A track for vehicles was recently discovered illegally crossing the boundary into Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, despite the Wilderness Act's prohibition against motorized access to such protected areas.
To many people, Eagle Cap Wilderness is a treasure. Its remote ruggedness makes for breathtaking views. Its high country is home to rare wildlife like wolverines. Eagle Cap Wilderness makes up the largest protected wilderness in the state.
“It’s not as well traveled as a lot of the other more popular wilderness areas in the state,” said Rob Klavins, with conservation group Oregon Wild. “When you find your special spot in the Eagle Cap, there’s a pretty good chance it’s always going to be ‘your special spot.’”
Klavins said wild places like the Eagle Cap are increasingly important as urban sprawl continues to swallow up more land.
But last September, a hiker noticed something that shouldn’t be found in wilderness areas: tracks extending about 40 feet. In photographs, tire marks move right past a sign denoting the wilderness boundary.
“You have an illegal road in the wilderness. You follow it back, and it leads to a private timber operation,” Klavins said.
Klavins said this is a clear violation of the Wilderness Act. The act prohibits temporary roads and motorized vehicles, with the exception of an emergency situation.
Congress has defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
After learning about the motor vehicle incursion into Eagle Cap, Klavins sent a letter to the regional forester, Jim Peña, expressing his concerns.
“There is no excuse for not taking the damage seriously and holding the actors accountable — regardless of intent or political connections,” Klavins wrote.
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest district ranger Kris Stein said the Forest Service was taking the matter seriously.
“Any sort of violation, we take very seriously,” Stein said.
She said surveyors went to the area and used GPS and compasses to find the exact boundaries. The tire tracks, likely from logging equipment, extended about 40 feet into the wilderness area.
Forest Service law enforcement took over the investigation in November. They found that two landowners were sharing a private contractor to help thin trees. The contractor mistakenly drove across the edge of the wilderness boundary. The north-south boundary corners were clearly marked. The east-west boundary was not. Stein was not sure which boundary the driver crossed.
“This was not a willful violation,” Stein said. “There was no criminal intent.”
In their report, law enforcement officials said situations like these motor-vehicle tracks into the wilderness were a routine and ordinary occurrence.
Stein said most of the damage was visual. The contractor has agreed to come back to the area and fix the damage once the snow melts. The Forest Service is working on restitution with the contractor and will not issue a citation.
About 4 percent of the Oregon’s land is as designated wilderness areas. Roughly 10 percent of Washington’s land is protected as wilderness areas, and about 9 percent of Idaho’s land received the designation. Most recently in 2015, President Obama designated Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds as a wilderness area.
Clarification: Feb. 27, 2017. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the occurrence of these types of violations. Motor-vehicle tracks into the wilderness do not happen routinely in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service considers the severity of the violation to be "routine and ordinary."