What Makes (Some) Recreation Conflicts (So) Intractable?

A sign near Leadville alerts travelers to the closure of a Forest Service road this winter. A settlement reached in 2015 between the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and environmental groups has led to the seasonal closure of dozens of routes near Leadvillle, Buena Vista and Salida.(courtesy phot from this 2016 story in the Chaffee County Times http://www.chaffeecountytimes.com/free_content/lawsuit-forces-u-s-forest-service-to-protect-big-game/article_ea0168a4-bcc1-11e6-ab7c-5f4ff3ca5610.html)

I’ve been thinking about the Pike-San Isabel Travel Management decision and its long history of litigation, which started while I was still employed by the FS. I remembered another project that had the same level of conflict. It was the Rico-West Dolores travel management on the San Juan, which apparently has gone from being litigated by one side to both sides (see this article from last year). So I became curious as to why some travel management decisions are so intractable, and other travel management decisions are not. This seems like an area ripe for the picking in the social sciences, and in fact a Google Scholar search of “intractable disputes recreation motorized” yielded a few. One paper addressed “unmanaged recreation” (broader than motorized vehicles, as defined in the paper) as a “wicked problem” (shades of Dave Iverson) on the Arapaho Roosevelt, just north of the Pike San Isabel. The paper is “Understanding the Wicked Nature of ‘‘Unmanaged Recreation’’in Colorado’s Front Range”, by Jeffrey J. Brooks Æ Patricia A. Champ Environmental Management (2006) 38:784–798. Here are some excerpts:

Strategies for addressing unmanaged recreation that focus on measuring public consensus, opinions, or votes in the form of the aggregate attitude of the majority are insufficient because interest group polarization at national and regional scales has created an intractable ‘‘us against them’’ controversy over outdoor recreation. Collaboration that overcomes wickedness requires that decision-makers allow themselves to be directly informed by local positions and knowledge rather than the positions evident in national debates. Some local positions may be difficult to identify at first if not well organized and vocal. Nonetheless, in the context of increasing social complexity and wickedness, inclusive approaches that actively seek diverse input and involvement tend to succeed (Pellizzoni 2003; Propst 2005).

Overcoming wickedness requires a local social process that involves inclusive communication and collective action among all stakeholders with an interest in local recreation management. Solutions should be considered temporary and place specific. To achieve successes, researchers and managers are first encouraged to accept the wicked nature of unmanaged recreation. Working together by building relationships between local stakeholders is the key to resolving cases of unmanaged recreation. Allen and Gould (1986:23) concluded that ‘‘people are what make problems wicked … emphasis on people within the organization and on external customers is the central element when wicked problems are successfully handled.’’ Forest Service managers should be rewarded for using and developing people skills and their abilities to organize and facilitate social groups and collective action. Training, education, and requiring these skills and abilities for employment will continue to be important as the Forest Service addresses wicked problems.

In the experience of TWS readers, why are some travel management decisions successful and others not? Does dissatisfaction with an outcome lead to bringing in national groups to litigate, which then makes resolution difficult, as Brooks and Champ postulate? Is it personality-driven (though these disputes tend to cycle through many personalities, at least on the FS side), or a function of other factors? (though these disputes tend to cycle through many personalities, at least on the FS side). What have you observed in your experience, and are there any other scientific studies you’d like to point that look at this question and offer potential solutions?

9 thoughts on “What Makes (Some) Recreation Conflicts (So) Intractable?”

  1. Part of me immediately rebelled at the term “unmanaged recreation” being applied to motorized, because it is anything but unregulated. Yet when I read the full article, it discussed at length a very real problem that the motorized community discusses often–the total lack of law enforcement in National Forests and the difference between regulation and management. The Forest Service can pass all the rules they wish on paper, but if they don’t have any rangers actually out patrolling roads and trails to make sure people are following them, of what value are the rules?

    A friend of mine in Salida who I’ve been working on land use stuff with recently mentioned that the Leadville Ranger District only has a handful of employees (less than a dozen I believe), and they all pretty much stick to the office and never go out on the trails. I would think if someone works for the Forest Service it would be because they enjoy being out in nature and they would spend every minute they can out on the trails, but apparently not.

    So on paper, motorized recreation in National Forests is incredibly restricted and regulated, yet if nobody every enforces them, they’re not worth anything. Instead of patrolling trails and catching people going off trail and tearing things up, the Forest Service would rather just close trails they find resource damage on. That concentrates everybody onto fewer trails, including the bad actors, who then tear somewhere else up, spurring a new closure, and the cycle continues.

    The motorized community has encapsulated all this in the slogan, “Closure isn’t management.” In that sense I absolutely agree with calling motorized recreation “unmanaged”, because the Forest Service isn’t managing, they’re just closing.

