Outfitter Says USFS Slow to Issue Permits

This is an excerpt from a Greenwire article today, “3 years to show visitors a tree? Slow permits hamper guides”… The article offers quotes from one guide, and there may be more at play in this instance than a shortage of staff and a slow process.

An Alaska guide’s three-year wait for a permit to show hikers a big tree in Tongass National Forest has ended — but only after the state’s senior senator intervened last week.

“It’s effectively taking an act of Congress,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told E&E News yesterday, days after she raised the subject with Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen at a committee budget hearing. “They recognize that it is not right.”

Dan Kirkwood, guide and general manager with Pack Creek Bear Tours in Juneau, has been trying to arrange tours of five to 10 people at a time in a wilderness area on Admiralty Island, part of the nearly 17-million-acre Tongass — the country’s biggest national forest. The Forest Service requires special-use permits for commercial activities to guard against overuse of sensitive sites, a system Kirkwood told E&E News he supports.

Kirkwood’s bureaucratic tangle isn’t unheard of: The Forest Service continues to struggle with delays handling the thousands of requests it receives nationally for special-use permits. The trouble is more profound in Alaska, where the agency has a shortage of staff, although Christiansen said officials continue to work at shortening the wait times.

The main attraction for Kirkwood: a giant spruce called the Candelabra Tree. It’s an example of the kind of old growth that endures in areas of the Tongass that haven’t been logged. But it’s not far from areas the public might visit; the spot is about 20 feet away from a state-owned beach, and it’s between two bear-viewing areas that Kirkwood said he already has permits to visit.

“This is a place we knew of because it’s a cool thing to look at,” said Kirkwood, who received a one-year temporary permit that might be extended. “We want to play by the rules.”

Congress and the Forest Service agree that staffing levels are largely to blame for the crunch. Budget cuts have played a role, Murkowski said, especially because the Forest Service appeared to apply them unevenly, with Alaska taking more than its share.

A Forest Service spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a request for comment from E&E News, but Christiansen said at the hearing that she’s making permits a high priority.


6 thoughts on “Outfitter Says USFS Slow to Issue Permits”

  1. It’s good to see the Forest Service publicly acknowledging that the lack of expeditious permit processing is due to funding and staffing…not NEPA, as is frequently alleged. That said, the agency is proposing to give itself additional CE authority (in addition to the CE authority for SUPs it already has) to process permits through its NEPA rulemaking, raising the question of why, if NEPA isn’t the bottleneck in the process.

  2. When I attended the EADM Workshop in Denver, they were talking about speeding up SUPs including recreation as part of the effort.

    Also there is the bipartisan SOAR act https://www.gardner.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/gardner-bennet-sponsor-simplifying-outdoor-access-for-recreation-act-to-improve-access-to-public-lands
    Introduced in both the House and Senate, don’t know the current status.

    Maybe someone knows what is going on with each of these internal and external efforts?

  3. Recreation sites aren’t dilapidated because no one knows how to fix them.

    Trails aren’t beat up because no one knows how to rehabilitate them.

    Permits aren’t taking forever because no one knows how to process them.

    There aren’t enough people and resources to do the job Congress and the American people expect. This isn’t a complicated problem. It is a willful refusal to allocate dollars the way the public desires it to be allocated.

    “Congress and the Forest Service agree that staffing levels are largely to blame for the crunch.“ Gosh, I wonder who could do something about it…

    • Forest Service HR is a huge bottleneck in getting positions filled. Chief Kimball took care of HR snafus long before they reached this stage. As noted in a recent NAFSR report, HR in the FS is more concerned with process than with helping the FS get work done. The FS recently lost a new hire to DOD because the DOD vetting process took a fraction of the time that the FS vetting process took, so rather than wait for the FS to get its act together, the person took a position with DOD instead so they could start earning a paycheck sooner. So many of the centralized folks in FS HR have no idea what the Forest Service does or how they do it. Before the centralization, many FS HR folks had worked on forests or districts and understood what the agency does. Sadly, that is no longer the case and I can’t help but feel that this is a major part of the problem.

      • I think that the USAJobs website and process is a huge factor. I have seen USFS employees roll their eyes when asked about how well the system works.

    • JR- what do you think about the below ideas?

      Perhaps Congress could also figure out a way to get $ from users to recreation maintenance that works better than FLREA.
      Perhaps the issue of permits is more complicated than just “we need to produce them faster”, though. Guiding seems like it would lead to more people out there and in some places that might not be a good idea. Maybe forests need to have an outfitter management plan like a travel management plan, with NEPA, public comment and cumulative effects and then make it easier to process permits within the plan?


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