Forest Service Recreation Reset Roundup, June 2021

Possibly Covid has been an event that has accelerated increased use, and perhaps will fundamentally alter both the way federal lands are managed, and the way that we recreationists plan and go about our activities.  This will require more management by land managers than ever before.  Even National Parks like Rocky Mountain are going to reservations to drive through, or timed entry, so the managed is getting more managed, and the relatively unmanaged is going toward managed.   Please add any links to your local recreation news on dealing with crowds in the comments below.

Scott Fitzwilliams, Forest Supervisor on the White River:

Surging visitation is putting pressure on recreation resources at a time when there are fewer people to protect them. Fitzwilliams said he wishes he had more staff for public engagement, patrols and enforcement, but his budget is half of what it was 10 years ago.

Areas near the trailhead to climb Quandary Peak (shown), a fourteener just south of Breckenridge, routinely attract large crowds and overflow parking issues. Officials of the White River National Forest see Quandary as a place where they hope to manage crowds better in the future. Quandary is the sixth-closest fourteener to Denver. Its east ridge is visible upper left. (Provided by White River National Forest)

“More and more of the national budget has been going toward fire suppression,” Fitzwilliams said. “The big pot stays relatively the same, but every year we’re spending more on fire, and that means less for the other resources. We would like to have more boots on the ground, more people to monitor, enforce, educate. It’s just not what we have. We’re going to do our best, given the resources we have.”..

“It’s a little intimidating as we head toward the busy season,” Fitzwilliams said of the staff shortage. “Combining less staff with more and more visitors to the forest, it’s tough. I don’t think we’re meeting the public’s expectations. When you have people breaking the rules or leaving trash or leaving fires unattended, they call us (and say), ‘You’ve got to catch these people.’ There are only so many of us.”

Here’s one from the Colorado Sun:

The Arapaho Roosevelt National Forests closed dispersed camping sites on Guanella Pass near Mount Bierstadt in 2018, shifting the area to day-use only and the transition has reduced impacts in the alpine region, said Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock.

Wheelock, who moved to the county 50 years ago, said he’s been seeing “radical increases” in crowds over the last several years, with thousands of hikers on Mount Bierstadt and Grays and Torreys peaks every summer and fall weekend.

Last summer Wheelock saw cars parked for three miles on the Forest Service road leading to the Grays and Torreys trailhead.

“I think COVID wasn’t just giving us a glimpse of the future,” he said. “It was ushering the future in even sooner.”

This article in WyoFile talks about Wyoming recreation.

Long-term solutions

To alleviate impacts, Wyoming land managers are relying heavily on educating visitors to plan ahead, keep expectations realistic, be better stewards of the land and wildlife and be more considerate of one another.

In 2020, “we learned that communicating around Responsible Recreation may help to address those impacts and widespread messaging with and through our partners is extremely helpful in this respect,” BTNF spokesperson Cernicek wrote.

Her agency is using #recreateresponsibly and to share information with the public, she wrote. That message is being touted across the state; The Wyoming Office of Tourism will launch its second summer of the WY Responsibly campaign June 1.

In other areas of the U.S. dealing with overuse, land managers have implemented new permit systems or even closed trails. Shoshone National Forest Public Affairs Officer Kristie Salzmann hopes that the situation in Wyoming does not warrant those types of measures.

“Right now, we are hoping that the need for any of that doesn’t come to fruition,” Salzmann wrote in an email. “We are focusing on education right now to ensure we do the best we can to get out information about things that make the Shoshone National Forest unique …” such as food storage and fragile vegetation.

Wyoming Office of Tourism will on June 1 launch its second summer of the WY Responsibly campaign, which encourages visitors to be respectful of the state’s resources. (Wyoming Office of Tourism)

O’Connor, however, hasn’t ruled out limits.

“I would say, you know, in a nutshell, clearly there are places for limits, and I don’t want to say that limits aren’t something we should be thinking about,” she said during the virtual conference. “But we really do need to focus on some of those other factors first.”

With the BTNF’s current inventory, she said, “there’s much more demand for camping than we can provide. I go back to … we’re not serving people, if we encourage them to come but there’s really no place to stay.”

