By Noelle Straub
More than 70 House Democrats are asking the Forest Service to prohibit motorized vehicles in areas recommended to become Wilderness.
Led by Forests Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the lawmakers asked the agency in a letter late last month to issue new guidance on the management of agency-recommended Wilderness. They noted that proposals to designate more than 3 million forest acres as Wilderness are pending before Congress.
"We are concerned that the agency's management of some of these areas may be adversely impacting their Wilderness character, while making Wilderness designation more difficult," the lawmakers wrote. "In particular, we are concerned about the agency's continued authorization of activities that are disallowed in Wilderness areas, including the use of motorized vehicles."
The group asked that Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell take immediate steps to "preserve the congressional prerogative to designate Wilderness" by issuing national management guidance.
"This guidance should prohibit the authorization of activities, such as use of motorized vehicles, that adversely affect the Wilderness qualities of the recommended areas to a significant degree," the lawmakers wrote.
House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and 70 other Democrats also signed the letter.
Professionals for Managed Recreation, a group of retired land management officials who favor access for motorized recreation on public lands, sent Tidwell a letter against the proposal. They said recommended Wilderness areas should continue to be managed to allow existing uses. They also expressed concern that the agency's Region 1 policy, managing recommended areas as if they were already designated Wilderness, could be implemented nationwide. Region 1 covers northern Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas.
"Implementing a policy whereby the Forest Service can establish de facto Wilderness areas not only goes against the original intent of the Wilderness Act but also removes many of the safeguards afforded to the public in the democratic process," they wrote.
Likewise, the BlueRibbon Coalition, a group that supports motorized recreation, sent an alert to its members denouncing the "lousy policy" and asking them to contact their members of Congress about it.
"It is not wise, nor legal, for any federal land management agency to establish de-facto Wilderness areas," the group wrote. "If the policy goes nationwide it will give a devastating blow to single track motorcycle trails, mountain bike trails and snowmobile areas across the west."
But the International Mountain Bicycling Association supports Grijalva's proposal and encouraged its members to ask members of Congress to sign on. The group said it helped craft language ensuring that the plan would not prohibit bicycle access.
"Bicyclists value these special lands for the same reasons as hikers and equestrians-the opportunity for a healthy, low-impact recreational experience," the group said. "We seek the freedom, solitude, clean air, clean water and healthy forests that bring us closer to nature."
Chris Brown, Forest Service director for Wilderness and wild and scenic rivers, said the agency takes proposed Wilderness designations "very seriously."
"The agency is committed to managing areas recommended for designation in a way that maintains their Wilderness character," Brown said. "Chairman Grijalva's letter is timely as we are in the process of reviewing the policy for recommended Wilderness areas. All land management and policy decisions will incorporate extensive public involvement. We will continue to work with the Chairman and other members of Congress as the process moves forward."
Click here to read the lawmakers' letter.
Click here to read RWA's letter.