Motors in wilderness lands? Time to correct a policy loophole

A jeep stuck in a Tahoe National Forest meadow. Photo by Laura Clarke, Courtesy USFS.

Our National Forests are as diverse in nature as they are in geography. Some offer the most pristine settings in the nation, while others sit close to urban centers, and everything in between. There are 36 million acres of designated Wilderness lands in our national forests — including places as iconic as the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho and the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado. These places are wild and remote, and will always be that way because they are formally designated as Wilderness by Congress.

Lots of people know about these places; what most people don’t know is that there are another three million acres plus of lands that the Forest Service says qualify for wilderness and should be designated, but have yet to be so. These lands — categorized formally as Recommended Wilderness — sit in a bit of no-man’s land, awaiting their day to be permanently protected as part of this nation’s Wilderness Preservation System.

One of the consequences of sitting in this no man’s land is that, in some cases, these lands are left open to dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, and other off-road vehicles. Wild and remote backcountry places such as the Borah Peak and the White Clouds in Idaho — where off-road vehicles roam — are examples of the pitfalls of this no-man’s status.

This issue has earned some attention in the last few years, because the U.S. Forest Service has been carrying out a concerted effort to designate where off-road vehicles can and can’t go in all National Forests. We have urged the Forest Service to not allow motorized recreation in Forest Service-Recommended Wilderness, arguing that doing so diminishes the wilderness quality experiences the area offers, and imperils the potential to designate the area permanently as Wilderness.

It’s nonsensical that while the area sits in no man’s status because Congress is busy doing other things, it might lose its chance for permanent designation and lose that most primitive character that earned it its recommendation in the first place!

In the past several months, a choir of voices has risen up calling for better protection of recommended wilderness. For instance, a number of well-respected recreation organizations — Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, National Wildlife Federation, Izaak Walton League of America, the Federation of Fly Fishers, Backcountry Horsemen of America, and the American Hiking Society — wrote the Forest Service urging officials not to allow dirt bikes, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles in these unprotected wilderness areas. And, over 17,000 Wilderness Society wild-alert subscribers wrote emails to Forest Service Chief Tidwell asking the same.

Everyone should be able to access our national forests, but that does not mean that motorized vehicles should be able to drive over the most pristine and backcountry places. Forest Service lands recommended for wilderness protection make up only 1.5% of our national forests. These places are part of our wilderness legacy, and they deserve to be protected until Congress acts.

photo: A jeep stuck in a Tahoe National Forest meadow. Photo by Laura Clarke, Courtesy USFS.