    • Patrick, I was hesitant to get into the “unmanaged” terminology but that is what those authors used. I do think “unmanaged” was maybe not a good word choice for the FS as it makes people doing things they like sound bad unless they fit into certain categories. We don’t talk much about unmanaged kite-flying, for example.
      As to the FS employees, I am sure they would prefer to be outside, but there are so few of them and so much paperwork of various kinds. It seems to me that a real problem is that volunteers can’t do law enforcement work so that even though there are zillions of people who care about trails, we can’t engage them directly to solve the problems of bad behavior.

      For example, I was recently on one of the districts and noticed what appeared to be folks from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science driving through a meadow. Maybe they have permission to drive off-road.. so I’d have to figure out what district I’m on and to whom to report it. Maybe the FS needs an “if you see it, say it” reporting app tied to gmaps… but that still doesn’t provide more bodies to do anything about it.

  2. Thanks for the link to the article. “Wicked” good, he he. I found it especially illuminating as it was written 15 years ago. The areas and issues it mentions have played out to some extent in the form of many closures, big boulders placed over pull offs for camping, and a general win for some forms of recreation and a big loss for others.. Still have the last page to read and trying to get ready for my own 9 days of recreating on our NF starting Saturday..

    • Yeah it is kind of ironic reading that article talking about places like Lefthand Canyon. That’s a pretty tragic story in itself. This all happened before I got into four-wheeling, but apparently it had been a problem site for years due to the heavy use one would expect with it being the closest difficult four-wheeling area to metro Denver, and a complete lack of enforcement by the Forest Service. The Forest Service had been wanting to close it for a long time but every time they tried the motorized community protested and they backed down.

      Then the 2013 floods came along and solved their problem by washing out the only access road. The Forest Service has simply refused to repair it and dragged their feet indefinitely on initiating the NEPA process to reopen it. They actually have a project page for that on their website which hasn’t been updated in years: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=51312&exp=overview

      In the end, the flood gave the Forest Service the excuse they needed to close that area much as the Hayman Fire gave them the excuse they needed to close Wildcat Canyon, and the motorized community lost yet another of our most prized four-wheeling areas.

      • My wife has a cousin who has lived in Lefthand Canyon for about 25 years. Yes, as Patrick notes “it had been a problem site for years.” As the USFS webpage notes, the Lefthand OHV Area is currently open to entry “by foot or mountain bike.”

  3. I came back and finished the article. I’d say the “wickedness” the author spoke of has won out. Wickedness as described seems to be various factions not working collaboratively to both conserve the resource and allow for multiple use.

    Currently in the area described I know of no places open to OHV use, though searching suggested some far above Fort Collins. All OHV use I’m aware of is on roads open to 4wd also, two tracks if you will. I don’t use or even like OHVs, but I do support their use as they are another multiple user group. In rural or small town West, ATVs are more common than horses. Cost less, easier to care for, serve similar purpose. If I had to generalize I’d say OHV users follow rules about use more so than most other user groups. I’ve seen hundreds of mountain bike violations, once I saw an ATV misused. Hundreds of dogs off leash, people not disposing of human and dog waste correctly, etc.

    Dispersed target shooting is almost eliminated via fire restrictions and if current plans in place are implemented dispersed shooting will end S of Fort Collins, N of I-70 with the expansion of the for profit Boulder Rifle Range. This was accomplished via advocacy of territorial homeowners assuming ownership of public lands close to their houses. I’d also credit the local Forest Service.

    Dispersed camping is almost eliminated. Everywhere I’ve seen From the Red Feather region down to I-70. Mostly by blocking access to road sides, areas off parking lots, and closing Forest Service Roads via gates. The forests if one looks carefully show signs everywhere of where people used to camp a few feet off forest service roads, you can see the old depressions from tire tracks and fire rings of rocks, all now grown over and covered in pine needles. Camping is now funneled onto for profit concessionaires who operate the former Forest Service Campgrounds.

    Hunting was eliminated in the Forest Service area around Sugarloaf above Boulder via a statement from the county sheriff and letters from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife with a map for anyone holding tags for the general area. Restricted area shown on map.

    So there really hasn’t been any collaboration, wickedness won out. Typical is Matthews comment above humorously suggesting that the OHV area in left hand is still open to walking and mountain biking.

    Recently OHV use has been opened up to users on Park Service roads where vehicular traffic is legal. It’s caused a hue and cry from the huers and cryers. Many articles are unclear and leave many readers to assume the OHVs are being allowed all over the parks. Also on Interior lands the use of electric mountain bikes is allowed on trails open to other mountain bikes. Because most people have no idea the difference between Parks/Forests/and BLM, this has led to more general use of E bikes on all public lands except Wilderness which always has explicit signage.

    I feel for these lifted restrictions about the same way Matthew feels about the OHV area called Left Hand. At the least I shrug, I even might smile a little because it’s funny. One can still ride ones mountain bike and walk in these areas.


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