Forest Service Builds Tank Traps in National Forest

Published June 1, 1999

“Nowhere is the administration’s agenda of ‘locking up the land and keeping people out’ more evident than in the Targhee [National Forest],” Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) told Environment News.

Chenoweth was referring to the Targhee Tank Traps: earth berms up to 15 feet high, backed by pits up to 15 feet deep, that have been constructed in Idaho’s Targhee National Forest to deny motorists and snowmobilers public access to nearly 400 miles of roads on public land. Though Mike Dombeck, chief of the Forestry Service, has forbidden his staffers to use the term “tank trap,” the obstacles bear an uncanny resemblance to those used in World War II and the Persian Gulf to stop American armored vehicles.

The traps were authorized by the local Forest Service administrator, Jerry Reese, following Dombeck’s directive to restrict public access to public lands in the national forests. The traps are an obstacle not only to the general public, but to homeowners, the handicapped, firefighters, and search-and-rescue teams as well.

Significant Safety Hazard

The dangers posed by the traps were made clear in a field hearing of Chenoweth’s Forestry and Forest Health Subcommittee, held February 13 in Rexburg, Idaho. At that hearing, Brent Robson, a county commissioner from Tetonia, Idaho, testified to his potentially life-threatening encounter with one of the tank traps.

Robson, an experienced snowmobiler, told the committee he was at the front of a small group of snowmobiles when his vehicle was violently thrust up into the air. He came to rest in a pit with a broken back. While his injuries did not require surgery, Robson was in a cast for 12 weeks and required extensive physical therapy. He told Chenoweth’s subcommittee that, since the incident, he has experienced almost continuous pain, which has interfered with his ability to work and sleep.

“The pit I encountered was hazardous,” Robson said, “because it was located in an area where one would not typically expect an obstruction. In other words, it was right in the middle of a normal forest road . . .

“Many of the new tank traps,” he observed, “are over twice as wide and twice as deep as the one I encountered in 1997, and a few are even larger.”

Robson and his friends were traveling on an overcast day at about 4:00 p.m., after a recent snowfall of two feet of light powder. Under such conditions, common in the winter, terrain tends to look flatter than it is . . . and the completely unmarked traps become nearly invisible.

Digging Deceit

Months after his injury, Robson, in his role as Teton County commissioner, had occasion to meet with Forest Service administrator Reese as his tank trap operation was poised to move into Teton County. eo

Prior to their meeting with Reese, Teton County commissioners passed a county ordinance prohibiting vehicles in excess of 90,000 pounds from accessing Targhee National Forest using county roads–a moved designed to thwart Forest Service action without county permission. The contractor employed by the Forest Service to build the Teton County tank traps agreed not to enter the county with his equipment.

Reese met with the Teton commissioners for two and one-half hours on October 8, 1998. Failing to reach an agreement that evening, the group voted to continue the meeting the following morning.

As he drove home from the meeting, Robson received a call that the tank trapping operation was already underway. He called for a deputy sheriff and went to the home of an elderly couple to find the Forest Service’s contractor there. In violation of the county ordinance and his pledge to obey the ordinance, the contractor had created a tank trap, which prevented the couple from entering their private pasture.

Heated Hearing

At a February 23 subcommittee hearing on the Forest Service budget, the tank traps and Robson’s injury again became a source of controversy. Chenoweth questioned Dombeck and Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons about the $600,000 the service spent on what she termed “an extreme road obliteration policy.”

The discussion became heated when Lyons tried to dismiss the use of the term “tank traps” and accused Chenoweth of exaggerating the situation. Unlike Chenoweth, however, Lyons had never seen the traps.

“I don’t care what you call them,” Chenoweth responded. “What I want to know is why you are building them.” Lyons had earlier claimed the tanks were intended to protect elk and grizzly bears, though the elk population is at a record high and grizzlies are thriving.

“These traps represent a very serious threat to human safety,” Chenoweth said. “Quibbling over the term ‘tank trap’ is like trying to redefine the word ‘is.’ The people deserve straight answers on the extent these traps are being used in other forests and about who is making the decisions to dig these deep pits, which are more suited for the battle field than public lands.”

In the end, Dombeck agreed with Chenoweth’s safety concerns and said he would make immediate inquiries into the Targhee Tank Traps.

Editor’s note: Calls by Environment News to Undersecretary Lyons, Forest Service Chief Dombeck, Regional Administrator Reese, and others in the United States Forest Service, seeking information for this story, received no response.