The Future of the Whites: Debate over Roadless Areas and Wilderness

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 5/14/02

Options the forest service is considering for roadless areas are: closing and decommissioning roads in adjacent areas, and putting all roadless land that meets the minimum requirements for federal wilderness designation into a management category that maintains its wilderness characteristics.

The U. S. Forest Service has narrowed down public concerns over the future of the White Mountains National Forest (WMNF) to six "volatile" issues, observes district ranger George Pozzuto. To no oneís surprise, expanding roadless and wilderness areas garnered the most discussion at a public hearing May 13th in Augusta, but officials said thereís a long way to go before a new management plan proposal for the WMNF is completed.

The national forest covers 800,000 acres -- 56,000 acres in Maine and the rest in New Hampshire. The Maine section contains one of several designated wilderness areas in the WMNF Ė the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness in Grafton Notch. There are several proposals being discussed that would increase that wilderness area by adding adjacent lands, as well as augment roadless areas Ė places that meet the minimum criteria for wilderness protection.

Click here for a map of the White Mountain National Forest

Tim Russell, the snowmobile coordinator for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL), took issue with the U. S. Forest Serviceís definitions for roadless areas and wilderness. He said they are confusing and made it hard for him to comment on changes being proposed. Forest service representatives in charge of the hearing assured Russell that further work would be done to clarify the language.

Along with roadless areas and wilderness, the major concerns identified by WMNF staff and the public are: motorized and non-motorized dispersed recreation, timber and wildlife habitat management. Pozzuto, whoís in charge of the Androscoggin District headquartered in Gorham, N.H., explained that the half dozen topics reflect the most compelling changes in resource and public needs. "We think they really paint the picture of where we go with the national forest" in terms of competing uses, he said, from timber harvesting to ATV and off-road vehicles.

"All six issues will play a significant role" in the Maine part of the WMNF, Pozzuto said. He mentioned that ATVers and jeepers are anxious to wrangle their way into the national forest and are "willing to do the field surveys" to find the soil types that can withstand their impacts.

The National Forest Management Act requires an update of the forest plan every 10 to 15 years. Forest planner Barbara Levesque presented a short history of the revision process since 1997, when the WMNF first sought public interest and received more than 3,000 comments on changes they would like to see. Planners distilled from those responses 31 topics of concern and, from those, developed working papers to guide the dialogue between the WMNF and the public.

The remaining 25 topics, such as air quality, fire, and land acquisition, "are still in play . . . they didnít fall by the wayside," Levesque said. "They could become parts of alternatives or affect standards and guidelines.

Seven public meetings from Boston to Augusta are being held this month to validate with the public that the half dozen issues are the most important ones, Levesque said. Despite the fact that only a dozen people showed up at the Augusta meeting, it was an energetic discussion.

Options the forest service is considering for roadless areas are: closing and decommissioning roads in adjacent areas, and putting all roadless land that meets the minimum requirements for federal wilderness designation into a management category that maintains its wilderness characteristics. Also being considered is banning timber harvesting, except for "stewardship" and salvage purposes, in areas without roads.

David Field, a forestry professor at the University of Maine at Orono, called the stewardship provision "silly . . . Thereís an agenda here," he said. Puzzoto explained that stewardship referred to meeting certain objectives, for example improving the ecological integrity of a watershed.

"Some [people] want more roadless areas" and to plant trees in old roads to turn them into forest quicker than nature would, Pozzoto said. "Some are saying I need roads for what I want to do . . . to drive to see fall color at a fishing spot," he said, adding that the population is aging. "Weíve got to consider that balance."

Scott Ramsey, ATV coordinator for BPL, said an increase in roadless areas shouldnít result in displacing other uses. Tim Russell questioned whether a roadless areas would be eligible for wilderness designation.

There ensued considerable discussion throughout the meeting of the differences between roadless and wilderness. Pozzoto said that all roadless areas arenít wilderness areas but a roadless area "is eligible for wilderness designation." Barbara Lesvesque said there are roadless areas that donít meet the minimum wilderness criteria.

One man in the audience advocated increasing roadless areas, saying as the Northeastís population grows and motorized recreation expands, "it will be harder and harder to find" quiet places. But Regina Sullivan, who has a camp in East Stoneham on the edge of the WMNF, said, "I think there should be more areas open to everybody."

At the beginning of the forest plan revision, Pozzoto said the agency made it clear there would be no consideration of reducing designated wilderness areas in the WMNF. The public was asked only if they want "to keep what weíve got or add to it," he said. "Some people want to add to it." The Wild River, which runs along the Maine-N.H. border, is a place where the forest service is looking to see if it fits the bill for a wilderness study area, the ranger said.

