Uphill battle

Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com The Selway Bitterroot Wilderness area in evening light, looking north and east from the Mount McConnel trail. The area was among the first in the nation to be designated as wilderness by the 1964 Wilderness Act. Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com

Grant Elliott and Jon Binninger ride through an old burn in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness Area. Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com

Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com Grant Elliott and Jon Binninger use a cross-cut saw to remove a tree blocking a trail in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area. A reduction in U.S. Forest Service trail funding means visitors often have to contend with downed trees and brushy trails. Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com

Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com Jon Binninger takes in the scenery while scouting for elk in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness Area. Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com

Horses and mules graze in Wag Meadows in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness Area. Once a popular place to hunt elk, the area sees little hunting today because of the decline of its once famed elk herd. Eric Barker / ebarker@lmtribune.com

WAG MEADOWS — Grant Elliott and Jon Binninger alternately pull and push a crosscut saw as they work to remove a downed tree from a lonely trail in Idaho’s 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area.

The scarcely visible tread is overgrown with vegetation for long stretches and littered with wind-fallen trees as it dissects the scar of a 3-year-old wildfire. Its condition is emblematic of many of the 32,000 miles of trails that dive into the heart of the nation’s 758 wilderness areas. Tight federal budgets have led to a $314 million backlog of maintenance on the trails that crisscross the nation’s forests and grasslands.

The problem is exaggerated in wilderness areas that are remote by nature and have rules that prohibit the use of modern tools such as chain saws. Elliott and Binninger, hunters on a summer scouting trip, don’t expect well-manicured paths like one would find in a state or national park. In fact, they like that wilderness travel can be both arduous and adventurous. It enhances their experience and tends to keep competition from other hunters to a minimum. The men pack saws, axes and a Pulaski on their mules so they can overcome the occasional obstacle Mother Nature puts in their path.

But they aren’t pleased that some trails such as this one are being reclaimed by nature. Binninger surmises the secondary route probably hasn’t seen a trail crew in a decade and like many others is at risk of disappearing altogether.

Golden anniversary

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. When Congress approved the landmark conservation legislation, the Selway-Bitterroot was among the original 54 areas encompassing 9.1 million acres to be designated as wilderness, defined as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Today, the system includes nearly 110 million acres. Ed Krumpe, director of the Wilderness Research Center at the University of Idaho in Moscow, said the act was one of the most hotly debated pieces of legislation to make its way through Congress. It went through more than 60 variations and was the subject of public meetings throughout the nation and numerous congressional hearings.

“It’s a product of a lot of compromise. That has allowed it to survive,” he said. “There has been no major amendments, so it’s stood the test of time.”

Even so, it remains the subject of debate and controversy today. Wilderness areas are popular destinations for backpackers, hikers, hunters, anglers and horse packers. But a number of things have kept the issue alive, from dwindling trail maintenance to wildlife management controversies and efforts to add acres to the system.

Taking care of wild country

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, based in Missoula, Mont., decries the lack of commitment to wilderness stewardship from federal land management agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service. He said it ranges from the lack of trail maintenance to the creeping reliance on motorized equipment such as helicopters to accomplish what was once done with pack strings.

“You can see it just in what has happened to wilderness field forces. Wilderness areas that had four or five or 10 wilderness rangers in the past are lucky to have one any more,” he said. “The wilderness staff has been seriously gutted. Its professionalism has been seriously compromised. A lot of what wilderness rangers used to do is now done with volunteers, which is an indication they don’t take the job seriously.”

The agencies are losing their institutional knowledge as well as their primitive skills, he said. Because of that, they too often authorize exceptions to motorized travel restrictions and call for helicopters to pack in equipment to do things such as replace bridges.

“I think they are all indications that the commitment to preserving wilderness is going in the wrong direction,” Nickas said.

Carol Hennessey, trails program manager for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, doesn’t dispute that the agency is reliant on volunteer groups to take care of its wilderness areas. Groups such as the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, Montana Conservation Corps and the Backcountry Horseman once were tapped to augment trail work and other stewardship carried out by the agency. Now the trail clearing and other projects they do helps the agency tread water on its backlog of work.

“Their contribution and their stewardship are the backbone of our wilderness management right now,” she said. “What we are seeing with our declining budgets, we are leaning more heavily each year on our partners.”

Hennessey said the agency’s strategy is to do its best to keep main trails — or system trails — cleared and in good shape. But many of the lesser-used trails receive little or no attention.

Last year, the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation cleared more than 5,600 trees, removed 283 pounds of trash, and maintained 540 miles of trail. The group helps the Forest Service take care of the Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas. It employs a summer field staff, interns and leads an army of volunteers.

“Our mission is to put boots on the ground and keep the trails open,” said Sally Ferguson, executive director of the group that has offices in Boise, Grangeville and Missoula.

She said the group and others like it have also taken on the task of training the next generation of wilderness professionals.

“When people retire out of the Forest Service, nobody is really standing in line to replace them,” she said. “It’s hard to create that continuity that brings young men and women into the agency and provide them that (wilderness-skills) knowledge. That is where the foundation is able to step in.”

Wolves and wilderness

The degree to which people guided management of wildlife in the wilderness last year resulted in a turf war between the public, Forest Service and Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The department sent an employee into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area to trap and shoot wolves.