19 thoughts on “Forest Service Recreation Reset Roundup, June 2021”

  1. That photo of the cars on the side of the road looks just like the cars that would park along US Highway 26 in Oregon, near Government Camp and the Mirror Lake trailhead. The USFS built a parking lot that has helped, but the parking lot is often filled to overflowing, with cars along the highway.

  2. Fire some managers, and hire people who believe public lands are for the public. The Park Service as well as the USFS and BLM have all been on a 30 year jihad against public land users, it’s time to stop or fire some of these people haters. Closed roads and places to pull 10′ off the road and park or camp have created a shortage of spaces to park and camp. When was the last time you heard of a new free or small fee campground on our public lands?

    Never, it’s all contracted out to companies that charge big $ and reserve spaces, and there are no new ones. No overflow areas. No public camping area should ever turn people away, they need cleared spaces where at the very least people can throw down a sleeping bag and sleep for a couple of dollars and a registration.

    Those big boulders they rolled up on the sides of county roads to block people from parking they should remove.

    Every National Park should have enough places for everyone who wants to sleep in them. Instead, Park Managers in cahoots with local businesses have planned on people sleeping in hotels and eating at restaurants outside of parks. Jackson Hole is not a Park, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are. Estes might be called Estes Park but it’s not, that’s how they say treeless places with grass out here, the Park is called Rocky Mountain.

    A couple years ago we passed the Great American Outdoors Act. There’s plenty of money, billions. Use it.

    Yup, people are messy. Off leash dogs, drinking, littering, pooping in the woods, fires, there is no such thing as overcapacity. Show me a peer reviewed study and I’d be more inclined to believe. People get masters and doctorates in public lands management and then they want to make every space a place without people for them to manage. Suck it up. Picking up trash and cleaning outhouses is part of the job.

    Give people a good parking lot at the end of a maintained graded road and maybe they’ll park there instead of the road to Greys/Torreys.

    Limiting usage is just another way to keep people out, something public land managers have been very good at, probably learn it in school.

    • Well said. So many of the things land managers say are problems only are problems because they decided they are. Take the picture of the road to the Quandary Peak trailhead above. What’s the problem there? I see an orderly line of cars neatly pulled over on the shoulder of the road out of the way. Nobody’s blocking traffic, and nobody is parked in the middle of a willow bush destroying vegetation. So what’s the problem? It’s a popular trailhead. If there isn’t room to have a large parking lot at the trailhead, of course people will park along the side of the road. As long as there is room and they’re not trespassing on private property or something, let them!

      Same thing with campsites. For decades people were allowed to camp wherever they wanted along Forest Service roads. Now suddenly the mere presence of a large number of campsites is a problem that has to be dealt with by closing most of them, designating campsites, and requiring reservations for everything. Camping used to be a great American pastime. Now it’s a problem that needs to be mitigated and banned.

      People talk about wilderness values all the time, but what about the greatest wilderness value? Freedom. The word ‘wilderness’ itself has historically been synonymous with unmanaged chaos. Wilderness was a no-mans land beyond the borders of civilization which no one controlled. It’s hard to feel any kind of wildness out in nature when everything from the roads you are allowed to drive on, the paths you are allowed to walk on, and where you are allowed to camp is dictated to the nth degree by government regulations. Even our so-called “wilderness areas” aren’t true wilderness anymore, but manicured parks.

      Perhaps the real problem isn’t too little management, but too much.

      • While I’d agree with your statement below, namely that moving towards a shrinking recreation pie for all users is going to create problems, I’m not sure how your argument here fits with that. What of funding mentioned below? It certainly won’t drive *less* management if you funnel money into recreation programs at USFS and BLM. Changes to recreation management to increase that pie for a diverse base of users is a legitimate point, but posturing about freedom really doesn’t translate into potential solutions.

