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On Having Fun And Passing The Test of Ecological Sustainability

A retired Forest Service backcountry specialist reflects on how her agency is dealing with growing human pressure

Among the most spectacular rides for mountain bikers in Greater Yellowstone can be found near the summit of Grand Targhee Ski Resort. It is located along the west side of the Tetons on the Caribou-National Forest near Alta, Wyoming.  Photo by Nate Lowe/US Forest Service
Among the most spectacular rides for mountain bikers in Greater Yellowstone can be found near the summit of Grand Targhee Ski Resort. It is located along the west side of the Tetons on the Caribou-National Forest near Alta, Wyoming. Photo by Nate Lowe/US Forest Service
In many populated areas of the West near public lands, levels of outdoor recreation are exploding.

What is "Sustainable Recreation"? The Forest Service defines it as “the set of recreation settings and opportunities in the National Forest System that is ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable for present and future generations.”

The 2012 nationwide planning rule codified sustainable recreation. The rule is meant to “guide the collaborative and science-based development, amendment, and revision of land management plans that promote the ecological integrity of national forests and grasslands.” It goes on to direct that “Plans will guide management of NFS lands so that they are ecologically sustainable and contribute to social and economic sustainability; consist of ecosystems and watersheds with ecological integrity and diverse plant and animal communities; and have the capacity to provide people and communities with ecosystem services and multiple uses that provide a range of social, economic, and ecological benefits for the present and into the future. These benefits include clean air and water; habitat for fish, wildlife, and plant communities; and opportunities for recreational, spiritual, educational, and cultural benefits.” [Federal Register vol 77 no 68, April 2012] 

While the planning rule makes clear that ecological integrity underlies compatible uses in a national forest, the ecological, economical, and social sustainability have since been referred to as a three-legged stool, with all three legs of equal importance. Sustainability isn’t a new concept in the Forest Service. It was a consideration that rose in prominence over the last few decades when considering the impacts of traditional natural resource extraction industries.

The Multiple-use/Sustained Yield Act of 1960, for example, used the word as a check on the rate of timber harvest. The Act defines sustained yield as the “maintenance in perpetuity of a high-level annual or regular periodic output of the various renewable resources of the national forests without impairment of the productivity of the land.” 

Pressure to offer more product for a wood-hungry nation turned sustainability into a pipe dream, particularly when unsightly clearcuts, blown-out roads on steep slopes, and the endangerment of wildlife species from salmon to owls begat a slew of legal hurdles that coincided with a reversal of the upward trend in volume of timber sold. 

In recent years the volume of timber taken off of national forests has hovered around the level it was in 1940, and while the reasons may be argued—endangered species, those damned environmentalists, Canada’s increasing output of cheaper lumber—a primary contributor in my experience is that by the end of the 1980s most of the easy terrain which made financial sense to access had been logged. Still, 2.3 billion board feet as shown in the Forest Service is a considerable output.  
The language employed in the Multiple Use/Sustained Yield Act can be translated to cover recreation as well as renewable resources. The tools used aren’t new. 

One of my first assignments when I went to work as a summer employee for the Forest Service in 1978 was to map the ranger district according to the "Recreation Opportunity Spectrum". It displayed zones defined by their level of development and the number of people who could be accommodated without overcrowding or resource damage. 

The Recreation Opportunity Spectrum can be used in forest planning to define a desired condition for management within each zone. Indicators and standards are meant to define the tipping point beyond which management action must be taken.

 If the standard for a backcountry area (called “semi-primitive non-motorized" in ROS jargon) is that no more than six other parties are encountered on a typical day, when the encounter rate exceeds that number some action is supposed to take place to return to the desired condition. 

It’s a neat framework, but doesn’t always play out as intended on the ground. ROS doesn’t differentiate between a semi-primitive area in the back yard of a town like Jackson or Bozeman and one that’s two hours away. 

