A Few Questions on Power Saw Use in the Wilderness

posted in: BCHA News, BCHO News 9

EagleCapsWhat does it take for the Forest Service change their ingrained culture of disdain for the use of power saws for wilderness trail maintenance? Hands of Forest Service employees for wilderness trail maintenance has been allowed repeatedly.

Powered rock drills and portable generators are permissible. Power saw use in the The National Parks use power saws in trail maintenance under the same Wilderness Act regulations as the Forest Service. Power saws were used to maintain most wilderness trails prior to wilderness designation.

The Back Country Horsemen agree that primitive tools are appropriate for wilderness trail maintenance when preserving historic access and the purposes out lined in the Wilderness Act can be accomplished by their use. If these two conditions cannot be met, then consideration of the use of modern motorized tools is not only appropriate – but is necessary.

We would like to ask the Forest Service, and any other wilderness visitor that thinks loss of thousands of miles of trail is more acceptable then limited and managed use of power saws for trail maintenance, to consider the following questions.

Do you agree that trail access is necessary to meet the mandate under law to administer “areas designated by Congress as wilderness areas … for the use and enjoyment of the American people”? Do you agree with the recent GAO report identifying the lack of trail maintenance, the results of that practice, and the magnitude of the growing trail maintenance deficit? Do you think that continued use of primitive tools and leaving thousands of miles of historic wilderness trails unusable is meeting your obligation of administering wilderness unimpaired for future use?

Do you believe that wilderness visitation is important to promote appreciation of wilderness by seeing, feeling and enjoying real wilderness experiences? Do you believe that wilderness appreciation gained by visits also builds support for future wilderness preservation, especially for our nation’s youth? Do you also think that such support for wilderness will encourage those visitors to work to protect wilderness in the future? So how can we can we promote the ideal of, “wilderness visits = appreciation = support = protection” if we cannot provide the trail access necessary to make visits possible?

There are many wilderness areas where the Agency have used power saws for trail maintenance, as well as the continued use of power saws in wilderness areas administered by the National Park Service, with no history of threats to wilderness with requests for carte blanche use of power saws for trail maintenance, or worse – motorized transportation. Do you believe that allowing limited and managed power saw use for historic trail maintenance that currently cannot be accomplished in any other manner will threaten wilderness in that manner?

Do you agree that failure to maintain a trail system that pre-dates passage of the Wilderness Act in a condition that provides for historically acceptable uses, and preserves the investment necessary to provide for “future use and enjoyment as wilderness,” must at least warrant consideration of legally acceptable alternative management approaches through a minimum requirements process?

Do you agree that mitigation of the impacts of catastrophic fire, insect and disease damage piling thousands of down trees across trails is likely to not happen in the near future?

The following situations are actions that could reduce the current huge trail maintenance and reconstruction backlog.

  • Increased funding
  • Budget allocations that provide for recreation and trails
  • Improving the percentage of trails budgets that actually “hit the ground”
  • Changing the “we can’t do anything” philosophy where it exists
  • Do you think that action on these situations will occur soon enough to avoid the closure of many trails due to lack of maintenance?
  • When the answers to the above questions are honestly considered it becomes obvious that it is time to consider the use of motorized trail maintenance equipment, including power saws.

Dan Applebaker – High Desert Trail Riders BCH

9 Responses

  1. Sam
    | Reply

    Another red herring power saw article by Dan applebaker that makes chainsaws out to be a silver bullet. The argument is flawed and contains misquotations, again. Just like your “study”. Please reread section 2a of the Act you cite, I do not think you understand its meaning.
    The tool matters not if there is no trail crew to use it; why is this your rally cry? Fight for better funding from congress and the work will get done.

  2. Dan Applebaker
    | Reply

    From my paper, A Guide for Back Country Horsemen Submitting a Request to the Forest Service for an Appropriate Analysis of Maintenance Methods Including Use of Motorized Equipment in Wilderness Areas.

    “The intent of this paper is to provide the information that if used will, improve our chances of persuading the Forest Service to consider a full range of legal methods, including the use of power tools for preserving historic access and meeting the stated intent of the Wilderness Act. Our objective is not the use of motorized equipment, but to maintain historic access.” Our entire effort is to help maintain wilderness access.
    “BCHO notes that the General Accountability Office Report (GAO-13-618) states: ‘the Forest Service has more miles of trails than it has been able to maintain, resulting in a persistent maintenance backlog with a range of negative effects’. The Report also states, ‘at least some maintenance was accomplished on 37% of its 158,000 miles of trail and that only 25% met the Agency’s standards’, and adds ‘to remain safe and usable, these trails need regular maintenance’.” This was lifted from the “Resolution Concerning the Use of Power Saws in Wilderness” that was ratified by the Back Country Horsemen of Oregon in 2014.

