The Forest Service and Recreation- A Cinderella Story?

Discussions with my coworkers are among my favorite parts of going to work each day. One thing they regularly do is ask challenging, stimulating questions.

Last week, one asked “why is there such a push to get FS recreation or heritage facilities moved to the Park Service?” “It seems to be a pattern, and what underlies that?” Here are my thoughts in response to that question. I’d be interested in others’ thoughts.

First, there are actually three patterns. One is “place based legislation divvying up areas for uses” that we have discussed on this blog, and Martin has done some fine work. The second is “Wilderness legislation” which also takes pieces of land and makes specific prescriptions. Here is a letter posted today that talks about what that feels like to a local outfitter. The third is “transfer to the Park Service” which also takes pieces of land and gives them certain kinds of management (usually recreation/visitor oriented).

Second, in some discussions on the planning rule I have gotten the impression that somehow the FS doesn’t take recreation as seriously as we might- which could lead to the idea that facilities will be better handled and budgeted for by the Park Service. When we have brought up the recreation interests of various stakeholders, sometimes the discussion goes to “we can’t treat it differently than the other multiple uses” or “we are handling that through social science.” If I were a recreationist and heard that, I would feel, to some extent, like I was being blown off.

Recreation is not just another multiple use. Recreation is something that all the people of the US can do on our federal land. We all don’t have grazing allotments, or houses that need fuelbreaks near them, let alone dams, or gas wells, or pipelines or powerlines, but we all can visit and enjoy the national forests. On every forest I’ve ever worked on, from hunting and fishing to hiking to skiing, recreation has been a key use of the national forests. Recreation is different. It is where most of the owners of the national forests interact with the land and the employees. It could easily be considered (with water) a preeminent use. It actually is a preeminent use, but for some reason it seems to be hard for the FS to admit and organizationally get behind.

Is it because many FS employees come from a vegetation background? Is it because the recreation users tend to be in conflict with each other rather than having a united front for getting funding (say, compared to State Foresters)? Is it an artifact of an internal stovepiping? What do we think we’ll have as a #1 priority for most of the landscape in 20 years? 50 years?

As I’ve said before, the number of dispersed campers on weekends in the summer in Colorado and during elk season from New Mexico to Idaho is staggering and probably uncounted. There is an important niche for recreation that is more open to more uses than in National Parks (dogs on trails, dispersed camping, OHVs). What do you think is missing for the FS to give recreation the emphasis it deserves? Or do you agree that it is not “just another multiple use?

4 thoughts on “The Forest Service and Recreation- A Cinderella Story?”

  1. There’s always been a competitive tension between the FS and the NPS when it comes to outdoor recreation and I think most would view that in a relatively healthy fashion. The FS has invested heavily in wilderness management research and expertise and is commonly thought of as the best wilderness management agency in the country, if not the world. This is understandable, and something the nation should proud of, given the 109 million acres of wilderness in the National Forest system. It make sense to view this as an across-the-bow action to prevent the NPS from making claim to those wilderness land, but I prefer to see it as an example of clear FS success and renown.

    While it is expedient for some to claim wilderness is a sole use, I think part of the continued political success of wilderness is that it is really rather multiple use – certainly there are outstanding wildlife resources, water resource, and recreation resources. But, increasingly we might add biodiversity, air quality, heritage values, education opportunities, and scientific values. The outfitting is pretty good, too. I think the FS does a good job of balancing all those multiple uses in the wilderness lands.

    However, where the FS has fallen down in recent years is the non-wilderness recreation lands. It is not that long ago that many of my friends preferred to camp and fish on FS lands because they were managed in a very different way to the increasingly crowded, regulated, and commercialized National Parks. You didn’t need a reservation, you just loaded the kids into the van and drove up the valley in search of a nice place to pitch a tent, build a campfire, and roast some marshmallows. There weren’t many, if any facilities, and that was fine – some flat ground, a pit toilet and maybe a water pump was about all you needed.

    Those casual outdoor recreation outings are ‘gateway’ experiences for many an American. As little ones explore the creeks, break sticks for the fire, and wonder at the eyeshine of the critters in the trees, they are developing an affinity for, and delight in, the natural world. Later in life they might take up hunting, backpacking, or kayaking. But, in a way that urban-proximate recreation doesn’t quite provide, these spontaneous, unstructured overnights in a FS recreation area can build an interest in forests and big country. It’s probably why many of use work in forestry today.

    And every weekend I celebrate the number of young families that are continuing this tradition, getting out of town, and introducing their kids to the National Forests. As the population of many western towns and cities is increasing, I shouldn’t be surprised to see numbers increasing. We should, instead, be anticipating the interest and rehabbing old camping areas and establishing new ones. Instead of trying to manage and cap demand (by rationing, fees, and reservations), the FS might want to take a regional look at recreation resources and invest in supplying a diverse range of day and overnight opportunities. Then, the next generation of kids will have plenty of places to play, to ride their mountain bikes, to mess about in the creeks, to collect wildflowers, and appreciate the forethought of FS planners who genuinely believed in allowing the public to enjoy their public lands.

  2. Bill.. what you said about the non-wilderness recreation.. was what I meant, only your writing is much more descriptive and compelling. Thank you!

  3. Thanks! (And in my enthusiasm, I gave the FS a few too many wilderness acres – of the total 109 million, the FS manages 36 million – most of which is in the lower 48.)


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