Reflections on Chip Weber’s Piece on Recreation and Risk

Colorado Avalanche Deaths By Year 1951 to 2016
In Jon’s post on grizzlies and recreation, there was a link to Forest Supervisor Chip Weber’s (I thought) thoughtful piece on recreation and risk and the role of the Forest Service. Of course it was in the context of the grizzly bear issue, but I thought it was worth relating it to the kind of recreation risks people have in other places. Frankly, I also liked the idea of a Forest Supervisor opening a discussion and telling us what he thinks.

How does the risk you are exposed to in these activities compare to other recreational activities that occur on the national forests?
What about rafting, boating, swimming, or fishing? Each of these activities has broad acceptance to occur on national forests, often in very wild and remote settings. From 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal accidental drownings (non-boating related) annually in the
United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents. We do many things to try to promote water safety, but we don’t tell folks to stay away from the water.

Non-Montana perspective: This year there were six avalanche deaths in two months in Colorado. See here. And six so far this year on rivers, see Westword article here.

In “How to Survive (and Enjoy) Potentially Dangerous Rafting Season,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Jason Clay underscored the risks involved in recreating on the state’s rivers amid runoff from a snowpack more than 600 percent above the median. That story was published early June 20.

By the end of the next day, three more people had died in separate river accidents. And now, the body of Colorado Springs’s Roberta Sophia Rodriguez, who fell into the Rio Grande River earlier this month, has been recovered, bringing the fatality total for the season to six.

Back to Weber’s piece:

So why such a different reaction to the much lower risks from wildlife encounters? These are low probability, high consequence events. Deaths from grizzly attacks are horrific. We have a visceral response to that imagery that makes the probability of it happening seem much higher than it is. Activities like driving account for many more deaths, still, driving for pleasure is the number one recreational activity in the country. We normalize risks from these activities because accidents and deaths occur so much more frequently. For a more familiar example, people feel safer driving (fairly high risk) than flying (very low risk).

I would suggest that we consider these different activities on an equal basis in the context of their relative risks when promoting recreation on national forests and other wildlands. All of that said, I think this conversation needs to address an entirely different aspect of risk, namely, who gets to decide what risks anyone takes in their recreational pursuits. I like to make those choices for myself and I want you to be able to do so as well.

Thrill seekers enjoy activities like whitewater rafting and kayaking, rock climbing, hang gliding, downhill and backcountry skiing, and riding challenging trails. The joy of these experiences provides great quality of life for both locals and visitors. The economic benefits from this are
expressed directly in local communities and indirectly by making this a desirable place to live. How will we, as a society, decide these questions? Do we want our decisions to reflect a narrow range of values, where only a certain, few, “approved” uses of public lands may occur? As bears
expand their territories, do we want to increasingly put more and more public lands off limits to recreation that comes with risks? We have a forest plan that seeks to provide the “greatest good for the greatest number”, valuing all of these uses and providing places for awesome frontcountry uses like biking and running as well as amazing, quiet and solitude in world class wilderness. I hope we will continue to value it all.

When I think of the array of avalanches, mountain lion, grizzlies, rafting and so on, I think of two other questions that perhaps Weber did not call out.
1. Before we keep people out, have we exhausted our technological safety possibilities?
2. To what extent is it even possible to keep people out? Of course, you can not permit group or commercial activities. But in many cases, that would not keep people out. It is possible that people (say rafters with commercial permits) are much safer than non-commercial people with boats.

Again, I think it’s a good thing that Weber put all this on the table.

15 thoughts on “Reflections on Chip Weber’s Piece on Recreation and Risk”

  1. Sounds like Supervisor Weber really gets it. In a time when America has become the most risk-averse nation in history, he has the tenacity to suggest rationally evaluating risk based on statistics and probabilities rather than emotion, and advocates for letting people make their own choices about what risks they are comfortable with. Bravo! If only there were more people like him in government pushing back against the trend of elitist bureaucrats thinking they have the right to make all our decisions for us.

    Sadly he seems to be one of the few voices of reason in all this. With people increasingly discussing reintroducing grizzly bears in Colorado, it’s inevitable that if they succeed, calls to restrict recreation and close trails will inevitably follow. As a result, anyone who cares about their rights to recreate in the backcountry will have no choice but to oppose reintroduction, since its advocates have made it clear that reintroduction and recreation are mutually exclusive.

      • Very good point. I’m no zoologist or any other kind of scientist, but it seems animals generally do a better job of adapting to human presence than we give them credit for.

        At the same time, I sometimes wonder if all the people complaining that animals don’t have enough room have actually visited the habitats they claim are so fragmented and shrinking as to be unusable. Because in my experience of hiking and four-wheeling in the Colorado backcountry, I see tiny amounts of land occupied by hiking trails and roads compared to vast tracts of land where no one ever goes because it’s just untracked forest. How much more land do the animals need?

        As for not leaving uncrowded wildlife habitat as Alcyon said, what on earth are all the millions of acres of wilderness and roadless areas for if not that? Do all existing wildernesses, WSAs, roadless areas, wildlife preserves, habitat closure areas, etc. count for nothing?

      • For whatever it’s worth, it’s an undisputed fact that population levels of Canada lynx in the lower 48 states are substantially reduced from historical levels. Furthermore, historically, Canada lynx were found in 24 states, but they have been completely eliminated from many of those states. Not sure if one video clip of a confused looking lynx on a ski hill changes any of those facts, or proves how adaptable they are…or aren’t.