        A few points: 1- more use than ever on public lands; 2 – recreation being one mission among many for public land agencies; and 3- the wilderness act prioritizing many management needs beyond “freedom” , whatever that means in reality. Taking all those into account, how do you propose increasing the rec pie? And another thought up front, it’s not so much “less management” or “more management” but “how managed” – public land agencies rec programs are more thinly staffed than they were in the past, so I don’t think too much recreational micromanaging is the problem, as much as a question of style.

        >”Camping used to be a great American pastime. Now it’s a problem that needs to be mitigated and banned.” Not sure that’s an argument that can be quantitatively supported. A great deal of dispersed camping is still out there and seldom gets used, the areas that are managed are the ones that are, basically, getting destroyed by being overrun. Think, for instance, of the 5k person gathering that got such news coverage on the Tonto NF out east of Phoenix earlier this year (or late last, can’t recall), or to take another AZ example, consider the areas on the Mogollon rim before the move to designated sites, to say nothing of the CO examples that go beyond just busy trailheads but to (heavily) damaged resources. Recreation is far from the sole mission of the USFS or BLM, and it is quantitatively a fact that public lands are seeing more use than ever, so things are not just going to stay the same as the 1950’s (or 60s-80s, whatever).

        >”People talk about wilderness values all the time, but what about the greatest wilderness value? Freedom” Says who? Libertarians? Couldn’t find that in the Wilderness Act or anything else that provides the legal and operational basis for talking about “wilderness values” in a management context. Not to be a smartass here, but government management can’t follow vague political sentiments without actionable legislative / executive mandates, really. What would freedom, as you imagine it, look like in those terms?

        >”Wilderness was a no-mans land beyond the borders of civilization which no one controlled” – that’s true, etymologically, and has absolutely no bearing on how wilderness areas are managed. The Wilderness Act speaks much more of untrammeled character and man’s impact being minimally noticeable, than it does of anything like this.

        • I know freedom isn’t an official value in the Wilderness Act. My point is that “wilderness” (of both the designated and colloquial varieties) these days is so heavily managed that it no longer feels wild in any meaningful way.

          I also know impacts of heavy use need to be mitigated and that of course things aren’t going to be the same today as 50 years ago when the country had a much smaller population and less people were using public lands. That’s why I posted below supporting increased budgets for land managers. I agree that may seem a bit paradoxical alongside my call for less “management”. What I’m ultimately getting at is that not everything has to be planned out to the nth degree.

          Instead, land managers should deal with overcrowding or resource damage in particular locations on a case-by-case basis by directly addressing actual problems. And they should do a better job figuring out what things are actual problems causing genuine harm and what things are merely unsightly or inconvenient.

          For example, human waste polluting the landscape is a real problem, which could be dealt with by building more outhouses in popular dispersed camping areas. Or at the very least implementing and enforcing a rule requiring campers to use portable toilets and pack out waste like the BLM has done in many parts of Utah. Instead of those logical steps to directly address problems, too often land managers overreact and jump right to closing 80% of the campsites in an area and moving to a reservation system. Maybe it’s because they lack the funding to implement a better but more costly solution. Maybe not.

          In contrast I would argue that the mere presence of a lot of campsites close together is not inherently a problem. Not everyone values solitude as their sole metric for a fulfilling camping experience. Some just want the convenience of being able to camp close to a popular trailhead or something and don’t mind camping in a big crowd of people. Those who want solitude can find it elsewhere in less popular areas. Land managers who only value solitude and thus try to manage camping so that no two campsites are allowed to be within a mile of each other are missing a big part of the picture.

          Likewise the mere fact that cars are parked way down the road from a popular trailhead isn’t inherently a problem absent some other attendant issue. So people have to hike a bit further to get to the trailhead. Big deal. I think most people would prefer that to being forced to make reservations for their hike months in advance, or take a shuttle bus from town, or some of the other solutions I’ve seen proposed for Quandary Peak.

          So yeah, management that addresses real problems is good. Management for the mere sake of management is not.

          • Thanks, Patrick.. what I get from this is possibly that since we don’t have more enforcement bodies, the reaction is to close. Another reaction would be to figure out how to get more enforcement/education bodies out there and to understand better what visitors really want and need. I think the latter is the part that’s really missing. I saw an NVUM survey person along the road yesterday and wondered maybe we need to be asking folks a variety of different questions (not NVUM necessarily, but there’s a lot we don’t know about what recreationists value.