Non-motorized doesn’t distinguish an area heavily used by organized groups, mountain bikers, runners, dog-walkers and day-care enrollees from an area with few trails and low use. A trail density standard is often attached to this kind of backcountry setting, but as demand for more trails continues, the standard can become meaningless.  The usual sequence of remedial actions begins with non-intrusive measures like visitor education. If the problem isn’t solved, additional actions are considered. 

The Bridger-Teton forest plan is typical in its prescribed sequence of actions, this excerpt taken from its direction on wilderness. The following recreational strategies should be used, listed in descending order of preference: 

First Action - Efforts are directed towards information and education programs and correction of visible resource damage. 

Second Action - If the first action is unsuccessful, restrict activities by regulation (for example, set a minimum distance between a lakeshore and where people can camp). 

Third Action - If the first and second actions fail, restrict numbers of visitors. 

Fourth Action - If first, second, and third actions are not successful, a zone can be closed to all recreation use until the area is rehabilitated and restored to natural conditions.

In my experience, outside of designated wilderness and other special areas where specific laws apply, the Forest Service keeps circling around the first action, which isn’t a bad strategy given the continuing need for it in communities where resident turnover is high. It’s an ongoing need regardless of the often unmet requirement to step up restrictions. But restrictions trigger blowback, as when the Shasta-Trinity National Forest tried to set encounter limits for the wilderness that includes Mt. Shasta. 

People basically said they don’t care if it’s crowded—they just want to reach the summit, and a judge agreed with them. On the other hand, those who float the Selway River are happy to wait until they get a launch day shared by no one else. Since everyone is going the same direction at about the same speed, everyone can experience a bit of peace and quiet. So the application of sustainable recreation standards depends on who is using the forest and what they will accept. 
When does the backcountry begin to feel like the front country (pictured here)? In many national forests throughout the West, commercial outfitters have created massive footprints of impact in the backcountry. Now, with increasing recreation use the Forest Service has been accused of inadequately managing the incursion of  users and in some cases failing to stop the building of illegal trails. Critics say the Forest Service has little understanding of how wildlife is being impacted by cumulative effects.  Photo courtesy Deborah Lee Soltesz/U.S. Forest Service Coconino National Forest.
When does the backcountry begin to feel like the front country (pictured here)? In many national forests throughout the West, commercial outfitters have created massive footprints of impact in the backcountry. Now, with increasing recreation use the Forest Service has been accused of inadequately managing the incursion of users and in some cases failing to stop the building of illegal trails. Critics say the Forest Service has little understanding of how wildlife is being impacted by cumulative effects. Photo courtesy Deborah Lee Soltesz/U.S. Forest Service Coconino National Forest.
As much as the Forest Service may hope to manage recreation in a way that is compatible with basic resources, wildlife habitat, and the perpetuation of a healthy, scenic landscape, it’s also true that these forests belong to the people, and some don’t necessarily agree with what the agency is supposed to do.

Before the 1950s, public recreation was seen as a nuisance more than a legitimate use of the national forests. But the agency’s pioneering landscape architects and recreation managers were already thinking about sustainability. 

One of them was Arthur Hawthorne Carhart, hired one hundred years ago as a landscape designer, although his actual title was “recreation engineer.” Though fully aware that the first mission of the young Forest Service was to produce timber and clean water for downstream uses, he was able to see the forest for the trees. 

Clean water was more readily provided by ‘virgin’ old growth than by carelessly cutover areas. And wilderness was good for the human soul. In his 1959 book The National Forests he recalls the agency’s resistance to the rise of recreation in the national forests after the First World War. 

Foresters grumbled about the flood of tourists into backcountry areas during the 1920s, as they had been “trained to grow trees, not ride herd on dudes.” But on came the tourists and timber harvest roads became access routes for camping and picnicking. 

By the time Carhart was writing his book, a few of his colleagues predicted that if the upward trend in recreation continued, “this use will soon take precedence over all others. Measured by demands on the time of Service personnel, this may come to pass.” 

