How Will the Forest Service Deal With the Challenge of Current Crowds and More Commercial Permits?


There’s a bipartisan bill in Congress to make it easier for folks to get permits for commercial recreation on National Forests. I don’t know if more (outfitters and people) are better but it should be interesting to discuss!

Jonathan Thompson  of High Country News, seems to think more tourism can be better.. than the alternative in this piece.

In its place, despite the relatively primitive conveniences of this national monument, is the hint of commercialism that comes wherever tourism trumps every other way of making a living. And there are so many people now, intent on adoring the place so thoroughly that they wear it down like water on sandstone. They stream through relentlessly in cars and buses, their cameras clicking…..

Maybe the national monument designation has drawn more people. But what’s the alternative? Would leaving it as it is — open to oil and gas leasing, uranium mining, or wind or solar energy development — really keep the crowds at bay? And even if it did, at what cost?

According to this school of thought, commercializing federal lands is fine, as long as it’s for tourism.  Now, if climate change is the Most Important Thing, I’d think we’d want to have uranium mining and wind and solar energy development more than people using gas-powered vehicles and planes to get to places for fun; but.. maybe not.  There are also the impacts of more people on water supplies and waste disposal, and the fact that tourism has low-paying, not family wage jobs compared to other industries.  We’ve all seen this happen throughout the west.  I think the social and economic justice facets of these questions have not been adequately explored. Thompson also has a story on crowds on the public lands.

Meanwhile, the Denver Post had an this story: Colorado Guides Can’t Get Enough Permits on Federal Lands.

Some quotes:

“It is arguably absurd to place so many barriers in front of the opportunity for the public to go with the assistance of a professional,” Wade said, because guided tours are less likely to harm the environment. “To limit that is absolutely puzzling.”

If you have 200 people with 10 units of impact each versus 20 people with 20 units.. (we can all do the math, it depends on whether more people would ultimately come with guides and how much less likely they are to harm the environment).

In some places, agencies won’t issue permits because they haven’t conducted environmental assessments and don’t have the staff to conduct those assessments. The result is effectively a freeze on hiking tours in places such as Blanca Peak and Little Bear Peak, according to Wade, as well as on backcountry skiing at Berthoud Pass in Clear Creek County.

The Forest Service did not respond to a Denver Post email this week asking whether the agency is unable to issue recreational permits because it lacks the staff to do so.

What else would they be doing? And is this the best use of the recreation staff’s time when they’re already overburdened keeping up? Many other folks who have this problem simply contract or do their own with FS oversight. It sounds like, though, some don’t believe they have impacts, individually or cumulatively. And of course, some outfitters guide recreationists on activities fairly low on the Pyramid of Pristinity, including OHVs, snowmobiles, mountain bikes and so on. I don’t know about rafting and heli-skiing. It is true that guided tours might get people to behave better but I don’t think that’s known empirically. And what kind of monitoring occurs by the FS of these folks?

These permitting problems exist nationwide. Guide groups from all of the Mountain West states have asked Congress to address the issue since 2019, as have companies in Alaska, California and West Virginia. Senators representing nearly every western state are cosponsoring the current bill to do so.

When permits are issued, they’re too narrow in scope, guides say. For example, the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based nonprofit guide group, teaches rock climbing in a national forest in Washington. But its permit does not allow it to teach the very similar skill of rock scrambling, the group’s conservation and advocacy director Betsy Robblee told a House subcommittee on public lands hearing on June 8.

“We spend an enormous amount of staff and volunteer time navigating the various permitting processes of land management agencies. These convoluted systems are equally as challenging for under-resourced land managers to administer,” Robblee said.

So we have the crush of more people. Is it better to get more guided opportunities or will that just add more people to the mix. Is it better to get more people out there? If more trails and floating opportunities are by reservation, how will the FS decide what is the right ratio for guided versus independent users? I’m sure they already do that in places).

8 thoughts on “How Will the Forest Service Deal With the Challenge of Current Crowds and More Commercial Permits?”

  1. Seems to me the Forest Service requires special use permits for a lot of low-grade commercial activity on National Forest land that really shouldn’t require it. It would probably be easier for everyone if only large commercial operations required permits.

