193 Million Plus: Wild and Free: Diverse Dispersed Recreation as the Forest Service’s Main Mission- Part I

Photo taken August 2017 by Deborah Lee Soltesz. Source: U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest. Visit Wing Mountain Dispersed Camping and Coconino National Forest for more information.

This is one of our series of posts by the original authors summarizing, riffing on, and updating essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres. I thought this would be a good time to discuss as Patrick McKay raised the issue of “what does the FS as an agency think about recreation, and how is that manifested through their actions?”. There’s also the Reimagine Recreation initiative that the Forest Service is currently undertaking. Perhaps many of you have been asked to participate in the Engagement sessions.

Given that background, here’s my essay. Or Part I, anyway.


If national parks are, as the writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner once said, “America’s best idea,” then perhaps national forests are America’s best experience. The American people agree, and they are voting emphatically with their feet, bikes, horses, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), snowmobiles, and recreational vehicles (RVs).

National forests tend to be wide open for a variety of both traditional and new personal uses and experiences, from firewood and Christmas tree cutting, to mountain biking, off-road vehicle riding, hunting and fishing, berry and mushroom picking, developed and dispersed camping, and simply being in nature.

Although mediated experiences provided at ski areas and through guides and outfitters can be an important piece of connecting to the outdoors, that is not the quintessential national forest experience. If you were to travel, as I once did, from the Kootenai National Forest in Idaho to the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico during elk season, you would see a thousand “dispersed camping” elk-hunter camps. You would see mothers and brothers, cousins and college buddies, grandfathers and friends, with dogs and horses and ATVs and camps of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of comfort, from roughing it to luxurious. Most of these thousands of people have a variety of both guns and alcohol in camp, law enforcement is far away, and cell coverage often is unavailable. For the most part, these people get along and behave responsibly toward each other and the land. They get along with cattle that have not yet trekked to their home ranches for the winter (and occasionally leave deposits as they walk through camp). In some parts of the Rocky Mountains, hunters on all-terrain vehicles share the road with mountain bikers, while in other parts, they share with log trucks or tractor trailers carrying natural gas pipes. Day to day, mostly it works. People generally get along with each other and have meaningful outdoor experiences that form lasting and powerful memories. The experiences can be pragmatic (providing meat for the freezer), relational (spending time with family or hunting buddies), and spiritual (encountering nature one on one).

The contrast with the national parks in the Rockies could not be more striking. In the parks, people’s options are limited; their dogs are prohibited on trails and in many backcountry and wilderness areas, campsites are tiny and clumped together, and they endure crowded lodging and restaurants and standing in long lines with tourists from far away places. The atmosphere can be more like a shopping center—more “mall-ic” than bucolic—and certainly more expensive than the national forest experience. The national parks experience is clearly a good thing for many people, but not for all. And these experiences can’t substitute for the diversity of opportunities on national forests today.

What makes national forest experiences so different? They tend to be unmediated and relatively unmanaged. (The same goes for lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management [BLM], an Interior Department agency). You might say that these experiences are wide open, wild, and free. Free in the sense of not having to pay fees for most places and activities, and free in the sense of having few regulations in place, and only as needed to protect the land or minimize user conflicts. The perception is a sense of trust—it’s a kind of Tennessee Williams policy that “depends on the kindness of strangers” to each other and to the land, and yet the surprise is that people can be left alone and will mostly be decent to the land and to each other. To circle back to Stegner, who also said that the national parks are “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” I would have to respectfully disagree. It’s that very basic trust in self-governance, personal freedom, and responsibility that plays out in the national forests, on all 193 million acres, 24/7. For me, this is not about ideas or abstractions; it is rooted in the direct experiences of people on the land.

We don’t even have a word for these types of experiences and these forms of recreation. If we look at agency definitions of “unmanaged” recreation, Brooks and Champ (2006) note that “Conversations with recreation researchers and Forest Service employees are often peppered with alternative labels such as ‘unmanageable recreation’; ‘difficult to manage recreation’; ‘inappropriate dispersed recreation’; or ‘unmonitored nontraditional activities, growing in popularity.’” Certainly, the term “unmanaged” carries a negative tone, so there should be an expression for diverse and dispersed recreation opportunities that acknowledges that, like managed recreation, dispersed activities can occur at any place on the problematic spectrum. For the purposes of this essay, I will call this diverse dispersed recreation, and I advocate that the Forest Service and BLM increase their capacity to provide quality diverse dispersed recreation opportunities.