    Public Law 88-577, S4c states “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purposes of this Act … there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motor boats …” The underline is mine.

    “The Back Country Horsemen of Oregon and Washington recognize that the Forest Service has a process in place – the Minimum Requirements Decision Guide developed by the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center – for guiding the agency in making the determination of what constitutes the appropriate tool for accomplishing projects to meet the purposes outlined in the Wilderness Act.” This is quoted from the same source as in the first paragraph above.
    This quote lifted from the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center guide above – 2326.1 – Conditions Under Which Use May Be Approved. 5. To meet the minimum needs for protection and administration of the area as wilderness, only as follows: b. An essential activity is impossible to accomplish by nonmotorized means because of such factors as time or season limitations, safety, or other material restrictions.
    The managing agencies have a mandate under law (Public Law 88-577) to administer “areas designated by Congress as wilderness areas … for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” How can leaving hundreds of miles of historical wilderness trails inaccessible to the public be considered as meeting that requirement? We realize that limited and managed use of power equipment won’t solve the huge and growing trail maintenance deficit, but it will help. Someday Congress may consider our many requests to fund the agencies for trail maintenance, but don’t hold your breath. We fear many more miles of access will be lost and trails abandoned by that time.

  3. Dennis
    | Reply

    Red Herring? If one believes it’s a realistic possibility for Congress to provide necessary funding for the agency to correct the trail problem using it’s customary practices, I suppose it’s understandable that this reader would consider use of motorized equipment to be a red herring. However, Congress has not chosen to provide the necessary budget resources to do so since before the passage of the Act.

    The backlog of trail maintenance was acknowledged in the GAO Report RCED-89-182, dated September 22, 1989. That report recognized that the trail system has been in a state of deterioration “Following World War II” when “roads and airstrips replaced trails for many administrative, patrol and fire suppression purposes …” The fact that Congress has never fully funded recreation trails, and after more than 60 years of lobbying for increased funding it is naive to believe that it will do so.

    Either we need to consider alternatives other than the purist approach implemented by the agency immediately after the passage of the Act, and perpetuated as part of a wilderness management culture, or we accept that there will be substantially less wilderness accessible to pack and saddle stock users.

    The reader criticizes the study, but does not elaborate on it’s flaws, nor does he provide other credible references to refute BCHO’s study. He also criticizes the argument as flawed and containing misquotations, but does not elaborate or provide a counter argument. As such the best one can conclude is that he has a different opinion. Which of course is his prerogative.

    Section 2(a) states that the Act was intended to “secure … benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness” to be administered “for the use and benefit of the American people in such a manner as will not leave them unimpaired for future use and benefit…” and provides the flexibility in Section 4(c) for the agency to use motorized equipment when it is “necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the area” to meet that purpose. What is not to understand? All the article is asking is that the agency consider the use of motorized equipment “if the opening of trails can’t be completed with traditional primitive tools.” In accord with NEPA that probably should be happening anyway.

  4. Carole Hopkins
    | Reply

    In response to your criticism of Dan Applebakers article on power saw use in the wilderness, please let me comment on your response to his article.

    You seem to think that all we have to do is be legislatively active on the matter of trail maintenance and the members of congress will open up the budget which is in deficit of trillions of dollars and fund more employees to maintain our national Parks and forests. I assure you that before they go in the hole for more trillions, they will fund more money for causes that deal with the human condition. Health care , Social Welfare , Social Security and even repairing our country’s infrastructure such as roads and bridges which are also in decline. I say recreation is at the bottom of the list, never to be fully funded. The Fremont Winema NF office is doing as much as they are funded for, but…….

    Our chapter of Back Country Horsemen of America (High Desert Trail Riders BCH) spend most of our summer out on the trails and trail heads , clearing the trails and rebuilding and restoring corrals and picnic tables, etc. The gentlemen who are clearing the trails are mostly retired and over 55 years of age. We and other chapters do miles of work either doing the trail work ourselves, or offering support to the USFS which has abandoned keeping pack stock for the most part and replies on volunteers to get the trails repaired. Our ladies offer work by shuttling vehicles and doing light trail maintenance. I am 74 years old and still love to go into the wilderness and do not want the trails to be abandoned by lack of maintenance.