There was a public outcry from wolf advocates and those who felt killing the predators outside of normal public hunting and trapping trammeled on the spirit of wilderness where many believe nature should rule.

The state and federal agency prevailed in a lawsuit filed by wolf and wilderness advocates attempting to stop the wolf-control effort. But the state abruptly ended the program after the trapper killed nine wolves. The agency agreed not to send the trapper back in this winter and instead will further discuss its management of wildlife in wilderness with the Forest Service.

Virgil Moore, director of Idaho Fish and Game, believes the fight is more about wolf management than it is about wilderness. He said the department long has managed other species in wilderness areas and will continue to do so.

“If you are going to have hunting and fishing and trapping, you are going to have to have management associated with that,” he said. “How you do that management becomes the area of discussion, not whether it’s appropriate.”

Wolves aren’t the only problems faced by elk. Noxious weeds continue to flourish in areas that were once dominated by grass and brush. In some places, habitat created by massive fires in the early 20th century has closed in.

The management plans for Idaho wilderness areas didn’t anticipate the recovery of wolves, what Moore calls a top-level predator. He said if the Forest Service isn’t able or willing to take steps to improve habitat, his agency will act to balance predator and prey populations.

“If the Forest Service won’t deal with the habitat issues that are aggravating to some degree the depredation issues because of predation, than we have no choice but to deal with what we have authority over and that is the population issues.”

At Wag Meadows and the vast area surrounding it, Elliott and Binninger remark about the habitat. It looks to be perfect for big game. But there is scarcely an elk track to be found. Young trees are largely free of the scars that indicate a bull elk has used it to rub velvet off his antlers.

Elliot said 20 years ago game trails sometimes 2 feet wide used to cross the Mount McConnel Trail and hunters could barely find a place to park at trailheads up and down the Lochsa River Corridor.

Now parking is easy.

“It’s sad,” he said.

It also accentuates some of the trail problems. Hunters and outfitters once could be relied on to clear trails as they packed into camping spots. Hunters often notified the agency of trail problems and the traffic from them and their stock used to beat back the brush.

“When the pack strings were heavily used we didn’t have to brush as much,” Hennessey said.

Tough trails for wilderness bills

Even with the problems and controversies, wilderness remains popular with much of the nation. There are numerous efforts to add to the system. But doing so can be tougher than traveling a trail that hasn’t been cleared in a decade. Despite several efforts, there haven’t been many successful wilderness bills in recent years, said Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society at Boise. He thinks that will change.

“The issue isn’t going away and eventually Congress is going to have to be held accountable to what people want, and people want wilderness,” he said. “We will start seeing bills move again and I think having local bipartisan support is going to be really critical.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, successfully ushered a bill that included wilderness designation for a portion of the Owyhee Canyon lands in 2009. He did it first by leading a collaborative effort that brought diverse interests around the same table. Over eight years, they hammered out a series of agreements that led to a land management bill that included new wilderness.

Collaboration is the senator’s political mantra and he believes new wilderness is possible, even in an era of hyper-partisanship where bills that propose new designations scarcely get a hearing.

Crapo is leading the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a land management roundtable in its sixth year that could lead to several new wilderness designations for areas such as the Mallard Larkins, Great Burn and additions to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area.

“We have found consistently that if we will come together, that people who live in the areas where the issues are, have the ability to work out the solutions that are win-win solutions,” he said. “They are better for the environment and they are better for the economy.”

Even those opposed to wilderness out of principle say they can support new designations in the Clearwater if Crapo’s collaborative effort gives them something in exchange.

Skip Brandt and Don Ebert are tentatively on board.

Brandt, a Republican, is the chairman of the Idaho County Commission and Ebert, a Democrat, heads the Clearwater County Commission. They both view wilderness as something that locks up valuable resources and keeps most of their constituents from enjoying the areas.

“I’m sure 95 percent of my constituents, Idaho County residents, the only way they are going to enjoy the backcountry is with a motor,” Brandt said.

“Here in Clearwater County, wilderness is not a real popular thing,” Ebert said. “It’s perceived as a way to lock up the land and keep us out of it.”

Both are members of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative and are interested in more local timber sales that create high-paying jobs in the woods and at mills. In principle, the group, which includes environmentalists, loggers, politicians and off-roaders, has agreed to the concept of new designations. But the county commission’s backing is qualified.

“If they want our support for wilderness, we are going to have to have an active and viable timber program in the Forest Service,” Ebert said.

Brandt said wilderness amounts to permanent protection. He said a timber sale here or there is not enough.

“Wilderness is guaranteed nobody will touch it. I want the same guarantee on the other side of it, that the big chunk of suitable timber area will be managed and managed properly,” he said.

Even Raul Labrador, viewed as the most conservative of Idaho’s congressional delegation and a staunch opponent of wilderness, said it is possible he could one day vote “yes” on a wilderness bill. But it would have to include local support.

“I would be willing to consider legislation adding wilderness, but only if it included the direct participation of local stakeholders working toward a collaborative solution,” he said.

It’s just that kind of horse trading that Nickas of Wildernesses Watch said is the problem with wilderness legislation today. If the only way to get wilderness in this political climate is to sacrifice other public lands, he said conservation groups should pull back and wait for greener pastures.

“At some point — and I think we have already passed it — if we are going to have a Congress so antagonistic to wilderness, we are going to have to do something else. We will wait. The situation will change. There will be other times.”

Eric Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

Eric Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.