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Edited by: John Stewart

Instant Wilderness: When a Road is not a Road

By Don Fife and Ralph Pray

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 back country 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 USGS. Their definition of a road in 1964 was what Congress intended when the Act used the terms "road" and "roadless."Talk about it in the Forums

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) 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 back country. Thousands of miles of Class 4 and 5 roads, once wagon roads, exist in the west and still see daily auto traffic.

However, these "Back Country 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 and Management Act (PL94-579) 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 mountain tops and a few million acres as "untrammeled, undeveloped, primeval federal land having no permanent improvements." Why have these roads be hidden or ignored? How has this been accomplished?

In the 1970's, radical environmentalists and their pro-wilderness bureaucrat allies redefined the term "road" on federal lands to mean only those "...graded or maintained by mechanical equipment on a regular basis..." This conveniently made additional millions of acres filled with existing Class 4 roads, presently utilized by recreationists, miners, and ranchers susceptible to consideration for Wilderness withdrawal. This makes Class 3 roads the most primitive of remaining auto routes. The unimproved dirt roads and jeep trails were redefined into oblivion. In effect, they have been "wiped off" the legislative map. Since these roads technicality do not exist, the land is now available for Wilderness designation.

The Bureau of Land MAnagement (BLM) executed the new definition and arbitrarily redefined the word "road" carrying out 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 sounds very much like they are referring 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." The Clinton-Gore administration ordered the United States Forest Service (USFS) to apply a similar standard to roads in the National Forest System threatening to "manufacture" 60,000,000 more acres of "roadless" wilderness.

Their definition has 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 just because it has not required mechanical maintenance?

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 a word. Class 4 and 5 roads are human developments, they are permanent improvements. Therefore, the land containing them cannot and should not be considered as Wilderness under the 5,000-acre roadless requirement. Apparently, a road is not a road if a government agency or environmental group sees it as a candidate for roadless Wilderness. It all depends on what the meaning of the word "road" is.

Contacts: Related Links:
  • National Association of Mining Districts
    508 First Street S.E.
    Washington, D.C. 20003
  • Don Fife (714) 544-8406,
    Fax (714) 731-3745
  • Chuck Cushman (360) 687-3087,
    Fax (360) 687-2973