George Pfromm II
Stretching from the shorn top of Mt. St. Helens nearly to the banks of the Columbia River, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is a primary battleground for federal environmental policies. Unlike wilderness areas where no commercial and only exceedingly limited recreational uses are allowed, national forests and parks permit everything from logging to snowmobiling. Over the past few decades, these concessions for commercial and recreational uses have set up an intense battle with environmentalists for the control of the nation's land management--the latest of which is over roads in these parks.

After having been through the '90s--a decade when environmentalists slowed or shut down hundreds of timber cuts and in national forests throughout the Pacific Northwest--local residents in the small towns that border national parks and forests see potential road closures as yet another affront. They fear that these road closures could shut down an important part of their lifestyle and force them to live according to even more rules set up by liberal environmentalists. As such, the fights over what to do about these roads are quickly shaping up to be the most contentious environmental battles for the next decade.

Last week, this tug-of-war intensified even further as the Forest Service hosted public forums in Southern Washington to determine what to do about the forest service roads crisscrossing Gifford Pinchot National Forest. More than 4000 miles of bumpy, dirt roads provide access to the forest for fire trucks and forest service vehicles. These roads also serve as popular paths for ATVs and, in the winter, snowmobiles. In recent years, the steep climb swooping up Mt. St. Helens has become a popular and rambunctious snowmobile ride.

Unable to keep up the road's maintenance and under pressure from environmentalists, the Forest Service is planning to close as much as one-tenth of these roads. The meetings last week are part of the on-going decision-making process; a final decision is not expected for several months. But experts agree that the ultimate outcome of the Forest Service's decision in Gifford Pinchot could set the tone for forest service policies throughout the country and determine exactly who may access national forests, and how they may do so for years to come.

On Wednesday, about 50 people showed up to a meeting in Vancouver, WA. This meeting was a continuation from a series of heated and contentious forums last fall, where dozens of outdoor enthusiasts showed up to voice their complaints. Concerned about being shut out from national forests and parks--what many hunters and ATVers see as their sprawling backyards--they demanded that the forest service keep the roads open.

"It was unruly," said Susan Jane Brown, the Executive Director for the Gifford Pinchot Task Force. "They threatened forest service officials." She added, "We were overwhelmed."

Over the past decade, the Forest Service has slowly fallen behind on maintenance of these roads. Moreover, environmental groups have pushed to shut off these roads, citing their concerns that traffic disrupts fish, bird, and animal habitats.

The debate over Gifford Pinchot arrives at a particularly nervous time for the forest service's management and direction. As one of its final acts, the Clinton Administration froze construction on any additional roads in national forests. This act enraged loggers and recreational users, who viewed the moratorium as a first step to shutting down forests completely. In addition, the Clinton Administration made an example of Yellowstone National Park and banned snowmobiles from the territory.

But the Bush Administration has begun to dismantle these protections. On July 5, for example, the federal government rolled over on a lawsuit by Ski-Doo, Polaris, and other major snowmobile manufacturers by declaring Yellowstone open again to snowmobiles. What happens in Gifford Pinchot will be a significant indication of the Forest Service's prevailing sentiment.

"No one really knows what the next step is," admits Brown. But, she adds, environmental groups are already preparing lawsuits as a secondary line of defense--in case the forest service doesn't shut down as many roads as they would like. In the name of protecting waterways in the national forests, these lawsuits would force the Forest Service to declare certain roadways off-limits to motorized vehicles.