*** I’ve thought since that maybe “self-managed” has a nicer tone. And the better people behave, the less enforcement and regulation will be necessary. *********

The challenge for the Forest Service in the future is how to maintain diverse dispersed recreation opportunities and how to transition gracefully into a period of more restrictions due to increasing populations of visitors and unknown future budgets. In 2050, will there still be places where the current range of recreation experiences are still allowed? I, for one, hope so.

7 thoughts on “193 Million Plus: Wild and Free: Diverse Dispersed Recreation as the Forest Service’s Main Mission- Part I”

  1. Excellent article Sharon. This is precisely what I was getting at with my previous (admittedly hyperbolic) comment.

    When I said the Forest Service is anti-recreation, I meant it is anti unmanaged recreation (or dispersed, or self-directed, or whatever you want to call it). The Forest Service and BLM currently view “unmanaged recreation” as an inherently negative thing. This is seen most plainly in some of the recent national monument proclamations, which directly cite “unmanaged recreation” as a threat to the environment. In their minds, giving people the freedom to define their own experiences on public lands is viewed as dangerous and threatening. Yet it is precisely that freedom that comprises the essence of the recreational experience on these lands.

    Take that away and you have essentially the same curated experiences that you do at national parks, where everything you do is tightly controlled by rules and regulations. That is certainly enjoyable to many, but it is nothing like the authentic outdoor experience you can have on national forest and BLM lands, going where you wish, camping where you wish, with few regulations and no guardrails (literal or metaphorical), where there is real risk and real rewards as you fend for yourself in the wilds. It’s about as close as modern people can come to experiencing the feel of the western frontier and its limitless possibility.

    Aside from remote backcountry areas at a few of the larger national parks, that is an experience they simply don’t offer, and it’s one that’s becoming rarer and rarer on Forest Service and BLM land as well as land managers all follow the same trend toward tightly controlled curated experiences. The recent trend toward designated dispersed campsites is a perfect illustration of this. In many areas, no longer can you choose your own campsite wherever you find a flat clearing with a scenic view. Now you can only camp in sites the government allows, and even then often only if you have paid a fee and reserved a specific site online months in advance. All spontaneity and freedom is gone. The fun of finding your own epic campsite has been replaced by at best watching for signs on the side of the road and hoping that one of the dozen or so campsites the Forest Service left open of the hundreds that formerly existed in the area is unoccupied.

    I completely agree that providing high quality dispersed recreation experiences should be the primary focus of the Forest Service going forward. Given current trends though, I don’t see that happening. The current trend is overwhelmingly in favor of curated experiences. Drive where we tell you, camp where we tell you, walk where we tell you. It will take a major sea change in agency thought to reverse that trend, involving government bureaucrats actually being willing to give up some degree of the control and refrain from dictating other people’s choices. Given their currently belief that everything people do on public lands has to be “managed”, that doesn’t seem particularly likely.

    • So to me there are a variety of complex issues, (1) there’s “purely” regulated experiences, and that’s always going to be a point of some contention. (2) Then there is “third parties making money from recreation” (say Recreation.gov), and to what extent the FS favors those. Then there’s (3) fine-tuning opportunities so that they are more available to third party (for profit or not) entities than to “regular people,”(4) fine-tuning opportunities so that they are more available to tourists than to locals, and (5) the tension between forest neighbors and recreationists, 6) forest neighbors with their own undesignated trails.

      Last year, I vacationed at a place with numerous National Parks. It was very clear that the quality of the experience was based on what you could afford (I suppose that is always the case to some extent, say camper vs. tent, but..) I felt like it was essentially tourism with a propagandistic outdoor veneer, rather than authentic engagement.

      • Ugh, the “third parties making money from recreation” really gets to me. I am not a fan of contractor-operated campgrounds. And don’t get me started on the ski areas acting like they own the place….

        I agree with your sentiments and I don’t think a lot of people understand the issues or points you presented in your article, Sharon. We also do not go to national parks, really, because of the lower quality (for us) experience — and, because we have dogs (and it’s a shame to go camping without them).

        • I’ve had mostly positive experiences with USFS campground hosts. They generally keep the campgrounds and outhouses clean. OTOH, relying on third-party hosts is an opportunity missed to interact with the public, to show the uniform and communicate about natural resources, etc.