"I see this a real gray area," responded Tim Russell. "Are we looking at increasing more" forest that people canít go, where timber harvesting is banned." Pozzoto assured him that thereís plenty of time for discussion, and he noted that wilderness criteria "is more liberal than in the West because of our [harvesting] history."

"Isnít wilderness a one-use area?" questioned Fred Huntress, a forester and small woodlot owner from Poland Spring. Pozzoto agreed that wilderness designation excludes "some uses" (such as timber harvesting and motorized recreation) but is compatible with wildlife and fishing and air quality. "There are a good suite of uses derived from wilderness," he said.

The existing forest plan emphasizes non-motorized dispersed recreation, such as hiking and cross-country skiing. On the table are options to increase the non-motorized areas (including mountain biking) by reducing the miles of snowmobile trails. The only motorized use currently allowed is winter snowmobile use. Alternatives favored by some of the public is to open up the WMNF to ATV and ORVs in certain areas.

Scott Ramsey reiterated concerns over "taking away from one user group" to give to a competing use. Why not expand non-motorized uses into wilderness areas and non-motorized areas, he asked. Rozzoto said most roadless areas already allow non-motorized areas.

Pozzoto said hiking in all seasons has increased, and Tim Russell asked for data on winter hiking that would justify decreasing snowmobile trails. "We donít have hard numbers," said Pozzoto. "But the people I work with are amazed they canít go anywhere they donít see skis or snowshoe tracks. One of the questions Iíve been asking is what the technology of clothing and marketing of clothing is doing to give people a sense of invincibility . . . along with cell phones."

Pozzoto said the forest service is looking at making existing roads more suitable for car access, since "a significant part of the population accesses [the forest] with their vehicle." Tim Russell questioned who would pay for that Ė the forest service, state agencies or user groups. "All of those," answered Pozzoto. "Thereís no way to get all that money from Congress," he said. "It has to be a partnership."

A person in the audience asked about how ATVs and ORVs might damage the WMNF. Pozzoto said the forest service is looking at soils and topography to see which areas might be "compatible" with those uses. Another participant mentioned recent news stories of ATVs running amuck in southern Maine and asked whether the WMNF has had problems with incursions.

"We have limited areas on the boundaries where [ATVs] are entering," said Pozzoto. "If we catch them, we give them a ticket or warning. Itís not an issue in the interior at all." He said that mountain bike use is growing faster than motorized uses. Fred Huntress asked if the forest is going to be zoned exclusively for specific uses or multiple uses. "Multiple use" is still the policy, Pozzoto said, but offered thereís likely to be set-asides in the future for motorized and non-motorized recreation. Huntress said he was a landowner "and if you donít allow [ATVs] to use [the WMNF], theyíll use my land." Continuing to keep the vehicles out of the WMNF "would put tremendous pressure on private landowners," he said.

The existing forest plan emphasizes non-motorized dispersed recreation, such as hiking and cross-country skiing.

Timber harvesting occurs annually on approximately 0.5 percent of the forest, with 29 million board feet cut (enough to build 100 1,880-square foot houses). There is no logging allowed on over half of the WMNF. At issue with timber management in the coming years, said Pozzoto, is "where, how much and when. Should we just be growing fiber [to harvest], favoring hardwood log [production] or cutting to ward off insects and diseases that might affect adjacent private lands?" he asked, rhetorically. "Is the only time to implement a timber sale to create wildlife habitat."

"Iím concerned," Huntress stated. "Too much of the area is not getting timber harvesting. Harvesting creates jobs in the woods, manufacturing . . . and value added products. Looks like timber harvesting would be the last thing youíd do," he said. "Thereís no reason you canít have responsible timber management," Huntress said. "Letís harvest some timber."

Pozzoto replied that beside conventional timber harvesting, "we need to pay attention to non-vascular plants. There are plants disappearing from the landscape . . . a lot of balance needs to occur here."

At issue with wildlife habitat is whether management should be species or ecosystem driven. David Field said, "I come down hard on ecosystem driven," adding that a mix of forest ages are necessary to protect a diversity of wildlife. He said if the WMNF doesnít protect older mature trees, that age group will "fall through the cracks . . . on private lands."

The issues discussed at the May hearings will be further refined by the forest service staff and a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) will be issued by late fall or early next year. The public will have an opportunity then to comment further on revisions. A final EIS will be ready by the beginning of 2005.