            • I actually had the chance to do an NVUM survey at Arches National Park last week. It was pretty similar to the Forest Service ones I’ve looked at the results of. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in those surveys.

              One concern I’ve had for a while is that motorized recreation inherently gets shortchanged by these surveys, which only ask the primary reason for your visit. A lot of people combine motorized recreation with other forms of recreation. So if I go hiking from a trailhead accessed off a 4×4 trail, and maybe hit a couple other 4×4 trails on the way back, if I took the survey that day that wouldn’t count because my primary activity was hiking. They also have a very vague distinction between motorized recreation and “scenic driving”, and fail to consider that almost all other activities involve the use of Forest Roads to get there.

              As a result, motorized use is radically under-counted, and I’ve seen plenty of anti-motorized groups throwing out those numbers saying see, only 15% of visitors or whatever engage in motorized recreation, therefore it’s unimportant and we need to close more roads and make more roadless/wilderness areas.

              More to the point of this post, I took the survey the Forest Service had about Quandary Peak a few months back. It was one of the most biased surveys I’ve ever seen. The ranger district clearly had already decided what they wanted to do, namely closing off parking and forcing people to use shuttle busses and make reservations, and the survey was clearly engineered to produce support for that position rather than take an objective look at what the public actually wanted. Same deal with the surveys Envision Chaffee has been putting out recently trying to manufacture the appearance of broad public support for closing dispersed campsites and radically expanding seasonal closures of roads and trails in Chaffee County.

              If land managers are going to survey the public to find out their views, they should at least try to make those surveys objective and unbiased rather than steering people toward the outcome they already plan to do.

    • Som, I recently (over Memorial Day weekend) was at a trailhead which is usually not crowded. The parking lot was all parked up (it’s joint for cars and horse trailers so a few more horse trailers does a number on car parking spaces) and I dutifully safely parked along the road. A representative of the contractor happened to be at the trailhead, and pointed out the advantage of parking along the road was that we didn’t have to pay the day fee! We had a nice chat about the other pay sites and I’m feeling pretty warm and fuzzy about that contractor right now.. especially since the toilets were very clean.

      I wanted to ask her about the reserved dispersed sites and if people who haven’t reserved them ever set up there, and how they deal with that if it happens.. them not being law enforcement folks. I

  3. In Montana, I often see lack of Forest Service vision towards recreation. Initiation of changes to accommodate more public often comes years too late. Even though NEPA process related to Travel Planning and Forest Planning goes through the required steps of listening to the public, several flavors of internal agency resistance are used to resist actually putting good ideas into practice. Now we are seeing that agency resistance backfire as clogged facilities. I think all the Forests that have just completed planning processes need to scour back through their public comments for the ideas they dismissed only a few short years ago. The Forests do have their answers to much of the overcrowding issues.

    • I just realized that in R1 at least, each Forest’s Recreation and Wilderness officer is the same person. I believe this combination of jobs is a fundamental flaw, and at least partially responsible for our regional Forest Service ineptitude at understanding recreation. All those people I’ve met and sat through meetings with, for 20 years, have leaned hard toward favoring wilderness issues and dismissing recreation issues. Is it this way across all National Forests?

      • I’ve seen the jobs put together a great deal for convenience, but I’ve also seen many (most) Recreation folks who are not avid “Wilderness is the best, anything else is lesser” believers.

  4. A pity that Congress can find trillions of dollars to funnel into pork barrel projects in the name of “COVID relief” yet can’t spare a couple billion to give the Forest Service and BLM the funding they need to properly manage recreation. In motorized advocacy we like to use the phrase “closure isn’t management,” but I’m starting to realize that regulatory capture by environmental ideologues isn’t the only reason agencies close roads and trails. Often they just don’t think they have the funds to manage them any other way than closure.

    This drives a reactionary policy of closing any area that is causing problems, which only drives the problems elsewhere while shrinking the overall recreational pie, ensuring that areas that remain open will only be more crowded. There’s got to be a better way.