    I would like to see the trails kept open even if occasionally the peace is disrupted by the sounds of chainsaws. From what I see if they are not maintained, they will be abandoned and closed to public use. We need to have an alliance of volunteers like ourselves working with the agencies to keep them open, with very limited use of power saws to help them

  5. Sam
    | Reply

    I apologize for not responding sooner, other obligations have kept me from the task, but I will now offer responses to the three replies since received. I, of course, stated that the article above, much like “A Study of Crosscut Saws or Power Saws for Trail Clearing by Dan Applebaker”, contained flawed arguments and misquotations. It seems that in Mr. Applebaker’s response, he thought I was referring to a Guide for submitting an MRA which he wrote, with which I am not familiar, so I will stick to defending my original position. Perhaps when I am able to familiarize myself with the Guide, I may comment on it as well. Regarding my earlier comment, and with all due respect and in the interest of discussing the topic further, I offer the following.
    I call such arguments “red herrings” because they distill the very complicated causes for deficiencies in trail management down to a single issue with a simple solution. The issue being access (ie. Downed logs) and the solution being power saws. Pretending that the backlog of trail maintenance has only to do with how fast a log is cut ignores a multitude of other factors, including logistics of trail maintenance; the need for other types of maintenance such as erosion control, tread repair, and clearing other obstacles; management techniques such as realignments; and it ignores the impact of a hundred years of misguided fire management policies, to name a few. I ask that everyone acknowledge that chainsaws are not the answer to all of our trail problems, and would simply be used to provide easier and earlier access to areas that probably need other types of maintenance as well.
    I called out misquotations, and I will point to one which is consistently repeated, including in one response here. Proponents of this argument will point to the words “future use and enjoyment as wilderness” or as the commenter put it, “for the use and benefit of the American people in such a manner as will not leave them unimpaired for future use and benefit…” Usually the passage is modified or truncated, and never shown in its full, correct text. It says this in the Wilderness Act: “For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as “wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness;” Now, not to split hairs here, but this is a legal document, and legal documents hold meaning and the words are important, so bear with me as we look at the words and their meanings. When it says “unimpaired for future use as wilderness…” it means that the land itself shall not be degraded to the point where it is not viable to “use as wilderness”, as in, it would not meet the definition of wilderness (found in section 2c). It is a warning that we are to manage the land for the use and enjoyment of the American people, without causing it harm in the process. Harm to what, you ask? The next phrase tells us we are to provide for the “protection of these areas, [and] the preservation of their wilderness character.” Cleverly changing or omitting parts of the language, proponents use this to say that the highest cause for wilderness is access and use, and that it ought to be preserved by any means necessary. While these are amazing benefits to the public, arguably the very benefits that make our nation so unique and great, we must remember that they come with responsibilities. I commend each and every member of any volunteer organization that takes seriously this civic duty, and I thank you for your service to our public lands. However, I respectfully suggest that access is only one use of wilderness, and that if we are not able to even open the trails, how are we expected to manage them beyond that? It is a central flaw in this argument that in a situation where trails get opened and used without further maintenance, those trails will fail and unravel and, in time, will be abandoned and closed to public use anyway.
    Let me pause and say that in many respects, I agree with each of you. The value of public lands, their role in our national heritage and identity, their legacy and their future in the hands of our children are of paramount importance to me. That is precisely why I think it is a disservice to the American people to try to fix this problem with a band aid that allows ourselves access for the immediate future, when we ought to be figuring out a way to adequately fund and support our public lands so that they exist into perpetuity, just as the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold hoped for in their times. It was mentioned that agencies cannot correct the trails problem using customary practices, and that federal funds will always go to higher priorities and will never fund trails. To these I say that we ought not to use customary practices, but evolve our methods of management and funding, and that if congress wanted to fund trails, they could, because they find a way to fund all sorts of fiscally irresponsible special interests every day. This concludes my response to the posts above, but I offer this below, a response to the Study I mention in my first post. I welcome any response, critical or agreeable, as I believe that we all have the same desires in mind, but we may have different ways of attaining them.
    Regarding the “Study…for Trail Clearing”, I say this:
    Aside from the fact that your study is conducted with the foregone conclusion that serves to “reinforce the obvious”, I would also like to point out that you have attempted to study only one narrow aspect of the difference between the two tools, namely the difference in “cut times” between them. If one wished to compare that single variable, one need not venture onto a trail, for that can be conducted at any wood lot or log deck you choose.
    The initial results of your study demonstrate that wood cutting is done faster with a chainsaw, and you then extrapolate that the differences in time must be doubled as a crosscut saw requires two operators, a position you hold later when stating the hazards of needing to place a crosscut operator on the unsafe side of a log during a cut. I must inform you that a bucking crosscut saw is designed to have one operator, a style which many sawyers prefer as they have a longer stroke and more options in footing. Furthermore, any sawyer or trail maintainer should have a partner for safety, and whether they are helping to cut, swamping, cleaning a drain or just standing by watching is irrelevant, as a good crew leader will put them to work efficiently. Therefore, the suggestion that it takes two crosscut sawyers to do the work of one chainsaw operator is a misleading statement.
    The second and third points relate to fatigue and safety, both important subjects worth studying, but here the argument is based on poor methods and then great leaps are made to the various conclusions. First of all, you compare fatigue after more than 25 minutes of work to fatigue after about 3 and a half minutes of work. Many other tasks appear effortless after 3 minutes that would fatigue a person after an hour or a day. I also must state that if the crosscut sawyers are noticeably fatigued after 25 minutes and 30 seconds of cutting, including breaks, then they or the saw may not be cutting very efficiently. It would be far more telling to observe the fatigue of both groups of sawyers after at least a full shift of a trail log out.
    Going back to the previous statement about the hazards of placing a crosscut operator on the unsafe side of the log, I again point to the technique known as “single-bucking”, where a single sawyer can operate even an 8’ bucking saw without a partner. In fact, even when cutting an easy log with a partner, I invariably finish the cut with a single-buck using the end teeth of the saw to prevent pinching or damage to the saw, and allowing the other bucker to find a more safe location to stand.
    Regarding your comparison of axe limbing to chainsaw limbing, I must point out that you did not actually compare the two, stating that axe limbing is “certainly slower” without any evidence. Personally, I prefer to limb with an axe, which I often do even when using a chainsaw, as I feel it is more efficient, can be faster, is quieter, and, in my opinion, is more fun. Perhaps when I have the time I will conduct a study comparing the difference in time between the two types of limbing, but at this time, neither of us has anything but anecdotal evidence to support what we each feel is true.
    Finally, you end your discussion of the results with the statement that “In ‘on the trail’ situations the advantages of a power saw may be much greater than reflected in our study”. In actuality, I would suggest that the entire scope of advantages of the power saw are reflected in your study, and that an “on the trail” situation would reveal the multitude of advantages of the traditional crosscut saw. You then reiterate statements which I feel are debunked earlier in this paper, following with the statement that a power saw is able to cut trees positioned on the ground which one could not cut with a crosscut saw. Again, a fallacy is posed as a fact, to which I can attest that myself and others have cut countless logs positioned on the ground without damaging the crosscut saw or hitting the dirt. I am not sure if you are stating that a crosscut can’t be use by one person, a trench cannot be dug beneath a cut, or that a chainsaw bar and chain can be put into the dirt without repercussion, but I believe that none of these are true.
    Given that the very design of your study is flawed and fails to convince me of your conclusions, I would now like to explain further why some of the subsequent positions are misleading. First and foremost, it is not so much the tools that are used that determines if the work getting done, but rather the people using them. You correctly state that there is a lack of funding and manpower to clear trails, and I suggest that it is this lack of manpower that results in the deficiencies in management, and not a deficiency in the tools that are used. Simply put, a crew of 2 with a shovel can do much more work than a backhoe without an operator. This complies with your statement that some trails may be dropped from the system due to lack of maintenance because of the lack of funding and manpower; never do you state it is because crews are on the ground doing the work too slowly. This also challenges your statement that “traditional tools may no longer be adequate or appropriate to provide…trail maintenance”, because a change in policy allowing for power saw use would not have an impact on the number of people working on our trails, and no evidence is presented here that power saws are faster or more efficient than crosscut saws in opening trail miles.
    In these discussions you hold the position of using the Minimum Requirements Analysis (MRA) to reevaluate the use of traditional tools for trail clearing. At this point I must confess that I am not a “wilderness purist”, I have condoned the use and have personally used a chainsaw in wilderness areas during emergency authorizations (namely, wildfires), and I myself have written MRAs to utilize motorized equipment to complete work in wilderness. I also regret that the MRA itself has become a mantra that is bandied about by individuals and groups who look at it as some sort of silver bullet that will solve all the world’s trail maintenance needs. Sometimes, MRAs are championed by those that are unfamiliar with their use and purpose. In fact, they are decision guides for the use of an exception allowed for under the clause 4(c) of the Wilderness Act, and are not to be used as “blanket exemptions” or for “seasonal allowance” of power saw use, but rather as case by case documentations of administrative decisions. If a trail clearing justified an exemption to a 4(c) prohibition, the MRA would help determine that, and the amount of time it takes to cut a log would be immaterial to the decision.
    It has been my intention here not to take a rigid personal stance or advocate for a categorical use of one tool or technique over another, but rather to demonstrate that the larger context must be taken into account and that it requires sound analysis and logic to make a case for non-traditional methods that buck the trends of more than one hundred years of practice. I also hope that this letter will serve to dispel the types of “strawman” arguments that are used, in my opinion, to contort the interpretation of a piece of legislation that exists to protect an enduring resource of wilderness lands for current and future generations. All too often, proponents of such arguments pick and choose words and phrases from the Wilderness Act that suit their argument, often using these portions of the Act incorrectly or out of context. For instance, you yourself state that the Congressional intent of the Act includes “leaving the area unrepaired and unfit ‘for future use and enjoyment as wilderness’” a misquotation which changes the meaning of a statement which actually refers to the land itself being used as wilderness, not how wilderness land is used. Also, you open the paper stating that your friend believes in the use of crosscut saws only when they preserve the purposes of the Act, when the very purpose of the Act is “…to assure that…growing mechanization does not occupy and modify all areas…” All in all, there is room for argument and interpretation of the Wilderness Act, but this ought to be based on the actual text and the interpretations of courts, not a cursory reading.

