lead to spring ski destinations. Joe Blow wants to take his motorcycle on any trail his machine can manage. Jake Jeeper wants to rock crawl Sopris in his two mile a gallon beefed up, jacked up, $25k modified pos. The Partridge Family wants to spend their family time touring the Colorado Trail on four wheelers. The Brady Bunch wants to dredge the Colorado so they can water ski from Glenwood to Moab. But you can’t please everybody all the time so its the line where the compromise is made? Is that line reachable? As a mtn biker I want to ride trails that are closed to me…should I cry and blame the government or the Sierra Club or should I say, there are plenty of trails already? As a skier I don’t mind hiking but if a snowmobile could make a two day trip a day trip then I wouldn’t mind if the govt said, ok, we’re opening up x and y to snowmobile traffic…but if they do the summer moto crowd would want access to the same terrain…there is give and take and its already been made. There are hundreds of jeep spots in CO, hundreds of mtn bike trails, hundreds of thousands of acres of snowmobiling and atv’ing…at some pt you just have to be happy with what you have. Nature is going to burn some land, we’re going to destroy some land, but in the end…if we want wilderness at all, we’re going to have to say “these areas are sacrosanct from all man made damage” just to leave future generations wilderness areas to enjoy. Can’t bike it, drive it, ride it?…HIKE it and stop bitching about who is getting the raw deal. You think horses suck but you want to access non-motorized areas…buy a horse!

    Around Carbondale certain people think it is ok to widen, improve, expand existing trails without regard to legality. Some trails are cut that cross private property. Some people brag about great “poachable” trails. Some people brag about faster access pts to spring skiing regardless of the fencelines they have to cross.

    When I hear a biker or skier talk about poaching I assume they are riding or skiing or accessing biking or skiing via private property without permission to do so. So many on this site think that everything is DOT or DOW or FS or BLM’s fault…well, I look at it a different way…we all know the government isn’t responsible BUT if I can’t even expect my fellow citizens to be responsible as far as respecting boundaries and land use laws then why should I expect anything better from a bureaucratic cesspool like the Forest Service?

    Laws are passed for a reason. I don’t agree with all of them but it is my job to abide by them no matter how dumb those laws may seem to be. If I’m riding a trail and come to a fence without a gate I turn around and ride out. Property rights should be acknowledged and respected above all else. I have friends who knowingly snowmobile in wilderness areas, all I can do is say, ‘that ain’t cool’…but I’m not big brother and not my brother’s keeper…what works for some doesn’t work for others. Personally I’d like all pollution spewing vehicles banned from CO..including my truck and especially RFTA. (might make workforces a local thing once again)

    Nothing says “I hate you” more than the look I give to the motorcyclist or ATV rider or Jeep that empties its exhaust in my lungs, breaks the silent enjoyment of being in a forest, and kicks up clouds of dust for my sinus cavities to enjoy making new and weird forms of nasal discharge. But, I recognize that just because I choose to bike or hike not everyone does…though the people that don’t visit this blog wouldn’t be so damn fat if they traded in the motor for monocog.

  22. hunter July 25th, 2008 2:39 pm

    Well said Frank! Be ready for the backlash…

    The Freddies released their long anticipated Roadless Rules today and they are full of gems such as a “long term temporary” road, whatever that is. You can read it here.

    On a local note to Lou and others in the Roaring Fork Valley, read this from the Aspen Times.

    This will give you motorized folks more roads to drive on, but you’ll have to share them with speeding oil-field trucks (We’ve got a real problem with these down here in Durango), lots of random gates and “no trespassing” signs (energy companies are allowed to keep you off of your public lands if they have a well pad on it) lots of noise from the compressors at each well pad, the constant smell of gas and chemicals, toxic seeps in the streams from “fracing” (the companies don’t have to tell anyone what chemicals that they use), and hunting bans (hate to put a bullet through a high-pressure gas well), not that there’ll be much wildlife left in the area. So, in this case, is the roadless area a good thing or a bad thing?

  23. Jim Jones July 28th, 2008 9:12 am

    Lou, I hike up into the mountains down here and even at 13,000ft you can here the motors down in the valley below, not very peaceful in the mountains anymore. And on some of the roads, because they are so well maintained, you’ll see a Cadillac parked miles off the pavement.
    I think we are doing very little in this country about thinking of the future, and I mean the distant future.

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