This OpEd, by TU's California Field Director Sam Davidson, was published in the Vacaville Reporter, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011.
As a life-long outdoorsman, I’ve been following with great concern a bill authored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy that would reduce protections for some of our best public lands hunting and fishing grounds. This bill would affect 4.2 million acres of lands and waters in California presently managed as “roadless areas.”
Roadless areas are non-wilderness backcountry areas in our national forests that have fewer roads and less development than frontcountry areas. New road construction and timber harvest are the only uses generally not allowed in roadless areas, although even these activities may be conducted in some circumstances.
Mr. McCarthy says his bill, the Wilderness and Roadless Areas Release Act (HR 1581), is needed because “millions of acres of land across the United States are being held under lock and key unnecessarily.”
This is the worst kind of political hooey. The Forest Service already manages roadless areas as “multiple use” lands, and you can do pretty much anything in them that you can do in other areas in our national forests.
For example, the Hat Mountain Roadless Area in the Modoc National Forest in northeast California has livestock fences and watering developments, some 27 miles of primitive road, and 2.5 miles of road providing access for logging trucks to a 730‑acre commercial firewood cutting area.
In the Duncan Canyon Roadless Area on the Tahoe National Forest, there is a 640 acre inholding owned by the Erickson Lumber Company, which built a road into their property under special use permit and now harvests timber there. In addition, there are more than 11 miles of motorized trails in this roadless area, as well as the historic Western States trail which is used for internationally-famous endurance competitions for horses and humans. Across the entire Tahoe National Forest, there are some 150 miles of motorized trails in roadless areas, as well as active mining claims.
And in the Sequoia National Forest, in Mr. McCarthy’s back yard, the Rincon Roadless Area – the largest roadless area in the Sierra Nevada – has several motorized trails open for use, including one that spans its entire length.
Does that seem “under lock and key” to you?
While many roadless areas are not truly “roadless,” all roadless areas have much lower road densities than front-country areas. For this very reason, roadless areas typically have much higher habitat values for game and fish. Hunting seasons are longer and hunter success rates higher in roadless areas. Roadless areas often provide habitat strongholds for native trout and salmon and deliver the clean, cold water needed for downstream fisheries.
Maintaining access is vital for the use and enjoyment of our national forests, and two-thirds of our national forests in California are already open for motorized travel. Access means being able to travel by motor vehicle to reach a good variety of trailheads, and from there, having well-maintained trails on which to ride, hike, mountain bike, or go dirt biking or jeeping. It also means keeping some areas in a more wild condition, because that’s where you’re more likely to find good hunting and fishing, and that elusive feeling of being “out there.”
I recently visited a roadless area in the Sierra National Forest. My thirteen-year-old son and I drove to the trailhead and parked the truck next to a pretty little stream I’ve fished dozens of times over the years. Thirty feet from our truck we were in the northern San Joaquin Roadless Area. By the end of the day we were nice and tired, because the further we went from the truck, the better the fishing got.
Ironically, unlike virtually all bills that have designated new Wilderness in this country, H.R. 1581 is not driven by local consensus. Leading sportsmen’s groups such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Trout Unlimited all oppose it. Congressman McCarthy should honor our sporting heritage and leave roadless areas well enough alone.