Roads snake across some roadless areas

Capital Press Staff Writer

BOISE, IDAHO - 1/16/03 - “Roadless Area” designations take in lands many Idahoans and other Westerners contend aren’t as roadless as they appear to be on maps and in records available at regional or national agency offices.

A “Roadless Area” designation is more a term placed on an area than an actual thing, said Brent Robson, former Teton County, Idaho, commissioner.

“Most areas have at least primitive roads,” Robson said. “For a period, the U.S. Forest Service used tank traps to shut those roads down. They were 14-foot holes, and a terrible mess to look at.

“They were also dangerous, because they weren’t marked at all,” Robson added. “I have first-hand experience with that. I broke my back a few years ago because I hit one while riding a snowmobile.”

Teton County learned the Forest Service was digging such holes in roads in neighboring Fremont County. In response, county commissioners held an emergency meeting, Robson said. On Oct. 1, 1998, the commission passed an emergency ordinance closing all county roads that accessed the Targhee National Forest to vehicles in excess of 90,000 pounds gross volume weight.

“That made it impossible for the Forest Service to haul the equipment they were using for this work into the forest,” said Robson, a commissioner at the time. “We also arranged a sit-down meeting with the Targhee National Forest supervisor. It was a public meeting, and a matter of public record. During that meeting the supervisor assured us the Forest Service would not violate our county ordinance until its legality could be determined.”

Equipment impounded

“While we were in that meeting, the Forest Service sneaked their equipment across the county line into the forest and began tearing up a road,” Robson said. “I received a call from a citizen reporting that this was happening, so I went to the area with a deputy sheriff and confirmed that it was true. We impounded the Forest Service’s equipment for a time.

“To me, that showed their willingness to do whatever they thought was in their best interest to stop people from using existing roads out on the forest,” Robson added.

The ordinance was amended Dec. 13, 1999, making it a misdemeanor to obstruct, alter, damage, destroy or close – whether temporary or otherwise – any county or public right-of-way in the county, records in the Teton County clerk’s office show.

The following May 14, a public hearing was held on rescinding the ordinance. Eighteen persons testified in favor of the ordinance, and no one spoke in favor of rescinding it.

Despite that, commissioners Jay Calderwood and Ron Ramirez, both elected to office after the ordinance was passed, voted to rescind it. Commission chairman Mark Trupp abstained, stating for the record that he considered the vote illegal.

Teton County residents responded by launching an unsuccessful recall petition against Calderwood and Ramirez. In the meantime, word of the county’s actions reached national Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C. and the practice of digging tank traps was halted, Robson said.

“Today they’re using natural materials to reseed the trails, and taking other, much more sensible actions when they decide to close a road,” he said.

Access issue

The real issue over roadless designation is access, said Greg Nelson, director of public affairs for the Idaho Farm Bureau.

Idaho has the largest chunk of designated wilderness in the lower 48 states, at just under 4 million acres. Most of those acres are on the state’s 9 million acres of National Forest land. Closing roads, including faded trails once used by miners and trappers, or forgotten wagon trails used by pioneer settlers, creates de facto wilderness, Nelson said.

“Idaho is still western enough that we like to utilize our heritage, and that includes access,” Nelson said. “We’re a working class of people. We don’t have three weeks to put on a backpack and go trudging out there. We want to be able to drive up close, spend our day or two off out on the land, and get back home.

“Ranchers want access to their grazing allotments, and some mining is still going on out there too,” he added. “We don’t want those roads closed.

“When you add up the closures because of roadless designations, and others imposed for the sake of grizzly bears or other species listed under the Endangered Species Act, you end up with a lot of land accessible only to the young and the physically strong who can hike in,” Nelson said. “The rest of us, whether because of age, stamina or whatever, won’t be able to get into that back country. Yet that land is as much our heritage as it is that of the out-of-staters who want to lock everything up.”


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