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Let’s Resist the Temptation to “Improve” Wilderness

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Let’s Resist the Temptation to “Improve” Wilderness

The 2020 passage of the Great America Outdoors Act will mean a big infusion for cash-starved federal land management agencies. Amid the excitement, I wanted to sound a note of caution based on my experience as a long-time, now retired, federal land manager.

My main point is that protecting wilderness often requires that investments be targeted to non-wilderness areas. I spent much of my career on the Bighorn National Forest, managing the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Of the 1,100 miles of scenic trails in Bighorn, less than 140 of those miles are in wilderness. By maintaining the many miles of trails outside of designated wilderness, the Forest Service is actually also protecting wilderness.

Cloud Peak Wilderness | Photo: Dave Stoetzl/BLM

Cloud Peak Wilderness | Photo: Dave Stoetzl/BLM

In my 20 years on the Bighorn, I constantly had to beat back attempts to “improve” access to trailheads accessing the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Forest managers argue that by improving these facilities, the pressure on the busiest trailheads can be reduced. However, demand for access has always been greater than supply.

In recognition of this, the planning documents for the Bighorn National Forest state that one of the Wilderness Resource Standards is, “do not move or encourage use into more pristine areas to resolve impacts in semi-primitive areas.” This lack of parking at these overused “go-to” trails is actually an important tool that can be used to implement our long-term goals of maintaining one of the wilderness characteristics of solitude.

There is a difference between managing the public’s impact in designated wilderness management and other dispersed recreation management. For designated wilderness, the agency must manage the people to protect the resource and natural processes. Often indirect management tools, such as slowing access, can achieve the goals of protecting the Wilderness Resource more easily and with less expense than more direct measures.

Unpaved, primitive roads leading to Wilderness trailheads provides a primitive self-reliant “wilderness-esque” experience and self-limits the number of visitors that choose to visit. If Forest managers decide to improve access to Wilderness trailheads, they will unfortunately worsen the problem they are trying to solve.

West Tensleep Trailhead | Photo: Craig Cope

West Tensleep Trailhead | Photo: Craig Cope

One example of a trailhead gone wrong is the West Tensleep Trailhead. It is the busiest road in the Bighorn. In the summer, traffic counts can exceed 200 vehicles per day. Prior to the mid 1960’s it was a three-hour slog on a native surface, rock-filled route from US 16 to the West Tensleep area. Then, some long-ago forgotten line officer decided that a two-lane gravel road which could be driven by all vehicle types would be the solution.

In the early 1980’s, the road dead-ended at an unimproved trail head. Only about 10 cars could be accommodated. There was no turn-around or other facilities and it was still always full. In the mid 1980’s, the current parking lot was developed and now the trailhead capacity far exceeds the ability of this area, undermining the solitude and unconfined experience the Cloud Peak Wilderness is supposed to provide and still retain.

Significantly, no other Trailhead accessing the Cloud Peak Wilderness has anywhere near the overuse issues. Why? Because you can’t drive at 40 MPH to reach these remote trailheads.

If these indirect management tools do not prevent wilderness areas being deluged, agencies like the Forest Service will be forced to start imposing user fees and mandatory permit systems, methods that are expensive to implement and likely to engender visitor resentment.

Cloud Peak Wilderness is not the only designated wilderness suffering overuse impacts. In fact, many designated wildernesses near more populated areas are most likely suffering even more degradation of the wilderness. Protecting these areas requires not only smart planning but also additional staff.

Despite increasing use, over the last 20 years “boots on the ground” are in a steady decline and it is taking its toll. The Forest Service needs more trail crew members. It is quite disheartening to walk trails and see the water bars filled with debris and deadfall causing detours and resource damage. The agency also needs to hire more rangers and front country staff, as well as need more staff on the ground in both Wilderness and non-wilderness areas of National Forests. In my post-retirement hikes into Cloud Peak, I have yet to encounter a Wilderness Ranger.

The amount of deferred trail maintenance on National Forest lands is tremendous. I certainly hope that the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act will provide the desperately needed resources for the Forest Service to protect the areas that they serve. Yet, it is vital that additional investments are not directed to projects that merely increase traffic but are designed to ultimately protect biodiversity and preserve healthy watersheds.


Craig Cope was the Cloud Peak Wilderness Manager on the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming for 20 years from 1993 until his retirement in 2014.