    I’ve always thought it kind of weird that if a Jeep club wants to lead a free trail run with 30 Jeeps (or whatever the exact size limit is until a permit is required) they can do that anytime they want, but if someone wants to charge to lead a guided trail run with say five vehicles, they need a permit. It would make a lot more sense if they just had one group size limit where anything under that would be fine and anything over that needed a permit, regardless of if someone is making money or not. Same with guided hikes, fishing, skiing, etc.

    I bet the current rule prevents a lot of useful innovation in the outdoor space. Say someone wanted to start a business that was “the Uber of National Forests”, with drivers using personal vehicles to, for a fare, shuttle through hikers between trailheads, or drive mountain bikers to the top of a 4×4 road so they can ride down, or something like that. Would they even be able to do that in the current permitting environment? I’m guessing probably not.

    One other note regarding the impact of guided vs. not in the OHV world. Even as a motorized recreation advocate, I’d say the Forest Service should make it easier to have guided OHV tours and harder to have unguided rentals. A lot of the problems we see are caused by unsupervised side-by-side rentals where the drivers don’t have a clue about the rules or proper etiquette. Maybe they were given a pamphlet with some guidelines or watched a quick orientation video, and then they are left to their own devices on the trails.

    I don’t know the details of the permitting process a company has to go through to rent out vehicles for unsupervised use vs. guided groups, but in places like the San Juans I’ve seen a lot more unguided rental groups than guided ones. If the structure of the permitting process encouraged guided OHV tours and discouraged unsupervised rentals, it would probably go a long ways toward fixing some of the problems we’ve been seeing with OHVs lately.

    • It’s interesting that horse outfitter folks almost never have unguided, due to liability? Theft issues? Seems like that might be true for OHV’s also.

      • From the NY Times today: “It’s Summer in the Ski Towns, 2.0”


        …But now resorts are increasingly promoting themselves as warm-weather destinations and adding more outdoors-oriented activities like purpose-built bike parks, forest canopy tours, mountain coasters and via ferratas, a European-derived system that consists of permanent steps and ladders bolted into a rock face; users attach themselves with carabiners to steel cables to prevent big falls.

        For one, there’s the desire to create more of a year-round — and less snow-dependent — economy. Additionally, passage of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act in 2011, and subsequent policy guidelines issued by the U.S. Forest Service in 2014, eliminated cumbersome aspects of the permitting processes on federal land, making it easier for many mountains to develop summer recreation.

        Vail Resorts was one of the first to capitalize on the new legislation with its Epic Discovery summer program, introduced at Vail Mountain and Breckenridge in Colorado, and Heavenly in California, starting in 2016. Zip lines, alpine slides, ropes courses and more, along with educational components, aim to let visitors immerse themselves in the mountain environment. Since then, many other resorts have followed suit. This June, for example, Telluride, in southwestern Colorado, introduced its first canopy tour, with zip lines, aerial bridges and rappels.

        The approach has been working. Some would even say too well. “Now at most mountain destinations in the West, and at many in the Northeast, the summer occupancy is as high or higher than during the winter months,” said Tom Foley, the senior vice president for business operations and analytics for Inntopia, a resort marketing and e-commerce firm. (He adds that lodging prices, however, still lag behind winter’s peak rates.)

  2. I’m not sure that people flying into DIA, to rent a car and drive up to public lands to be guided around is very green to tell you the truth. Every time Polis brags about bringing tourist dollars to CO I scratch my head. OK, the Recreational Industrial Complex needs to make $$$ but I just don’t see tourism as being a societal good. Maybe via designated trains out of NY and LA with busses to wherever.

    And the current scheme of pushing every one to get reservations via is gross. Recreation for the wealthy. Closed for locals. Yup there is overuse, deal with it, don’t close it. Nature is resilient. Flood an area with trail running, ATV wheels spinning, pooping, fire building, dog poop ignoring, Rainbow Gathering, recreationists, and then move on to another area for 5 years and give the TP time to melt into the ground and before long the place looks pristine again.