  2. Hi Sharon. I don’t know the whole situation (sounded like there might some long term relational stuff with NGOs as well as issue at hand of large events in grizzly country) sso I won’t weigh in on that, but I do agree with your commending the forest supervisor for reviewing a situation and putting his own view out there. In my experience, that’s a rare (and welcome) trait in a line officer that is often discouraged by agency reaction/ policies/ example of higher ups. “Keep your head down, don’t make waves” often seems the unwritten policy. Orville Daniels and a few others from that era were famous for being outspoken. I know in my short line officer career I was upfront and always tried to explain my rationale–I am not sure it made my supervisors happy but my staff and the community seemed to appreciate it!

    • I have found that to be true for non-line people as well (keep your head down). I think it’s really tough to not tick anyone off, either higher-ups or peers or employees. And I found ticked off people in the FS above me were generally OK (they’d say “don’t do it” or “you screwed up”) but peers and employees would instead engage in a variety of gossipy and back-biting activities, with potentially long-term damage to one’s reputation. Easiest way to move forward.. not say anything. But then those people don’t have enough “new ideas” or leadership. It’s a tough row to hoe, varies by team, changes over time within teams, and employees have my great sympathy.

  3. As usual, it’s all about recreation and what humans want. What about wildlife and the impacts of ever-expanding recreation on wildlife? What about risks to wildlife habitat and to the long-term prospects of viable wildlife populations being able to persist into the future? The debate about recreating in wildlife habitat isn’t just a question of risk to humans. It’s a question (or should be) of the risk our ever-growing human population, with ever-better recreational toys, poses to grizzly bears and other wildlife. It’s a question of whether we’re willing to leave wildlife some habitat that isn’t so fragmented by trails that it becomes unusable, and so crowded with humans that animals are in a constant state of stress. With the exploding popularity of ebikes and their ability to go far further into the backcountry in a day than regular bikes, it’s wildlife and habitat that are at risk. That’s what we should be worried about, not the occasional injured human. Who gets to decide what risks anyone takes? Certainly not the animals.

    • Alcyon, where I live, many wildlife species seem to have adapted not only to trails but to rural residential areas. I’m talking deer, mountain lion, black bears, elk and so on. If there are some unique species (perhaps grizzlies or wolves?) for which trails threaten “long-term prospects of viable wildlife populations being able to persist into the future” maybe they are the exception rather than the rule and we should call those species out specifically.

  4. Weber is obviously being paid by the mountain biking lobby. We will use our money and power to change his mind — like we always do when a public servant speaks out of line — and people out for thrills in bear country won’t be permitted to do so. We always win. No thrillcraft!

  5. There are two side of this coin. The impacts to bears and the potential impacts to people. I wish I could pull up the original study done in Banff on the Highline trail that the opponents of bike and now trail runners always point to as proof of the need to close areas to “fast” users. I read it several years ago, but it seems to have disappeared since then. I agree, the study does show an increase in close encounters between bikes and bears. However these close encounters did not lead to any bear attacks or the use of bear spray as far as I can remember. What is not mentioned, is that after the study, Banff did not close the trail to bikes. They concluded that that they degree of difference did not warrant closing the trail to bikes. They did change the management requiring no solo riders and required groups of 6 riding together a tight group. That one change significantly decreased close encounters. Although not discussed it seems clear that these encounters did not displace the bears from the area. While bikes may have startled the bears, it seems clear they were seen as a nuisance not a threat that required fleeing the area. Bikes still ride there. Bears still Iive there.

    In medicine there is the concept of relative risk, and related to that is the incidence of the disease. There are many thing that that increase your risk, but what is important is the baseline amount of risk. To apply this to bear encounters. Even if bikes are twice as risky as hiking, but the chance of being is mauled is 1:1,000,000 and the risk increases to 2:1,000:000, most people would say go ahead. Now if the chance went from 1/4 to 1/2 you might conclude that the risk was unacceptable.

  6. Risk could legitimately be part of his rationale, but focusing his rationale on risk only helps make my point that he is minimizing his responsibilities under ESA to protect grizzly bears. (Maybe he even wrote this as a red herring.) He has also shown his “true colors” (lack of objectivity) by disparaging those who defend grizzly bears: “a narrowly focused, discriminatory and exclusionary agenda lacking in intellectual and philosophical integrity.”

    • I suppose it is possible that a Forest Supervisor who is responsible for the management of a large proportion of bears in the continental United States showed his true colors and revealed a deep antipathy for an animal he is obligated to protect. One he is presumably deeply knowledgeable about.

      Alternatively he may be trying to do his best to balance the needs of recreation and conservation in a multi-use National Forest. He might know that the Blacktail Foys trail is not in pristine wilderness, but in lands that partially owned by lumber companies and have been previously logged. Possibly when that trail was built and when the White Partnership trails were built a NEPA was done which concluded building trails designed for mountain biking and trail running in these areas would not adversely impact grizzlies or other wildlife. Living in the area he might actually even use these trails himself and know that are front country trails with daily human use. It is even possible he has sat in on interagency meeting and knows that even as the human population in the Flathead has increased, Grizzly bears have increased their range and numbers. He might have heard that 5 bears have been euthanized in the area after becoming habituated to human food.

      Knowing all of this he might have reasonably concluded that a one day race on trails and at ski area already popular and frequently used by people recreating does not change the impacts on bears.

      As far as his lack of objectivity, he might have interacted frequently with Mr. Hammer and the Swan View Coalition and concluded that their concern about bears is selective and seems to be exclusively focused on excluding forms of recreation they do no approve of, and concluded that their claim of fears of bear attacks on racers is merely pretext for their wider agenda.


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