  2. There’s so many different types of recreation and many of the activities are more like wreckreation.

    Challenge is these days even the most rugged individualists would rather go to some kind of established campsite and pay too much to use it. So often I try to explain to people that federal lands are a huge landscape and finding a remote site is not only free, but less less trashed by soil compaction and other human damages. If you like to study trees and plants, remote locations are like heaven compared to even the most primitive of established campsites.

    Another obvious challenge is people who like botany aren’t going to enjoy recreation in places where quads and dirt bikes and mountain bikes have torn up the landscape. As in some recreational uses of public land aren’t compatible with others.

    Ideally I’d like a new recreational use known as “Conservation Recreation” which would help federal land managers leverage ecosystem restoration activities via groups like the one we created up here in the PNW know as Ecosystem Guild and Ecorestoration Field Stations: https://www.facebook.com/groups/541867292867325/ formally known as Restoration Camping.

    “The Guild organizes stewardship camps to provide assessment and restoration services for land managers. Camping while working in ecosystems is a 300,000-year-old tradition. We offer a modern version, through self-contained mobile ecological field stations that let ecosystem stewards provide efficient services over time at low cost. We do better than leave-no-trace.” https://ecosystemguild.org/guild-structure/services/

    This recreational activity is fairly new, but has been practiced in similar ways by the Rainbow Gathering’s site cleanup team who spend a month after the gathering addressing the impacts they had on the land. Also in the UK before their economy fell apart there was a rapidly growing pastime of people renting or owning a patch of remote wildlands to gather with their family regularly to enjoy the beauty of the land and do restoration/monitoring.

    At the heart of this type of recreation is getting more documentation and close monitoring of remote places so we can defend its recovery from harmful abuse. Remote sensing is going to play a role in this as well. And the more people who participate in groups like https://www.adventurescientists.org/timber.html to prevent stream pollution and timber theft the better!

    The chronic problem with remote places I first learned about as a young tree planter in the 90’s was tree planters who would not plant there trees, but dump ’em and act like they planted them. There was always so much ground to cover, that they rarely got caught until a forester ran across the dumped trees years later. There’s the same belief among loggers and ranchers that they can do whatever they want on remote public and private lands and get away with it because no one is paying attention and the amount of work it would take to pay attention makes it unlikely. It’s how they rationalize their most harmful behaviors.

    Of course the looks on their faces when they find out we hiked 10 miles past the locked gate to document their rule breaking was priceless. The could never understand how we’d have that much time to monitor them and it scared the hell out of them! So enjoyed those moments when they were like, “What the hell are you doing out here?”

    • Just for the record, when I was a Harvest Inspector and Sale Administrator, I would walk the units multiple times before final work approval. I was also out there monitoring operations for 99% of workdays. No project was so remote that we couldn’t be there everyday.

  3. I agree with the sentiment of enjoying the greater recreation diversity and freedom on national forests (and BLM lands) over that of national parks. Recreation on most national forests has a bigger impact on the economies of bedroom communities than logging and grazing as well as supporting large outdoor retail businesses. But as the population of the US continues to grow and more and more people recreate on national forests with their toys of choice, pressures on the land, water, vegetation and wildlife continue to mount, thus the need for more management, maintenance, rerouting of trails and law enforcement. I’m lucky to live next to a national forest that is a fair distance from a large population center and gets relatively little use. “Relatively” is the key word. It still gets plenty of use and the impacts are easy to see. And to say it mostly works for people is like the smoker saying, “it doesn’t bother me that people are smoking in the restaurant.” There are tons of user conflicts out there. There is the obvious motorized vs non motorized use conflict (thus the forest plan lawsuit on the Rio Grande NF) and there is the escalating slow quiet users (equestrian and hikers) vs fast quiet users (mountain bikes). Mountain bike use has become the de facto single use of many once multi-use trails because of the danger fast moving mountain bike users pose on forested trails with limited visibility. Equestrians, in particular, have quit using many non-wilderness trails, which means they often have to travel further to use trails. Injuries have resulted from equestrian/mountain biker and hiker/mountain biker accidents. This is just one example of the many challenges that face recreation managers on national forests. I have many fond memories of recreating on the Rio Grande National Forest forty years ago. Times have changed and now it takes more planning to find that great experience of years past.


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