Forest planning for “sustainable” recreation

A former Forest Service backcountry specialist talks about ecological integrity and increasing human recreation activities, and tries to answer the question of “what is sustainable recreation?”  The 2012 Planning Rule requires plan components “to provide for: (i) Sustainable recreation; including recreation settings, opportunities, and access; and scenic character.”

What is “Sustainable Recreation”? The Forest Service defines it as “the set of recreation settings and opportunities in the National Forest System that is ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable for present and future generations.”

Here’s how it’s done:

The Recreation Opportunity Spectrum can be used in forest planning to define a desired condition for management within each zone. Indicators and standards are meant to define the tipping point beyond which management action must be taken.
 If the standard for a backcountry area (called “semi-primitive non-motorized” in ROS jargon) is that no more than six other parties are encountered on a typical day, when the encounter rate exceeds that number some action is supposed to take place to return to the desired condition.
It’s a neat framework, but doesn’t always play out as intended on the ground. ROS doesn’t differentiate between a semi-primitive area in the back yard of a town like Jackson or Bozeman and one that’s two hours away.
That seems like a major shortcoming, especially if all areas with a SPNM designation must have the same desired level of semi-primitive non-motorized use.  However, the Planning Handbook encourages “new approaches,” including creating “desired recreation opportunity spectrum subclasses” §(23.23a).
The usual sequence of remedial actions begins with non-intrusive measures like visitor education. If the problem isn’t solved, additional actions are considered.
The Bridger-Teton forest plan is typical in its prescribed sequence of actions, this excerpt taken from its direction on wilderness. The following recreational strategies should be used, listed in descending order of preference:
First Action – Efforts are directed towards information and education programs and correction of visible resource damage.
Second Action – If the first action is unsuccessful, restrict activities by regulation (for example, set a minimum distance between a lakeshore and where people can camp).
Third Action – If the first and second actions fail, restrict numbers of visitors.
Fourth Action – If first, second, and third actions are not successful, a zone can be closed to all recreation use until the area is rehabilitated and restored to natural conditions.
In my experience, outside of designated wilderness and other special areas where specific laws apply, the Forest Service keeps circling around the first action, which isn’t a bad strategy given the continuing need for it in communities where resident turnover is high.  It’s an ongoing need regardless of the often unmet requirement to step up restrictions. But restrictions trigger blowback, as when the Shasta-Trinity National Forest tried to set encounter limits for the wilderness that includes Mt. Shasta.
People basically said they don’t care if it’s crowded—they just want to reach the summit, and a judge agreed with them. On the other hand, those who float the Selway River are happy to wait until they get a launch day shared by no one else. Since everyone is going the same direction at about the same speed, everyone can experience a bit of peace and quiet. So the application of sustainable recreation standards depends on who is using the forest and what they will accept.
And those are the questions that forest planning should be designed to answer.  (Note:  the Bridger-Teton plan has not been revised, so may not be the current state-of-the-art.  Also, I couldn’t find the court case referred to.)  And this must be done against the backdrop of a requirement for ecological integrity.
User-built trails and roads are often the opposite of sustainable. They develop incrementally and aren’t designed with soil type, grades and curve radii in mind, or the needs of resident wildlife. The trail system after adoption by the Forest Service usually gets reworked so it doesn’t turn into deep ruts or wash into the creek, but where is the analysis that determines that the trail location is right in the first place?  The trail itself becomes more sustainable, but where do the grouse and elk and owls go?
The adoption of forest plan of components for desired recreational use has effects that must be evaluated during the NEPA process, but rarely does the Forest Service devote much attention to this.
The author describes a common fallacious argument that the Forest Service likes to make about sustainability to avoid controversy:
While the planning rule makes clear that ecological integrity underlies compatible uses in a national forest, the ecological, economical, and social sustainability have since been referred to as a three-legged stool, with all three legs of equal importance.
But if you parse the actual language of the Planning Rule, it is apparent that the ecological leg needs to support more weight (driven by the substantive diversity requirement of NFMA) (my emphasis).
“Plans will guide management of NFS lands so that they ARE ecologically sustainable and CONTRIBUTE TO social and economic sustainability; CONSIST OF ecosystems and watersheds with ecological integrity and diverse plant and animal communities; and HAVE THE CAPACITY TO PROVIDE people and communities with ecosystem services and multiple uses that provide a range of social, economic, and ecological benefits for the present and into the future.

