Fewer roads, fewer fires

Originally published in the Albuquerque Tribune,  August 7, 2002.

Today’s author says not building new forest roads, and limiting access on existing ones, could help prevent catastrophic forest fires – by keeping careless fire starters out of the woods.

This land is your land, this land is my land,” Woody Guthrie, 1952.

“This is our land,” Jarbridge Shovel Brigade Official Web Site, 2002.

By Mark Boslough

On Sept. 1, 1846, my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather camped in a place that is now the outskirts of Elko, Nevada.

The night was dark and quiet. There were no roads for hundreds of miles. There were no ranches, no timber companies, no towns, no subdivisions, and no vacation houses to protect from wildfire. When the forests caught fire, as they had for millennia, nobody cared. The natural cycle was in balance.

Things have changed since then. Today, only the most inaccessible fragments of our national forests are wild, unmarred by roads and other intrusions.

The wild, roadless areas are special, spectacular places, where forests tend to be healthy and fires need not be suppressed. Wildlife is protected by isolation, and people can visit for solitude and rejuvenation. This land is your land.

Without protection, however, roads and development will eventually swallow up the last remaining wild forests. Unfortunately, there is a dangerous and growing movement spawned by the timber and motorized recreation industries to grab this public treasure for their own gain.

Allowing them to do so will push these prized forests to the front burner, exposing them to the ravages of human-caused, catastrophic wildfires like those that have singed the West this summer.

One of the uglier manifestations of this movement is the “Jarbridge Shovel Brigade,” of Elko County. This vigilante group was formed to seize the control of public lands in northern Nevada, lands owned by all Americans.

In 1995, a road to the Jarbridge Wilderness Area washed out. To protect the nearby Jarbridge River and its endangered bull trout fishery from soil erosion, the U.S. Forest Service decided to keep the streamside road closed to motor vehicles. The road was blocked off with large boulders.

This did not sit well with some locals, who organized a work party to defy federal protection of our public land and take the law into their own hands. On July 4, 2000, they converged on the site, removed the boulders, and built their own unauthorized road.

The philosophy of the Shovel Brigade movement seems to be this: Anywhere vehicles have ever been driven can be maintained as a public highway by vigilantes, regardless of environmental harm or federal protective rulings to the contrary.

These groups do not limit their aggressive intrusions to public lands. They also invade lands owned by private individuals who don’t want motorized trespassers on their property. I learned this firsthand when I attempted to prevent motorized use of a creek bed on my family’s property in Boulder County, Colorado.

When the oldest parts of our property went into private ownership, the entire area was roadless. Old maps show only a single-track footpath along Balarat Creek. But to some off-road enthusiasts, a hiking trail on any property, public or private, is theirs for the taking. In helping themselves, they have caused erosion, destroyed vegetation and created new spur roads.

With 300 acres of trees that needed to be thinned to reduce the fire hazard, I hired a professional forester to draft a forest stewardship plan.

One of the primary recommendations of his report was to stop the unauthorized recreational use before undertaking forest stand improvements. If trees were cut and underbrush removed without putting up gates and fences, he reasoned, the land would be much more vulnerable to motorized trespassers.

In 1999, I posted “no motorized vehicles” signs along our creek land. That spring, a group of 15 vehicles from the Denver-based Mile-Hi Jeep Club ignored my signs and drove through. The club’s web site even reported that one vehicle dumped a crankcase load of oil into our creek.

So that summer I did what the Forest Service did in Elko County. I blocked the trail. This was unacceptable to some members of the Mile-Hi Jeep Club, who organized a “Barking Dog Shovel Brigade” to remove my boulder and work on an amateur road construction project on private land they had no right to enter.

Unlike the Forest Service, I didn’t let the matter go. I brought in a truckload of boulders. Two years later, the “road” has reverted to a hiking trail for my neighbors and the surrounding community.

The streamside wildflowers, grasses, willows, and aspen trees that were crushed under the off-road tires are growing back. The Mile-Hi Jeep Club’s oil slick is gone, and I have picked up much of the trash and vehicle parts.

More importantly, the threat of human-cause wildfire has been greatly reduced. When I blocked the trail to off-road vehicles, I removed at least a dozen unauthorized fire rings. Few illegal campfires have appeared since then. After the Shovel Brigade removed my barrier, somebody built a celebratory bonfire.

This summer has brought the worst drought the mountain West has experienced in a century, but off-road recreation has continued unabated in the tinder-dry forest near my family’s property.

In July, only a few miles to the north, two men in a Jeep CJ7 drove off a road onto toasty dry grass. It was quickly ignited by their hot catalytic converter. Before it was contained, the resulting Big Elk fire consumed 4,413 acres of forest, forced the evacuation of 250 homes, cost $2 million, and tragically claimed two lives in the crash of a slurry bomber used to fight the blaze.

“I keep wondering why it is that we can’t close off more of the backcountry roads and the places where people are coming in and being careless with fires,” observed Paul McDaniel, who had to flee when the fire threatened his neighborhood.

This seems like a no-brainer; a practical idea so obviously beneficial, it is almost beyond discussion.

Compared to roadless wild forests, fire-prone areas that are crisscrossed with roads are exposed to fire by human-borne matches, tossed cigarettes, exhaust sparks, fireworks and unattended campfires, not to mention arsonists. As you know, the worst of the fires this summer actually were physically set by people.

The Forest Service estimates that 90 percent of wildfires in national forests are human-caused. A common-sense way to prevent forest fires is to limit motorized access into the woods, especially during the fire season.

But renegade shovel brigades and Jeep clubs seem to have no respect for rules that protect forest resources or private property. When other motorists follow their example and fail to obey road closures, the results can be catastrophic.

Take the recent huge fire in Arizona. The blaze was not started by a hiker, as off-road vehicle groups have gleefully claimed. The Chediski fire broke out after a pickup truck driver got lost in a maze of forest roads on the Fort Apache Reservation and subsequently ran out of gas. In desperation, his stranded passenger set a signal fire that got out of control, merged with the Rodeo fire, burned almost half a million acres, destroyed nearly 500 homes and cabins, and forced the evacuation of 300,000 people.

Forests with open roads will always be more vulnerable than those without roads. Someone who tossed a cigarette or other burning object into a roadside ditch started the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango. That fire destroyed 56 homes and more than 70,000 acres, costing more than $40 million.

Areas with roads in our national forests require active management to reduce their unnaturally high fire hazards and help restore them to health, but thinning also makes them more vulnerable to damage from motorized intruders.

That’s one of the reasons thinning projects need a comprehensive environmental review, so that we don’t inadvertently increase the fire risk with a rushed job due to political pressure.

By reasonably limiting access in forests already criss-crossed with roads, we can reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

In the wild and roadless areas of our national forests, nature can be left to its own devices, which will keep forests healthy, reduce wildfire hazards, and save taxpayers the expense of road construction and upkeep – not to mention the cost of fighting the resultant wildfires.

By preserving roadless areas, the federal government can protect our last remaining wild forests for all Americans.

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