Cartart's jaw would tumble onto his toes if he could see how completely the dominance of recreation has come to pass today. His colleagues resented having their time spent putting out abandoned campfires, dealing with sanitation issues, and trying to keep house trailers from destroying streamside vegetation. Their solution was to inventory potential sites for new campgrounds and other facilities that would serve the growing demand while keeping use confined to places where toilets and traffic control could be installed.
Who is opposed to having fun on public lands that belong to all citizens? Not Mountain Journal, columnist Susan Marsh or the multitude of backcountry recreationists who find inspiration, freedom and exuberance.  But what happens when "poaching the powder" results in displacement of wildlife in winter, be it wolverines, bighorn sheep or moose?   The concepts of limits and failure to have access are ones that many humans struggle with; for wildlife, loss of habitat can be an existential challenge.  Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
Who is opposed to having fun on public lands that belong to all citizens? Not Mountain Journal, columnist Susan Marsh or the multitude of backcountry recreationists who find inspiration, freedom and exuberance. But what happens when "poaching the powder" results in displacement of wildlife in winter, be it wolverines, bighorn sheep or moose? The concepts of limits and failure to have access are ones that many humans struggle with; for wildlife, loss of habitat can be an existential challenge. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
If all these sites had been developed—I remember finding some of that inventory in brittle rolled-up blueprints with circles and numbers on every flat spot along a river—the national forests would have many more facilities spread around than they already do, adding to the existing backlog of maintenance that the agency will never have the funding (well over $5 billion) to correct.

A great contribution of Carhart’s was to recognize that recreation management meant more than designing and building campgrounds, summer home groups and other developments. He understood the value of functioning forests and watersheds, and the need to preserve some of them in their natural state. 

Carhart is best remembered for an unexpected change of mind after he talked to some Colorado hunters. He was assigned to work on a proposed road that would ring Trappers Lake in the White River National Forest, providing access, camping, boating and summer homes as a result. Thus emerged a white-hat project for a recreation engineer. 

Paul J. Rainey, a hunter and outdoorsman, ran the camp where Carhart was staying while he surveyed the road. After hearing about the project, Rainey asked, “Do you have to circle every lake with a road? Can’t you bureaucrats keep just one superb mountain lake as God made it?”
 Paul J. Rainey, a hunter and outdoorsman, ran the camp where Carhart was staying while he surveyed the road. After hearing about the project, Rainey asked, "Do you have to circle every lake with a road? Can’t you bureaucrats keep just one superb mountain lake as God made it?"
Carhart agreed, and convinced his bosses to leave Trapper Lake as it was. Today it lies just inside the boundary of the Flat Tops Wilderness. With its high elevation (close to 9700 feet), cliffy areas, wetlands, an active landslide along one shore and the occasional wildfire that can denude the surrounding landscape, the recreation opportunities this lake offers are far more sustainable than if the summer homes and campgrounds had been built. 

I was employed by the Forest Service as Sustainable Recreation gelled into a ‘framework’ published by the agency’s Washington Office. [Connecting People with America’s Great Outdoors: A Framework for Sustainable Recreation. USDA Forest Service 2010] As the staffer in charge of the Bridger-Teton National Forest recreation program in Greater Yellowstone I was asked to participate on a team to work on a Sustainable Recreation document for the Intermountain Region (based in Ogden, Utah). 

Without consciously deciding to, I borrowed from Arthur Carhart as I gathered my thoughts for the project. Sustainable recreation would have to support the ecological and physical resources of the national forests, yet the realities of in-migration to the region by people seeking outdoor opportunities made me worry that opportunities and access for recreation would take precedence by an agency that often scrambled to manage recreation as it happened, in reaction mode in spite of all its good work done to plan ahead. 

