PCTA position on the Forest Planning process, November 2014

Recently the U.S. Forest Service published and took public comments on forest plans that would include a management area for the PCT in three forests in the Sierra. The agency also provided a draft proposal of direction as to how it will consider and treat the federal land within the management area in a general way. These concepts are contained in a series of “plan components” that include a desired future condition, strategies on how to achieve goals and more specific standards and guidelines for how this land will be managed.

This approach represents a significant improvement in management of the PCT, one intended by  Congress when it designated the PCT as a single entity with the landmark 1968 National Trails System Act. Today, the PCT crosses 25 national forests and dozens of Forest Service districts within those forests as well as other state and federal lands. The PCTA seeks consistent management from one agency jurisdiction to another to promote an excellent experience for the public.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association believes the Forest Service’s proposed management area is quite clear in its direction. It seeks to provide an exceptional hiking and horseback riding experience throughout California, Oregon and Washington, one that is deserving of National Scenic Trail status. It also promotes other recreational needs and traditional resource extraction in the forests while creating a buffer that protects the PCT experience.

Since these plans were released for public review, there has been a lot of discussion resulting in the dissemination of some inaccurate information. It is our intention to set the record straight on what has been proposed, the PCTA’s views on that proposal and the actual impact on management of national forest lands that would result.

The Forest Service, in order to answer questions about the PCT Management Area proposal, has recently released the following paper to provide accurate information:
U.S. Forest Service Briefing Paper/ FAQ: PCT Management Area Direction Forest Plan Revision

The PCTA, while focusing on our mission to protect, preserve and promote the PCT, recognizes that there are a wide variety of legitimate, desirable recreation uses of national forest lands. We believe that federal land managers are obligated to provide excellent quality opportunities for all recreational users, but they must ensure that those other uses do not occur in a way that detracts from the PCT experience.

Concerns have been raised regarding adequate opportunities for motorized and mechanized users, such as off-road vehicle riders and mountain bikers who believe a federally designated management area for the PCT would limit their access to the forests. But the PCT itself has always been closed to these users. While travel by these user groups on public lands is legitimate and should be supported by the agencies, the PCT is not the place for them. It was designed and built for hikers and horseback riders. Nationally, 98 percent of Forest Service trails not in wilderness are open to bicycles. (All federal wilderness is closed to motorized tools and mechanized forms of travel.)

Let’s look at the facts about the national forests in the midst of renewing their forest plans: The Sequoia, the Sierra and the Inyo:

  • 160 miles of the PCT crosses these three forests and 142 of those miles fall within congressionally designated wilderness areas. Only 18 miles of the PCT in these forests are outside of wilderness.
  • The Forest Service has designated 902 miles of motorized trails, and 2,215 miles of trail open to bikes in these forests.
  • The Forest Service proposal will not change or disallow the current uses of designated motorcycle and bicycle trails within the PCT management areas. And while it continues to allow for trail and road crossings of the PCT, it requires that designated travelways be formulated with impacts on the PCT experience in mind.

Frankly, we don’t see what the issue is. The PCTA has always had a policy and expressed a willingness to work with others to assure that the variety of appropriate recreational users on national forest lands have excellent opportunities without unduly damaging the PCT experience. We have worked harmoniously with off-road riding groups in several areas to foster education about appropriate use of the PCT with great success. The PCTA and our agency partners have even considered moving segments of the PCT to eliminate or reduce conflicts with other uses and implemented some of these plans at great investment of staff and volunteer resources. Nothing in the Forest Service proposal changes those situations. There have been claims that the PCT management area direction will close a large number of existing motorized and mechanized trails. This is not the case.

There have also been false claims that the PCT management area would keep the Forest Service from thinning timber stands to prevent catastrophic wildfires or addressing forest health issues caused by insects, disease or past poor management choices. Proposed strategies for the management area specifically include timber harvest, prescribed burning and wildland fire as tools to manage vegetation and fuels.

Is there proposed direction to curtail certain possible uses of national forest land along the PCT?  You bet, and the PCTA supports these measures to protect the PCT experience. These other uses have a place on federal lands but certainly not on top of one of the nation’s few National Scenic Trails. There will always be development of national importance, such as roads or powerlines, in which avoiding a crossing of the PCT may not be possible. The PCTA believes that such needs must be accommodated but only after significant consideration is given to minimize their effect on the PCT.

The PCT is a special resource that does much for our citizens. We think it deserves special consideration and protection through a variety of means, including an adequate management area designation that gives forest managers clear direction to protect the quality of the public’s experience.

What is Forest Planning?

The U.S. Forest Service is required by the National Forest Management Act to formulate and then update a comprehensive Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, commonly called a Forest Plan, every 10 to 15 years. That plan sets overall direction for management of federal lands within a single national forest. Recently the Forest Service has been working on revised forest plans for the Sequoia, Sierra and Inyo National Forests. These three forests in the heart of the Sierra Nevada contain 160 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Forest Service has only recently begun to consider the PCT in its forest plans as a larger geographically delineated area that needs to be managed in its entirety rather than a trail crossing dozens of individual forests. Unlike other National Scenic Trails, the PCT has never been managed this way. But the forest plan proposals for the Sequoia, Sierra and Inyo National Forests is the recognition by the agency that this congressionally designated trail is not just three feet of dirt tread, but rather an experience that is based on the lands surrounding the trail and what they provide to people and the greater health of the entire ecosystem.

There is a history of legislation and direction that tells the agency to designate such a trail corridor, but unlike the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, where such management areas have been the norm for 30 years, this has not been the practice along the PCT. Recently the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees about 10 percent of the PCT, adopted rules that require all National Scenic and Historic Trails to be managed in this way. The Forest Service is also moving in this direction nationally.


Author: Mike Dawson

As Trail Operations Director, Mike is responsible for formulating and implementing PCTA policies related to management and protection of the trail, overseeing management of PCTA trail maintenance program, and coordinating protection of the PCT experience including land protection activities. He lives on Vashon Island in Washington with his wife Tina.