'I was there'

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"I was there." Those are three powerful words in the right circumstances. They imply a first-hand knowledge that only a few can legitimately claim. In grade school we were taught that primary sources, those who were there, were the best to cite in term papers. When it comes to Inventoried Roadless Areas, I can say, "I was there."

I retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1998 after a 32-year career. During my career, I was involved with the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) and subsequent RARE II processes on several forests in California. These processes were intended to identify any and all areas that could potentially be considered for wilderness designation and then, once and for all, make recommendations for areas that should be considered for wilderness designations and areas that should be managed for multiple use.

It is important to note exactly what "wilderness" means. While many of us would use the term to describe a host of outdoor environments, in the context of public lands management, wilderness has a very specific definition.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines areas eligible for wilderness designation by Congress as areas where "...the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," and "...generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."

As forest managers, my colleagues and I were tasked with determining which areas of national forest lands met the criteria above and to make recommendations about which areas should ultimately be designated as full-fledged wilderness areas. In an effort to be comprehensive we cast a broad net. We included huge swaths of land, now known as Inventoried Roadless Areas, in the review process with the understanding that those areas that were evaluated and found unsuitable for wilderness designation would continue to be managed under the same rules and processes as other forest lands. We were wrong.

As it stands Inventoried Roadless Areas, including the nearly 36 million acres my colleagues and I determined were unsuitable for wilderness designation are still being managed to protect their "wilderness" characteristics. This doesn't make sense.

One might ask, "What's the harm in managing the lands this way?" The short answer is that wilderness is the most restrictive land management tool available. So restrictive that it literally takes an act of Congress to designate a wilderness area. As a result these nearly 36 million acres are, by and large, being managed to restrict all sorts of uses including mountain biking, motorized recreation, timber harvesting and a whole host of other activities. The national forests are known as the "Land of Many Uses," but that doesn't apply to these lands. We can do better.

Without a doubt there are areas of forest lands that are appropriate for wilderness designation. That is what the RARE and RARE II processes were all about; however, the lands we identified as unsuitable for wilderness should provide opportunities for multiple uses, which is a big part of the Forest Service's mission.

There is a bill pending before Congress that would, finally, set this straight. Rep. McCarthy (R-Calif.) has introduced legislation, H.R. 1581, that would implement our recommendations and lift the restrictive management of IRAs and direct that these lands be managed for multiple uses. I whole-heartedly endorse this bill and have testified before Congress to urge its passage.

To be clear, this bill would not open these lands to unfettered access to all uses. Instead, only the lands that my colleagues and I found unsuitable for wilderness designation will once again be managed by forest managers through forest planning and other public processes that will identify the best, most appropriate uses for these lands, which in some cases may be no change in their management at all.

Quite simply this bill would accomplish what forest managers thought we were accomplishing years ago. I know, I was there.

Tom Crimmins retired from the Forest Service after 32 years of service and is currently active as trail management consultant.

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