The traditional way of dealing with issues caused by public recreation goes something like this: the local ranger district becomes aware of a trend or problem, tries to gather funding to address it, faces public blowback if any closures or changes are suggested, and by the time something actually happens the horse is way out of the barn. 
The traditional way of dealing with issues caused by public recreation goes something like this: the local ranger district becomes aware of a trend or problem, tries to gather funding to address it, faces public blowback if any closures or changes are suggested, and by the time something actually happens the horse is way out of the barn. 
Bicycles became a presence on many non-motorized trails before the Forest Service realized some of the potential consequences. The build-up started out slowly enough, with old clunkers like my trusty 1991 Raleigh that doesn’t negotiate rocks, roots, and tight twists like the bikes being made today. Similarly, ATVs have gotten larger and wider since the days when travel plans restricted them to 45 inches, then the industry standard. 

Trails and bridges were developed that are now too narrow to use. A technologically innovative recreation industry seems ever to be out ahead of the Forest Service, indirectly dictating appropriate uses of the land. But the agency has a choice; it can nip in the bud an emerging use with the potential for causing problems. 

An example is the national decree that e-bikes aren’t allowed on non-motorized forest trails. That edict is being contested, as is the prohibition against wheels in wilderness, and now the Interior Department is considering allowing ATVs in national parks. 

Campgrounds are slated to be “updated” with services like WIFI. Some of the traditional horse-based hunting outfitters now offer summertime “glamping.” I used to think people went to the national forests to leave behind their technological and urban lifestyles, but I realize that was never the case with everyone. At least now people politely insert their earbuds rather than setting boom boxes on picnic tables for the enjoyment of everyone within a mile. At the same time others are finding new ways to photograph the land and its wildlife, with the help of drones. 

People want more, and there are more people wanting different things from the national forests than they used to. So, how is the funding-strapped Forest Service meant to make recreation sustainable in the face of this trend? 
When users take matters into their own hands. Here, aspens were felled by unidentified recreation users to clear path for a new (illegal) trail in Wyoming.  Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
When users take matters into their own hands. Here, aspens were felled by unidentified recreation users to clear path for a new (illegal) trail in Wyoming. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
When some fail to get what they want, they build it themselves illegally—semi-developed campsites, trails, and motor vehicle routes are the ones I see most often. Some use-created routes require expensive closures and site rehabilitation while others are actually adopted by the agency and put on the transportation system, thus adding to the constructed facilities that must be maintained. User-built trails and roads are often the opposite of sustainable. 
When some fail to get what they want, they build it themselves illegally—semi-developed campsites, trails, and motor vehicle routes are the ones I see most often. User-built trails and roads are often the opposite of sustainable.
They develop incrementally and aren’t designed with soil type, grades and curve radii in mind, or the needs of resident wildlife. The trail system after adoption by the Forest Service usually gets reworked so it doesn’t turn into deep ruts or wash into the creek, but where is the analysis that determines that the trail location is right in the first place? 

The trail itself becomes more sustainable, but where do the grouse and elk and owls go? While the Forest Service sorts out its plan of action for sustainable recreation, users have their own part to play. The land’s capacity to absorb recreation use without damage is related to how people behave, and though the majority are conscientious we’ve all seen the messes left by those who aren’t. 

Codes of outdoor ethical behavior such as Leave No Trace (originating with the USFS, BLM, and National Park Service), Tread Lightly (started by the USFS and now a separate non-profit), and the Scout Troup outdoor code (Boy Scout Handbook) have been around for decades. Sometimes when you walk through a recently vacated campsite, you wouldn’t know it. 

The 2010 document Connecting People with America’s Great Outdoors begins with a slogan, “Renewing Body and Spirit, Inspiring Passion for the Land.” It has an uplifting ring, and if more people develop and nurture a passion for the land beyond their own self-interest I’ll find reason for hope. This will require us to be more mindful of our activities and their impacts. 

Research has shown that wildlife encountered along the trail is disturbed by our presence at much greater distances than we assume, especially if we travel with canines. We’ve come to expect a lot from our public lands and the people who try to manage them for us and our grandchildren. Now we’re being asked to do what we can in order to give back.

Further Reading:





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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