    Long distance travel is environmentally not great, recreating, even recreating in ways that tree huggers don’t like, is extremely temporary. People out enjoying our public lands should be encouraged. We have millions of acres all over the west, if people are all grouping up at one place it’s because that’s how the FS designed things. They wanted easy clean up and control, and they can’t handle the people who simply want to go out and enjoy the lands they own.

  3. It seems like there is an increased need for guided activities in response to the recent surge of outdoor “newbies” who may need supervision. It’s not clear why the permitting process should be a problem (other than there may be too many requests for the staffing available). The categorical exclusions (not “environmental assessments”) for recreation use permits don’t require a case file or a decision memo. Limiting the number or permits to control use levels does lead to arguments over the allocation between guides and individuals (and I’m not sure how that planning process works).

    • Jon, I think that some decisions are done with EAs and even some with EISs (as in the image on this post). There was a fairly recent (in NFMA time) change to the permitting regs here in 2008.
      Lots of interesting stuff, including relationships to forest planning!

      Comments Concerning Public Involvement. One respondent was concerned that the proposed directives did not require public involvement for an outfitting and guiding needs assessment, resource capacity analysis, and use allocation or enumerate how the agency would otherwise comply with NEPA during these processes. Various respondents noted that decisions to authorize outfitting and guiding should be accompanied by environmental analysis that is conducted at the appropriate scale (regional, forest, district, or watershed level); that includes a needs assessment, Start Printed Page 53828resource capacity analysis, and a reasonable range of alternatives for allocation of use to make the allocation process transparent; and that allows for public involvement, efficient analysis of cumulative impacts, development of more effective mitigation, and regional assessment of educational outfitting and guiding needs and providers. One respondent also noted that the Forest Service needs to address analysis of cumulative impacts at the appropriate temporal and spatial scales and compliance with other relevant statutes, including the Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act.
      Several respondents were concerned about NEPA compliance associated with issuance of temporary use permits and noted that the proposed directives are silent on this issue. One respondent noted that environmental analysis associated with many recreation-related activities remains incomplete because it is time-consuming and expensive. One respondent believed that issuance of temporary use permits under the proposed directives without environmental analysis would simplify administration of the outfitting and guiding program and reduce agency costs. One respondent noted that a perception exists that NEPA and cost recovery requirements do not apply to temporary use permits.

      Response. There appears to be confusion among respondents regarding the trigger for environmental analysis and the relationship among a needs assessment, a capacity analysis, and an environmental analysis. The Forest Service has separate directives governing environmental policy and procedures (see FSH 1909.15). These directives govern environmental analysis, scoping, and public participation and should be read in conjunction with these directives. Comments regarding public involvement and environmental analysis related to outfitting and guiding permits are therefore beyond the scope of these directives.

      Needs assessments and resource capacity analyses are not agency decisions subject to environmental analysis. Rather, they are analytical tools that inform an agency decision. For example, a needs assessment could support a decision to issue a permit. A needs assessment also could support a decision to amend a land management plan. Additionally, a needs assessment and resource capacity analysis are typically used to develop a river management plan. The outfitting and guiding directives are intentionally flexible with regard to selection of the geographical area to be analyzed for efficient outfitting and guiding administration because the authorized officer is in the best position to determine the appropriate scope of analysis.

      Decisions that are made to authorize use pursuant to a needs assessment and resource capacity analysis, including issuance of permits, amendments of land management plans, and allocations of use in plans, are subject to NEPA. The Forest Service complies with applicable law and policy, including NEPA, in making these decisions.

      • Thanks for finding this (I assume related to my question about how recreation planning works). Just a couple of clarifications. It explicitly doesn’t address how to meet NEPA requirements because the “Needs assessments and resource capacity analyses are not agency decisions subject to environmental analysis” (and it’s also agency policy; not a “regulation”). And the EIS image is for an “outfitter and guide management plan,” which could be an example of how planning for recreation permits would use the assessments and analyses, but is different from making permit decisions (which could use CEs). This does seem to be the kind of process that will be needed to answer your headline question (but of course unless they provide more resources to do this, it will take staff time away for actual permitting.)

  4. There are to many campgrounds that have been closed over the years, including dispersed camping along roadways. Open more campgrounds, maintain trails and put out the welcome sign. You could probably cover the budget with a few days of fire fighting cost.


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