5 thoughts on “Forest planning for “sustainable” recreation”

  1. From the FY 2020 USFS Budget Justification:

    {Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness
    The National Forests and Grasslands receive nearly 150 million visits annually for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and other activities. To sustain and grow this level of use, the Forest Service is simplifying its permitting process for outfitters and guides, maintaining and growing strong partnerships, and working to address the recreational needs of today’s public who want year-round activities on National Forest System (NFS) lands.
    Continuation of this program is critical because:
     Recreational activity is the single greatest use of NFS lands and is the agency’s strongest single contributor to rural prosperity.
     Recreational activities support jobs in rural communities and contribute to the national economy. These economic impacts are driven by the nearly 150 million people that visit Forest Service lands annually.
     The Forest Service manages permits for recreational uses across its 193 million acres of land for ski areas, marinas, lodges, and other facilities.
    The USDA Forest Service’s recreation program contributes over $10 billion to the Nation’s Gross Domestic Product and supports approximately 143,000 full-time and part-time jobs annually in rural areas where other employment opportunities may not be available1. The benefits to rural communities from visitors to NFS lands continue long after visitors leave the forest. Visitors spend money in rural communities on everything from supplies, lodging, and restaurants to ski lessons and river guides.
    The Forest Service manages about 30,000 permits for recreational uses across the United States, including outfitters and guides, ski resorts, marinas, and lodges. The agency is leading an effort to modernize and streamline the permitting process to reduce regulatory barriers, enhance customer service, and better support rural economies. For customers, this will mean more consistent access to NFS lands and an easier process to obtain a recreation permit.
    Funds will be used to support 1,715 staff years, which will support access to NFS lands by simplifying the agency permit process.
    The funding change is requested for the following items:
    The funding and staff years are maintained ($257,848,000 and 1,715 staff years available in 2019). In FY 2020, of the requested funding, $177,316,000 is the adjusted appropriation when accounting for $80,532,000 in cost pool allocations.
    Funding will be used to continue to focus on providing better customer service to the public, including modernizing permitting processes to allow the public to more easily access Federal lands. Thismodernization will include a user-friendly ePermit system to help the public and small businesses more easily obtain permits and improve public access to national forests.}

    I propose a new definition for sustainable:
    “Manage an ever increasing user base that generates immense income by allocating fewer and fewer dollars every year to management.”
    Fixed it.

  2. Eric, thanks for finding this. Modernizing permit processes for recreation businesses is something the outdoor recreation industry supports, which I think is different than for weddings or bike races.

    Not sure that the FS even makes money from some of these smaller permits. It would be interesting to look into what’s in that basket of apples and oranges. At the same time, as an observer of people in the woods in my locale, I understand that businesses can “improve public access” but in so doing they can lead to overcrowding.

    I don’t think those micro scale decisions should be made in a forest plan, it is carrying too much weight as it is.

    I’m not sure about the four remedial actions. The philosophy seems to be “if some people behave badly. make regulations” this is where I part company “if bad people don’t follow regulations then allow fewer good and bad people in.” If bad people continue to be bad keep all the good and bad people out.

    If they’re not following regulations, and you apparently don’t have enforcement working, then what’s to keep people from coming in?
    It seems to me that a better way would be to somehow develop the capacity to find and punish people who behave badly, via technology, donations, or some other way.

    A highway analogy. Some people speed. They won’t stop speeding. Solution, allow fewer people on the road. Next solution- don’t let anybody on the road.

    As to the planning rule language itself, for me (as we’ve discussed before) it is a gobbledygook of abstractions of unknown practical meaning.

    • As to the planning rule language itself, for me (as we’ve discussed before) it is a gobbledygook of abstractions of unknown practical meaning.

      I love that statement – thank you! I agree!

  3. I think scale is important here. I think the remedial actions are aimed at sites rather than larger areas, and I have seen these kinds of closures work (though I assume that just means more wear and tear somewhere else). (Forest plan decisions are about larger landscape areas to which ROS classifications apply, and I wouldn’t call them “micro.”)

    The recreation language in the Planning Rule was written by our Forest Service recreation experts, so I assume it has practical meaning to them.


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