Officials evaluate controversial roadless areas

The forested mountains and high peaks of the Great Burn area of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest are among several wilderness areas that could be recomended for congressional wilderness designation.

A rider makes his way up a trail in the Weitas-Bighorn roadless area on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. The area is among several being evaluated for possible recomendation for congressional wilderness designation.

As officials on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest evaluate dozens of roadless areas for possible recommendation as wilderness, Supervisor Cheryl Probert is hopeful the public may come up with some unique solutions to long-standing controversies.

In particular, she said, the giant Great Burn area that sits along the Idaho-Montana border in the upper North Fork of the Clearwater River drainage may be a place where competing user groups can compromise and help the agency thread the needle to meet the wishes of those who use it in different ways.

As part of its process to revise the 30-year-old forest plan, the agency must assess each roadless area to determine which ones should be recommended for wilderness designation by Congress. Wilderness is managed to preserve its “untrammeled” and “primeval” character.

It is looked upon by many — especially environmental activists and non-motorized recreation enthusiasts — as the highest level of protection for federal land. Because wilderness regulations do not allow motorized or mechanized travel and practices such as logging are prohibited, many others view it as land of little use.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest already has millions of acres preserved as wilderness, including the Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump and parts of the Hells Canyon and Frank Church River of No Return wilderness areas. The 1987 forest plan recommended that Congress consider adding the Great Burn, also known as the Hoodoo Roadless Area, to the National Wilderness Preservation Systems, as well as parts of the Mallard Larkins roadless area and some roadless areas adjacent to the existing Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Environmental groups are pushing for places like East Meadow Creek and West Meadow Creek, the Bighorn-Wietas, Pot Mountain, Fish Creek and Hungry Creek, and other roadless areas for recommendation as wilderness. Only Congress can designate wilderness. Places that are recommended for designation are managed to ensure the characteristics that make them candidates are not diminished. That often means uses such as motorized travel are not allowed.

The Great Burn area that spans both the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest and the Lolo National Forest in Montana is 252,000 acres in size, with 153,900 acres in Idaho. For more than three decades, forest managers have worked to ensure the area is preserved until such time Congress takes up the issue.

For much of that time, snowmobilers were allowed to ride there. That changed in 2012 when forest officials released new travel rules prohibiting snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and mountain bikes. Probert said the travel rule had to comply with the forest plan, but it’s possible the new forest plan will allow snowmobiles in recommended wilderness. It’s also possible the area wouldn’t be recommended as wilderness or its current boundary could be altered to accommodate some motorized use.

“The forest plan revision provides that forum for looking at maybe what parts of that area we all kind of loosely refer to as the Great Burn — what parts do we really think should move forward for wilderness recommendation? Are there places that don’t have support and make sense and within the range of alternatives we can analyze in the forest plan? We can also analyze what uses we could authorize in recommended wilderness and vary that across the alternatives,” she said. “I think there are a lot of opportunities for some creative citizen-based solutions.”

That is a nonstarter for many wilderness advocates.

“We are not willing to negotiate changes to the Great Burn whatsoever,” said Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society at Boise. “We are not backing away from protecting one of, if not the largest, roadless areas left in the U.S.”

Probert’s willingness to look at changes there is welcome news to snowmobilers like Stan Spencer of the Missoula-based Backcountry Sled Patriots. He rode his snowmobile there for many years before it was prohibited and said it’s a special place to him and other backcountry sledders.

“It’s like a child to me; it’s pretty dear,” he said. “We look at that area just like (people who hike and backpack there in the summer.) We like the challenge, we like the scenery, and we like the solitude. If there were 20 snowmobilers in there on a day and you saw three or four of them, that was rare. It’s not something that can be duplicated probably anywhere in the Lower 48.”

He said snowmobilers use only about 20,000 acres of the area and would like that portion of it to become a special management area where snowmobiles are permitted.

Forest Service officials are taking public comments as they prepare to write a draft forest plan and environmental impact statement. When it comes to wilderness designation, that document will include several alternatives that will likely range from just a few areas recommended for wilderness to several areas.

Brooks and other wilderness advocates want to see a robust range of alternatives that gives a fair shake to the potential for new wilderness candidates.

“The whole point to the new (forest planning) regulations and criteria is to look at characteristics of an area and give them a fair evaluation based on merit and not just based on historical precedent. We want to make sure they fairly evaluate all the areas that met the criteria for recommended wilderness.”

He doesn’t like that Probert is willing to consider past motorized use in roadless areas that are now closed to motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles as a potential reason not to recommend those places for wilderness designation.

“If the evaluation process is meant to look at wilderness values at play, how are illegal motorized routes relevant in roadless areas today? They are currently illegal. It’s an irrelevant point and criteria unless you are trying to look at it and say this is a lost opportunity for motorized users.”

Wilderness advocate Gary Macfarlane of the Friends of the Clearwater at Moscow is troubled the agency is basing its look at potential recommended wilderness areas on places protected by the Idaho Roadless Rule. He said the agency should look at areas that were left out of that process.

“They are trying to look at the Idaho Roadless Rule themes,” Macfarlane said. “They seem to be driving this process rather than looking at the areas themselves. I think that is a problem. The Idaho Roadless Rule was not a wilderness recommendation or evaluation process.”

His group is pushing for several of the forests’ roadless areas to be recommended for wilderness designation. Chief among them is the 254,800-acre Bighorn-Weitas Roadless area in the North Fork of the Clearwater drainage.

“When you look at all of these other factors, it’s one of the most outstanding areas,” he said.

More information on the agency’s wilderness evaluation process and opportunities to comment on specific areas is available at

Barker may be contacted at or at 208-848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.