Instant Wilderness: When a Road is not a Road

January 2002

Editorial By Don Fife and Ralph Pray
National Association of Mining Districts

A strange thing is happening in Washington, D.C., these days. Roads are disappearing ... on paper! Old wagon roads, now dirt roads, considered by back country travelers for centuries to be the main thoroughfare from point
to point anywhere in the western states, are being redefined as a "non-roads" or "ways," apparently in order to reclassify the surrounding land as "roadless" and therefore, eligible for Wilderness Study consideration.

The Clinton-Gore administration proposed closure of 400,000 miles of backcountry roads on 60,000,000 acres on national forest lands. Are these roadways "roads" or not? The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published official maps for more than 80 years before the 1964 Wilderness Act. In 1964, five classes of roads were defined by the Survey. Their definition of a road in 1964 was what Congress intended when the Act used the terms "road" and "roadless."

The five classes are:

Class 1: primary highway, federal and state,

Class 2: secondary highway, state and county,

Class 3: light duty, paved or improved,

Class 4: unimproved, unsurfaced, including track roads in back country,
designated on maps by two parallel dashed lines, and

Class 5: trails (single dashed line), roads passable only with a 4-wheel
drive vehicle; also called Jeep trails.

Today, for every mile of primary, secondary, and light duty roadway in the west, there are 50 to 100 miles of unimproved, track (Class 4 and 5) roads. This type of road is commonly a primitive road, frequently of just two
tracks, but it is the principal type of road to most of the backcountry. Thousands of miles of Class 4 and 5 roads, once wagon roads, exist in the west and still see daily auto traffic.

However, these "Backcountry Freeways" are losing their centuries-old status in the name of wilderness protection. According to the 1964 Wilderness Act (PL88-577), no land can be designated a Wilderness Area unless it is
"roadless." The Wilderness provision of the Federal Land Policy & Management Act (PL94-579) - FLPMA - specified a Wilderness Area to be 5,000 acres or more and stipulated that it be "roadless," meaning that no "roads" could be contained within a 5,000-acre parcel, or it could not be considered for Wilderness. The Wilderness Act was passed to isolate a few mountaintops and a few million acres as "untrammeled, undeveloped, primeval federal land having no permanent improvements." Why have these roads been hidden or ignored? How has this been accomplished?

In the 1970's, pro-wilderness bureaucrats and their radical environmental allies redefined the term "road" on federal lands to mean only those that were "graded or maintained by mechanical equipment on a regular basis." This conveniently made additional millions of acres -- filled with existing Class 4 and 5 roads and regularly utilized by recreationists, miners, and ranchers and the public -- susceptible to consideration for Wilderness withdrawal. Class 3 roads became the most primitive of remaining auto routes. The unimproved dirt roads and jeep trails were defined into oblivion. In effect, they were "wiped off" the legislative map.

Since these roads technically do not exist, the land through which they ran now qualifies for Wilderness designation.

The Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management executed the new definition and arbitrarily redefined the word "road," thus furthering the delusion that a road is not a road. The BLM stated that "within these inventoried areas there are frequently a number of ways and trails which no longer qualify as roads, although they are used as routes of travel." This description seemed to apply to USGS Class 4 and 5 roads.

The BLM also said: "A way maintained solely by the passage of vehicles does not constitute a road."

Their definition creates several problems. If a road is of such natural integrity that periodic grading is not necessary, can it be eliminated as a road by some planner -- solely because it has not required mechanical maintenance?

The Clinton-Gore administration ordered the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), to apply a similar standard to roads in the National Forest System, thereby threatening to "manufacture" 60,000,000 more acres of roadless wilderness. A change in administrations did not put a complete stop to this agenda. Unfortunately, some in the current administration and in Congress are hell-bent to implement these closures. This is in an apparent attempt to implement the Wildlands Project, which would turn 50% or more of the United States into wilderness with vast, interconnecting wildland corridors.

The BLM and USFS interpretations concerning back country roads are inaccurate and self-serving. Millions of acres of the western United States have been taken from multiple use and public access by the simple dirty trick of changing the meaning of one word: road. Class 4 and 5 roads are human developments; they are permanent improvements. Therefore, land containing them cannot and should not be considered as wilderness under the 5,000-acre roadless requirement. It would seem that a road is not a road -- if a government agency sees it as a candidate for roadless Wilderness. It all depends on what the meaning of the word "road" is.

For related information, please see the following websites:

Don Fife can be contacted at

Don Fife and Ralph Pray
National Association of Mining Districts
508 First Street S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003

Contact - Don Fife: 714-544-8406, Fax: 714-731-3745

Chuck Cushman: 360-687-3087, Fax: 360-687-2973


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