Chainsaws allowed in Pasayten Wilderness to speed work

Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
Chainsaws and explosives are being used to clear this logjam on the Andrews Creek Trail.

By Ann McCreary

Crews worked to clear a massive debris slide off Andrews Creek Trail last week after the Methow Valley Ranger District received permission to use chainsaws and explosives to remove hundreds of trees blocking the trail.

The district requested authorization from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to use chainsaws and explosives to clear the slide about 8 miles up Andrews Creek Trail within the Pasayten Wilderness.

The federal Wilderness Act prohibits motorized or mechanized equipment in designated wilderness areas without special authorization.

The slide came down last winter and piled the trees head-high across a 300-yard stretch of Andrews Creek Trail, one of the main trails providing access for hikers and horseback riders heading into the Pasayten Wilderness, a popular backcountry destination.

The slide was cleared in time to allow a volunteer work party of about 30 members of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington and the Pacific Northwest Trail Association to travel up Andrews Creek Trail to carry out trail maintenance projects planned for July 2 – 5.

The volunteers, including members of the local chapter of the Back Country Horsemen, planned to clear trees and repair puncheon (boardwalk) bridges on Andrews Creek Trail. They also planned to work on opening up other nearby trails in the Pasayten Wilderness during the work trip.

The group included volunteers from around the state who are proficient at packing into the backcountry and using crosscut saws, said Jason Ridlon, special project coordinator for the Back Country Horsemen.

“We have a combined 200 years of experience” in trail maintenance, he said.

Local support

The group got support from local outfitter and guide Steve Darwood, who volunteered a couple of his packers, and 10 mules to carry in planks for bridges and gear for the work party. Darwood operates Cascade Wilderness Outfitters and North Cascades Outfitters, and leads trips into the Pasayten Wilderness.

Work on clearing the trees from the debris slide was done by U.S. Forest Service crews trained in using chainsaws and explosives, said Holly Krake, a spokesperson for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The work began after authorization was granted on June 28. The special authorization limited the use of chainsaws or explosives to the debris slide.

In determining whether to authorize use of chainsaws and explosives, the forest supervisor evaluated issues including safety to trail crews and the public, and impacts to the wilderness and wilderness character, Krake said.

Because the trees were tangled together, removing them with crosscut saws would have been more dangerous for crews, Forest Service officials said.

In addition to work on the well-traveled Andrews Creek Trail, volunteers also planned to work on trails that have been inaccessible for years due to fallen trees and debris, Ridlon said. The trails include Peepsight Lake, Ram Creek and Crystal Lake trails.

“I’ve been told you can’t even tell where Ram Creek turns off Andrews Creek, there are so many trees,” Ridlon said.

The area where the debris slide occurred, and much of the surrounding country, was burned in the 2003 Farewell Fire, which blackened about 80,000 acres in the Pasayten Wilderness. Dead trees in the burned areas have fallen and blocked trails.

Many blocked trails

The damage from the fire, and the lack of funding for regular clearing and maintenance of trails on Forest Service land, has put many trails in the wilderness out of commission, Ridlon said. Some of the trails have not been cleared since the 2003 fire, he said.

Providing more opportunities to use chain saws could preserve the existing trail system, he said. “I don’t want a blanket policy to use chainsaws,” Ridlon said. “I’m pretty efficient with a crosscut saw. But when you are staring at 15 miles of trees … we no longer have the budget or work force” to keep trails open, Ridlon said.

“We can’t let our national trail system deteriorate,” he said. “The only way you’re going to preserve a wilderness area is to keep trails accessible to pack stock.”

Ridlon said he received a grant for the Andrews Creek Trail project from the Trails Stewardship Act, passed by Congress in 2016 to increase the role of volunteers and partners in trail maintenance on Forest Service land. He said the grant would help volunteers with costs of hauling stock trailers to the site.

The Methow Ranger District, like other Forest Service ranger districts around the country, has come to rely on volunteer groups to help clear and maintain trails as a result of budget cuts and diversion of funds for wildfire suppression. The district has a trail crew of 10 people to work on more than 1,000 miles of trails this season.