Sunday, August 29, 2010

Aw Wilderness- What Good are Wilderness Trails if they are Not Maintained?

An Op Ed article in yesterday’s New York Times by Ted Stroll, a San Jose, Californian lawyer, caught my eye.  Stroll argues in the article, “Aw Wilderness” that  “despite millions of people who have visited the country’s national parks, forests and wildernesses this summer, the Forest Service has become increasingly strict in its enforcement of the Wilderness Act. The result may be more pristine lands, but the agency’s zealous enforcement has also heightened safety risks and limited access to America’s wilderness areas.”
In the article Stroll reminds us of the death of skier in 1970 who became lost on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness’ (BWCA) Kek Trail. As a result the Forest Service put up signage to help mark the trail but then removed their signs claiming their interpretation of the Wilderness and BWCA Acts prohibited signs in the BWCA. The result as Stroll reminds us- last year two experience hikers became lost on the same trail.
However while Stroll argues they became lost do to the lack of trail signs, I believe that in this case it was not only the lack of signage along the trail but also, and perhaps more importantly, due to the Forest Services’ failure to maintain the trail. Luckily the lost hikers were located but only after an extensive and, I might add, a very expensive search operation conducted by the Forest Service and local law enforcement.
Over the years maintenance of the trails within the BWCA has been sadly neglected. The Forest Service, who is charged with the responsibility, tells you they do not have the resources to get the job done. Current Forest Service interprets of Wilderness legislation prohibit the use of any power equipment for maintenance within Wilderness areas.  I would argue that, given the limited availability of Funds it is hard to understand how the Forest Service can come up with sufficient resources if all their wilderness maintenance must be done using only non-mechanical equipment.
A case in point- most of the 21 miles Banadad Ski Trail is located within the BWCA where maintenance most be done using hand tools and travel to remote work sites must be done on foot. As a result the cost/mile to maintain most of the Banadad is about $2000/mile. This cost if power equipment were allowed would easily be cut in half and the work could be done in November when no one is using the Boundary Waters.
To me it makes more sense to allow the use power equipment for maintenance within the wilderness areas i.e., BWCA, when appropriate, and where this use would reduce the maintenance cost. If such equipment were allowed the Forest Service could reduce their maintenance cost, and provide the public with safer and more usable trails.

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