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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wild Chain-Saw Trails

Air Date: Week of

The chain-saw is the fastest way to remove the record number of fallen trees now obstructing trails in wilderness areas, but some doubt that the noise pollution they create makes it the right way if these places are to remain truly wild. That's what's behind a dispute about chain-saws among back country users in the Pacific Northwest. Keith Seinfeld of member station K-P-L-U in Seattle has our story.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
In the lower 48 states there are few if any places untouched by humans. Even in the deepest reaches of the biggest wilderness area, the Bob Marshall wilderness in Montana, for example, at times the sounds of aircraft can still be heard. But there are those who say wilderness areas should be kept as wild as possible and the drone of machines minimized, even if it can't be completely banished. Other folks agree that these areas should be basically wild, but that some noise is necessary if people are to have access. And that's what's behind a dispute about chainsaws among backcountry users in the Pacific Northwest. Keith Seinfeld of member station KPLU in Seattle has our story.

SEINFELD: In the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon, winter means wind storms and heavy snow, which can bring down hundreds of huge, ancient fir and cedar trees. Trunks and tangled branches commonly create an obstacle course for trail users.

(Sound of a chainsaw running)

SEINFELD: The most efficient solution is obvious: one worker with a chainsaw can quickly slice a path through dozens of fallen trees. That's what officials at the Wenatchee National Forest hope to do this summer. Forest supervisor Sonny O'Neal says severe storms over the last few years have blown down a record number of trees.

O'NEAL: There are a lot of people that really can't understand why we haven't opened these trails up already. And last summer, when people found that they couldn't get to where they wanted to go in a wilderness area, there was a tremendous amount of calls in and out of the office.

SEINFELD: The reason the trails haven't been fully cleared is that official wilderness areas are protected by a strict law. The Federal Wilderness Act protects natural conditions and solitude. The use of chainsaws and other machinery usually requires an environmental review first. National Forest managers here say with 150 miles of wilderness trail currently blocked by downed trees, they should be able to use chainsaws.

(Snowshoers move on hard snow and converse)

SEINFELD: In winter, one of the ways to reach wilderness is with snowshoes. This group of 5 hikers heads into the mountains in Snohomish County, Washington, just across the pass from Winatchee. The 4-foot carpet of snow reveals footprints of deer and hare. Aside from the crunch of snowshoes, the only sound is a distant stream, a distant bird, and silence.

(Water sluices)

PETERS: I certainly don't want to be in an area listening to a chainsaw symphony in the wilderness.

SEINFELD: Thom Peters is a member of the group Wilderness Watch, and a vocal opponent of the chainsaw plan.

PETERS: A handsaw cross-cut doesn't have the noise, it doesn't have the pollution, it's not using gas and oil.

SEINFELD: Mr. Peters admits he's something of a purist when it comes to wilderness. But he says wilderness is meant to be as pure as possible, where the hand of man is practically invisible.

PETERS: What wilderness is all about, and the Wilderness Act is protecting natural conditions and events and processes. And if we have a larger, an abnormal amount of downed trees, that's Mother Nature, and we have to get used to that fact that it's Mother Nature we're working with.

SEINFELD: Mr. Peters says as far as he's concerned, it would be fine not to remove the trees at all. But if they must be cleared, he says, then do it unobtrusively. But other wilderness users are all for using chainsaws.

(A loud whistle; the sound echoes back.)

MURPHY: Hello. (Makes kissing noises) Come on up here. (Whistles more)

SEINFELD: At a small ranch south of Bremerton, Washington, Jim Murphy keeps 3 horses and a pair of mules. Mr. Murphy is director of Backcountry Horsemen of Washington. He leads pack trips into the wilderness and volunteers his time repairing damaged trails. He says it's hard enough to climb over a tree wearing a backpack.

MURPHY: With a horse it becomes nearly impossible, and either you reach, if you keep trying to climb over and get around logs you reach a point where you may injure the horse or yourself, or just turn around and quit trying what you're doing.

SEINFELD: Mr. Murphy says it only makes sense to clear the trails as quickly as possible.

MURPHY: I think the bottom line on this is, we can't afford to do this work under the present budget constraints entirely by hand with crosscut saws. We need the chainsaws to speed that process up and get the most for our money. So that the remaining amounts of Agency funds can be spent on the other aspects of maintaining the wilderness.

SEINFELD: That argument makes snowshoer Thom Peters nervous. He says convenience and efficiency should be irrelevant when it comes to wilderness.

(Sluicing water)

PETERS: There is a reason why we don't have motorized or mechanized equipment allowed. And every little group just wants to bend the rules a little bit from their own perspective. And that's where we end up with the subtle, insidious dilution of wilderness and its values.

SEINFELD: But the values of wilderness are in the eye of the beholder. For Wenatchee Forest Chief Sonny O'Neal, the task is balancing those competing values. He says chainsaws, ironically, are a way to keep wilderness as natural as possible.

O'NEAL: People are still trying to get into these, through these trails, and they're making new routes around these windfall areas, and that's causing wilderness damage.

SEINFELD: The Wenatchee foresters will make their decision on chainsaws this spring. Others in the Forest Service are watching closely, and may take the decision as a cue for managing their own areas. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.



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