  6. TJS
    | Reply

    Mr. Applebaker, you’re right. Forest Service-managed Wilderness is a mess, with thousands of miles of abandoned trails and little or no maintenance. Marijuana growers are reportedly setting up shop in some of them down here in California, because no one else goes.

    There is a bill pending in Congress that would nudge the Forest Service to end its mysterious and strange refusal to use chainsaws to keep Wilderness trails open. It’s the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, S.3205. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/3205

    Please consider supporting S.3205 by writing Senators Wyden and Merkley and your congressman.

    S.3205 would also benefit mountain bikers, who’d be allowed a cautious, limited degree of access on some Wilderness trails if the local forest ranger approves of it. So you might see the occasional mountain biker. But the tradeoff would be a much better Wilderness trails system for everyone.

    More information is available here, at the Sustainable Trails Coalition website:


  7. Marty DeVall, Web Administrator
    | Reply

    TJS, Thanks for your commend but BCHA and BCHO are against allowing Mountain Bikes in our pristine wildernesses.

  8. Wallace W. Kimball
    | Reply

    The Wilderness Act does not prevent the use of chain saws in designated wilderness areas. Forest Service Policy allows the use of chainsaws upon Forest Supervisor Approval. Chainsaws are more efficient than crosscuts in man-hours to make cuts, and I submit, more efficient in use of resources. There is a very large backlog of un-maintained trails…….It seems the Forest Service could become more efficient by allowing the use of chain saws in designated wilderness areas on a limited basis, say perhaps, one week each year.

  9. Conrad
    | Reply

    Hey, real life trail worker here. I work in the Selway-Bitterroot on 9 day hitches and would like everyone to consider just how much gas I’d have to carry around (along with my backpack, food, clothes, radio, first aid, etc etc etc) for it to make sense to bring a chainsaw into the woods. In short – it doesn’t. In the biggest wilderness areas in the country – The Bob, the Selway, the Frank, etc – everyone agrees that crosscuts are far more efficient in the long run, even if a cut takes a bit longer. They make you better sawyers, too. So unless the change to power saws also included an unlimited budget for packers or other modes of logistical support that gas-hungry chainsaws would require, it wouldn’t do a thing for us. What would help is an expanded budget for more trail workers on the ground. My crew of four is responsible for an area that used to be maintained by up to 40 people based out of Moose Creek Ranger District, with even more miles of trail added on with the districts combining and centralizing. No chainsaw could make up for that lack of boots on the ground.

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