  5. “…I’m starting to realize that regulatory capture by environmental ideologues isn’t the only reason agencies close roads and trails. Often they just don’t think they have the funds to manage them any other way than closure.

    This drives a reactionary policy of closing any area that is causing problems, which only drives the problems elsewhere while shrinking the overall recreational pie, ensuring that areas that remain open will only be more crowded. There’s got to be a better way.”

    Well stated, Patrick. I’ve been watching this exact scenario play out over the past 15 years. “regulatory capture” is an apt term. I also have to agree that closure isn’t management.

  6. As for the budget part, the FS might want to start at looking at where the recreation positions in the agency are located and how much they cost. I suspect it may be similar to some situations a few years ago where there was no “facilities” money to do facilities work – that is because it was all being used to pay for salaries in the WO and ROs, leaving little to none to filter down to do the actual work at the forest level. How much recreation funding is being tied up by salaries at the WO and RO level?

    • A. I remember I used to share a printer with many people in the Yates Building in DC, one of whom was the rec special uses person. At the time, Region 9 decided to get rid of their special uses person. My printer companion said she had become the phone pal of all the forest in Region 9. There is a certain workload of experts that is necessary and funded by the WO or RO (the support I received from WO Minerals when I was in R2 was immeasurable). And certainly recreation should pay for appeals and litigation work when their decisions are appealed and litigated.

      So to anyone some may seem legitimate and some may seem like unnecessary overhead. Of all my experiences at all those levels I would only say… it might be worthwhile for forest folks to look at where the $ goes in the WO and RO and they might have ideas about how to spend it better, especially nowadays when location is not important for many jobs (e.g. have all specialists located somewhere where there’s no extra locality pay).

  7. I was in Zion National Park at a particularly busy time last weekend (major closures due to ongoing/failed rescue operation). There was a sign about not getting in the creek (because of impacts on water quality); it was about “etiquette” rather than a prohibition, and was of course being heavily ignored on that 100º day. There happened to be a ranger standing nearby, so I commented on that, and she said, “You can’t manage people.” A little shocking coming from the Park Service, but maybe that’s the reality.

    • That is bizarre. For one thing, if the park service is that concerned about it, why not make it a rule rather than a suggestion? For another, does this ranger really think that if a uniformed park ranger comes and yells at people they will just ignore her? People can be stupid, but most people will still obey a direct order from a law enforcement officer. Or even someone who looks like one (I don’t know if all NPS rangers have law enforcement powers). And I know for a fact that the NPS is not as blasé about all their rules. Take the rule against flying drones in National Parks for instance. I’ve heard of park rangers literally tackling people for flying drones before.

      Beyond that though is my point about rules needing to make sense and actually address a real problem. I’m not sure what creek you are talking about, but if you mean the Virgin River, it’s kind of silly to try to prohibit people from walking in the creek anywhere downstream of the Narrows, since hundreds of people walk in the creek there every day and it’s perfectly allowed. Is it really a problem if they walk in a different part of the creek? Perhaps the ranger realized that and that was the real reason she had no interest in enforcing that particular “point of etiquette.”

  8. Here’s another option – from France.

    “In one of Europe’s most picturesque national parks, officials have embraced a surprising goal: They want to make the site appear less stunning… As tourism professionals around the world eagerly await the return of visitors, Calanques, in southern France, has a different message: Please, most of you, stay away… In response, they have forged ahead with an initiative that many other European destinations considered before the pandemic but few acted on: a “de-marketing” campaign aimed at reducing the number of visitors the park attracts… To that end, officials have begun asking Instagram influencers to take down photos of Calanques’ picturesque bays. The park’s website advises that the water is often cold and the beaches are “difficult to access, cramped and invaded by crowds…” In parts of southern France, for example, a popular GPS navigation software has been programmed to suggest alternatives to overcrowded top destinations.”

    “The crisis has certainly accelerated the thought process,” France’s junior minister in charge of tourism, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, said in an interview. The pandemic has caused “a lot of distress,” he said. “But this is also a moment of reinvention — we must not miss out on it.”


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading