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Holding The Line On Wild: Is The U.S. Forest Service Up To The Challenge?

A Career Insider Ponders Whether Her Storied Federal Agency Has The Courage To Contain Increasing Impacts Of Outdoor Recreation

Enchantment Basin from Prusik Pass in Alpine Lakes Wilderness  by Jeffrey Pang
Enchantment Basin from Prusik Pass in Alpine Lakes Wilderness by Jeffrey Pang
On a visit to Bellingham, Washington in the mid-1980s, I met with a couple of my undergrad geology professors whom I hadn’t seen since finishing college.

“So what do you do?” one asked. Knowing he didn’t seek a detailed answer, I tried to summarize the complexities of overseeing a forest-wide program in recreation and wilderness. A sneer spread over his face. “Wilderness management? How do you manage wilderness?”

He was right—it sounded oxymoronic. It wasn’t the wilderness the U.S. Forest Service, my employer, tried to manage but the human uses within it. Mostly what we "managed" was recreation use, believing that damage to meadows, creeks, and campsites was less a question of numbers than how people behaved. But this was true only up to a certain point.

Thirty years ago, another friend who worked as a wilderness ranger in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness—less than an hour from Seattle—told me that everybody was a no-trace camper. “But,” she added, “There’s just too many of them.”

Since then, the too-many has increased to the point where restrictions are necessary to keep the Alpine Lakes from being trampled to death. The group size limit is 12, and that includes pack stock. During the high-use season you have to get a permit, and people are directed to designated campsites. Certain trails are closed to stock and dogs, and elsewhere dogs must be kept on leash.

This doesn’t sound very much like the wild country I used to ramble as a youth, but the population of Seattle was less than a half-million then, and the drive to the Cascades on two-lane roads took an hour. Now people commute from towns on the east slope of the range to their jobs in Pugetopolis. This is why I came to Wyoming—the place I grew up loving is gone.

We’ve been lucky here in Greater Yellowstone, distant from large cities whose citizens empty into the mountains on weekends. One can still find solitude and quiet. 

Regulations are minimal to the point of being a joke: the group size limit in the Teton Wilderness is 20 people and 35 head of stock. A group of this size can’t easily practice no-trace techniques. As with my experience in Washington State, what it was, what it is, does not equate to what it will be; the increasing numbers of people already arriving in the Greater Yellowstone are undeniable.

The Forest Service presides over the management of more public land in the region than any other government agency.  How it stewards these lands, which belong to all of us, has huge implications for the survival of sensitive wildlife. What the Forest Service does, or does not do, also has consequences for both of our national parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton— that lie at the heart of the ecosystem. 

Change is coming fast to Greater Yellowstone with growing outdoor recreation pressure and neither the Forest Service nor citizens have a crystal ball for what this is going to mean. Our towns are turning into cities, and the rural countryside is giving way to sprawling development. Each year, the national parks and forests report record visitation.

Moab, Utah is the mountain biking capital of the inner U.S. West and a site where industrial-strength biking occurs on federal Bureau of Land Management tracts and other public lands.  But is this kind of use—where speed is a factor— compatible with a wild region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that has grizzly bears, sensitive areas used by migratory ungulates and both bighorn sheep and mountain goats in the Forest Service high country? Moab has none of these high wildlife values in play. Mountain biking use is already ratcheting up in both Greater Yellowstone's front and backcountry.  Photo courtesy BLM
Moab, Utah is the mountain biking capital of the inner U.S. West and a site where industrial-strength biking occurs on federal Bureau of Land Management tracts and other public lands. But is this kind of use—where speed is a factor— compatible with a wild region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that has grizzly bears, sensitive areas used by migratory ungulates and both bighorn sheep and mountain goats in the Forest Service high country? Moab has none of these high wildlife values in play. Mountain biking use is already ratcheting up in both Greater Yellowstone's front and backcountry. Photo courtesy BLM
Outside of classified wilderness, new kinds of recreation use have begun to replace the traditional. Thirty years ago, people hiked, rode horses, and found a few trails where they could ride their Honda 90s. In the winter, they snowshoed, cross-country skied, and rode low-power snowmobiles able to putt along on packed trails, not risking getting stuck. Agency managers had no ability or reason to foresee the technical innovations to come.

Since then, people have brought new modes of transport and ways of enjoying the forest to places with trails built for hikers and areas where people rarely went at all. Those ‘new’ activities have now become established: ATV riding, mountain biking, various modes of water transport, sport climbing, parasailing, and wave surfing in rivers, to name a few. Each year a new toy comes along. Each year the baseline of what the national forests are expected to offer, and the number of people to be accommodated changes.

The days of letting recreation simply happen are over. It’s not that land managers have been ignoring the trends; the problem is the rate of change. In 1990 Yellowstone and Grand Teton developed a plan to address growing winter recreation, meant to give managers time to prepare for a use level projected for the year 2000. One glitch: the very next year, the actual use exceeded that forecast.

The national parks realized they weren’t alone in dealing with growth and soon the national forests joined the discussion. I remember seeing the owl eyes of the Bridger-Teton forest supervisor when he returned from a meeting at Old Faithful in 1991. “I couldn’t believe the numbers of snow machines,” he said. “And they’re coming our way.”

An interagency winter use assessment team was convened. We identified general problems to address—crowding, conflicts between user groups, resource damage and trespass (into closed winter ranges for wildlife or into wilderness by motor vehicles). Options for how to deal with them were included in the assessment report, and some were reasonably successful as long as enough funding and personnel were available.
"Regulations are minimal to the point of being a joke: the group size limit in the Teton Wilderness is 20 people and 35 head of stock. A group of this size can’t easily practice no-trace techniques. As with my experience in Washington State, what it was, what it is, does not equate to what it will be; the increasing numbers of people already arriving in the Greater Yellowstone are undeniable."
Meanwhile, winter use in both national parks and national forests continued to increase. And since then, more new toys entered the scene: snow bikes, powerful snow machines that can climb steep hills and travel just about anywhere, and hybrid vehicles that include vans on tracks and motorcycles with skis.

What impact is all this recreation having on our national forests? In the uninformed eyes of many, it’s minimal: the more the merrier, outdoor recreation is good for us, it’s the backbone of our economy, they say. All legitimate points, but others with an expertise in tracking the subtleties of impacts wonder if recreation and conservation can continue to co-exist in the face of rapid change, increasing numbers, and continued conversion of wild land into front-country recreation areas. The national forests are asked by users to provide more facilities for more people while the agency’s budget is plummeting.  But even if money were not an issue should the objective be to fill up—“use-up”—the backcountry?

In my experience, the impact of recreation use is partly about numbers. No matter how lightly one treads, enough feet are going to denude a patch of ground. But behavior and attitude still play an enormous role.

Here are some of many things I’ve observed in my years of working in the national forests: 

° Campfires left unattended start forest fires. Piles of trash and abandoned gear, left for someone else to clean up;

° ATV tracks going straight up an easily eroded clay slope, leaving permanent scars;

° Fish left to decay on a boulder by someone who must have decided they were too small to eat;

° A garter snake carcass left in a campfire ring – the poor creature had obviously been captured and thrown into the fire to entertain some child with its tortured death;

° A row of aspen trees shot so many times at a foot above the ground that they could be pushed over, thus allowing a vehicle to climb a little farther up the hill before a talus field ended the adventure;

° Deliberate vandalism of signs and facilities; 

Do people know how much that shot-up sign cost the taxpayers? Or that the initials of a vandal carved into an ancient petroglyph are permanent? One ranger district scraped up enough funds to install an outhouse at a popular trailhead, only to find that on the first weekend, someone had chained it to their truck, pulled it down, and destroyed it.

Who knows why people do these things? One by one they exact a toll, eroding wildness and leaving less for the next generation.

The only conclusion I can make is they have little respect for the land, other creatures, or themselves. Maybe they are stuck in straitlaced roles in the human world and use their time outdoors to go wild.  But this is no way to share the land that belongs to all of us. 

It does not take a lot of bad actors in one user group, no matter how well behaved the majority are, to alter a place permanently. Sometimes it only takes one thoughtless mountain biker deciding to blaze a short-cut that results in an illegal trail.  Sometimes, it only takes a blogger (or, as I have seen more than once, a rogue newspaper editor) encouraging illegal trespass for a certain use, and believing he's being cool by being an outlaw, before unintended negative consequences start to accrue.

Multiply this attitude of disregard across the ecosystem and what do you get?

Besides basic destruction, increasing recreation does affect the land and creatures who call it home. The question is, how much influence can we have before it becomes harmful? Sometimes we don’t recognize harm until we see it, and then we spend too long denying it before we try to act. Sometimes, it's too late. What we have in Greater Yellowstone is so uncommon and irreplacable.

A botanist once told me, as I minced my way through a stand of buttercups trying not to step on any, that as long as the impact of our feet was about the equivalent of a band of elk running through, the plants were adapted to such disturbance and we weren’t hurting anything.

Hikers on their way to Angels Landing in Zion National Park.  In recent years, Zion has taken action to control visitor numbers in order to protect natural resources and the outdoor experience. Across America, in wildlands that have become inundated by mass numbers of people, wildlife values have been diminished. Photo by Alex Proimos
Hikers on their way to Angels Landing in Zion National Park. In recent years, Zion has taken action to control visitor numbers in order to protect natural resources and the outdoor experience. Across America, in wildlands that have become inundated by mass numbers of people, wildlife values have been diminished. Photo by Alex Proimos
I recall that advice when I think about our numbers and their impact. The hunter who shoots an elk does nothing different than a bear or wolf. But predators take the weak and vulnerable, and there’s a lot more of us. Some forms of hunting—for trophies, for instance—target the dominant individuals from a population whose genes benefit greatly from such animals.

Regardless of how much we try to become part of the natural world, the way we go about it is our own, laden with human traditions and values. We want the best-formed specimens for Christmas trees, the biggest elk rack to hang on the wall, the new trail that will follow a desirable creek or ridgeline that is also a wildlife corridor.

I’ve heard my share of complaints and reports of conflicts as traditional uses of the forest bump up against the new. Horses spooked by approaching bikes, throwing the rider. Horse tracks in the mud, making it hard for the bikes to go. People wanting silence, others wanting to share their iTunes with everyone else. Some seek a walk in the forest, camera in hand, others look for speed and challenge. We all have the same right to be there, but we need to remember that with rights come responsibilities. 

The national forest does not belong to me alone, but to all of us, and though we may not like the changes we’re witnessing, we have to accept that they will continue.  

Conflicts are not necessarily ephemeral like the encounters listed above, or limited to disagreements among people. Many of the ‘new’ modes of recreation travel introduced in the past few decades are mechanical or motorized, and in order to have a day’s outing, people using them seek longer trails, more loops, and more variety.

A long and satisfying hike would be a lunchtime hour of exercise for a bike rider. I put over 100 miles on a snowmobile in a scant few hours while touring part of the (then proposed) Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail. In an effort to provide for all, much of what was once undeveloped backcountry has been converted to front-country with networks of heavily-used trails.

The places that come to mind while I think about this topic are generally near the forest boundary, at lower elevations, and accessible by roads that are open year-round. It makes sense to concentrate use in such places, but as we take over more of them, where is the wildlife going to go?

People who come to Greater Yellowstone say recreation, scenery, and wildlife are what attracted them. Hunters, campers, fishermen, bikers—we all value the same thing, but few of us consider how our personal recreation affects the places we claim to love.

Often we don’t see the impact at all – the deer that runs off at our approach before they are within eyeshot, the weed seeds that fall off our boots or mud flaps, the tree that dies after we let little Johnny hack away at it with his toy hatchet. There are plenty of trees, what does it matter if one dies? Like elk in the buttercups, there is the illusion of plenty, and what each of us does will not make a difference.

But we do make a difference. Plentitude is in short supply these days, even in Greater Yellowstone. We are witnessing a form of death by a thousand cuts as each popular recreation area within easy reach of town becomes more intensely used.
"But we do make a difference. Plentitude is in short supply these days, even in Greater Yellowstone. We are witnessing a form of death by a thousand cuts as each popular recreation area within easy reach of town becomes more intensely used."
What will become of the forest edge, where much of the wildlife winter range exists? What will become of accessible places that once gave solace from the rat-race of American life if we don’t curb our appetites for having more and more? With or without restrictions on use, we will be constrained in how we enjoy our wild lands because of our increasing numbers and the limits of the land.

° ° °

After the parks and forests completed their winter use assessment in the 1990s the same group of employees was tasked to develop a similar assessment for summer use. The report was completed in 2006, which in some ways feels like yesterday. While its statistics are dated, the theories haven’t changed. It included some basic principles of recreation management. 

One reads, “It is most effective to manage recreation proactively before problems arise and opportunities are foreclosed. Once recreation use becomes established it is nearly impossible to alter or reverse; not only difficult, but costly and an inefficient use of limited management resources.” Recreation managers have known this for a long time, but without the ability to act quickly when a new use comes along, there’s little hope of having an influence later.

One exception has been the Forest Service’s response to e-bikes. At the Washington D.C. level, they were declared to be motor vehicles and therefore should be restricted to those trails that are open to trailbikes. Without this decree from the top of the agency, each forest would be on its own trying to deal with the new technology and the results would be neither consistent nor effective.

Nationwide and in Greater Yellowstone, the national parks and forests have worked together for decades to develop sound and rational systems for dealing with recreation. 
Researchers within the agencies and at universities have helped in this endeavor, and there now exists an interagency council for visitor use management. Its framework, published earlier this year, can be applied anywhere (for anyone interested in details, click here).  It consists of a stepwise progression of identifying desired conditions and the kinds of recreation appropriate for the place being studied, yielding a strategy for managing use based on what the land can sustain.

It makes sense on paper but the crux move is always implementation. After conditions exceed the limits of acceptable change, it’s time to take action. This can mean anything from the innocuous umbrella of visitor education to the more odious prospect of restrictions, even closures.

How will this or any other wonky-sounding system will be received by citizens, especially if it requires actions on the restrictive end of the spectrum? It’s that term that today hardly anyone wants to hear: self-restraint.

The concept itself can be off-putting to locals who don’t like being called “visitors.” We live here. This public land is part of our home, and part of who we are. Those tour-bus people are the visitors, we say. But few of us actually live within the national forests, and like it or not, when I walk from my house to a forest trail a quarter-mile away, I’m a visitor.

Fearing public blowback, the threat of appeals, and lack of support from on high (whether the agency hierarchy, micro-managing Congresspeople, or the administration) the hard decisions are often put off, sometimes for years. I wonder how well people in Greater Yellowstone would respond to the future need for restrictions like the ones now in place in the Alpine Lakes.

I’ve seen small steps taken recently to regulate recreation use—dogs needing to be on leashes, a trail considered for closure to snow bikes. Each meets resistance and the Forest Service backs off. The same people are fine with such restrictions in national parks, but we’ve come to expect the national forests to be all things to all people. This isn't sustainable in the modern world.
"I’ve seen small steps taken recently to regulate recreation use—dogs needing to be on leashes, a trail considered for closure to snow bikes. Each meets resistance and the Forest Service backs off. The same people are fine with such restrictions in national parks, but we’ve come to expect the national forests to be all things to all people. This isn't sustainable in the modern world."
Having worked in recreation and wilderness management for much of my life, I reflect on the hope I once had that a well-reasoned approach with the health of the land in mind and plenty of public involvement would lead us together through the dark woods of competing priorities to a common goal and plan of action.

It worked in the early 1980s when the Bridger-Teton imposed closures for wildlife winter ranges. It worked when we convened citizen committees to help develop standards for wilderness protection. 

But now I’m not so sure. In tune with the times, people seem increasingly insistent on having their way. Some of those winter range closures near the town of Jackson, if proposed today, would never happen. As it is, the local ranger district spends much time and effort, as do its conservation-organization partners, trying to keep people from poaching the powder on winter ranges. 

It’s been pretty successful, but you still see tracks on wind-packed cornices and a powder slope dropping into town. You still see people letting their dogs run after wildlife. There’s so much resident turn-over in mountain towns like Jackson and visitors who aren't thinking about their impacts that the need for continued vigilance is constant.

In the face of inevitable change, the ability of the national forests to provide opportunities that people seek will depend on support and assistance from the public, support and funding from Congress, and an understanding among all that we are in this together and need to find a way to share—with each other, and with the wildlife, plants, and ecosystem that makes joy in the outdoors possible for anyone.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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