In late August, Matt Leslie led nine high schoolers to the top of Sperry Peak in Washington state. Many had never been in the mountains before, much less on a backpacking trip. Leslie is a guide for Seattle’s Boys Outdoor Leadership Development & Girls Outdoor Leadership Development (BOLD & GOLD), an outdoor adventure program run by the YMCA that includes kids from underrepresented backgrounds. But like many such groups, it’s got a problem: a broken permitting system that often hampers -access to -nearby national forests.
That means more time and money is spent to get to places farther from home — places kids are less likely to revisit after the trip is over. “By not having to drive many, many hours, students can see, ‘Wow, this is something I can do all on my own,’ ” Leslie says. Instead, the program is forced to use a patchwork of national parks and state-owned Department of Natural Resources land where permitting is easier. Sperry Peak, for example, is an island of DNR land surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land.
Guided groups like BOLD & GOLD have long called for better access to national forests. In response, the Forest Service recently announced that it is modernizing and streamlining its recreation permit process. The agency says it wants to encourage groups to use its land, not restrict access. “There is a clear need to say yes more often, both to stay relevant as a public agency and to make sure that future generations stay connected to their public lands,” says Mike Schlafmann, public services officer at Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington.
Nationwide, the Forest Service -manages 23,000 special use permits annually for guided trips. A temporary permit for 50 to 200 days can cost $150 to $600, and long-term permits cost more. In some cases, the permit process can take up to a year or longer, especially if an environmental study is -required.
The current system favors casual users, allowing them access to forest lands without permits. But guided organizations, whether nonprofit or commercial, large or small, often have to apply for permits even if their activities don’t have much impact. A 2004 policy change gave rangers more flexibility to waive permits if a group has nominal impacts, but the rule wasn’t reflected in practice. In fact, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest issued no new permits for 27 years, a moratorium lifted only last year as part of the agency’s shifting attitude. Schlafmann says the moratorium continued largely because the agency lacked the staff to do an environmental study. “My sense is it became easier to maintain the moratorium in some people’s minds than to undo it,” Schlafmann says. The rapid growth of Seattle had also raised concerns about a recreation boom in nearby forests.
To address the collective frustration, in 2014, industry leaders formed the Outdoor Advocacy Working Group, made up of around 40 volunteer groups, nonprofits and outfitters. The permitting process, they found, created a significant hurdle to public access. In Seattle, BOLD & GOLD taught kids to rock-climb in Canada instead of Washington; in Montana, a group couldn’t take children to Bitterroot National Forest. “This permit system doesn’t work well for anyone, including land managers,” says Katherine Hollis, conservation and advocacy director of the Washington-based Mountaineers and a member of the working group. She says arranging permits takes up a third or more of one Mountaineers employee’s time. “We had concerns about the next generation of conservationists because of these bureaucratic barriers.” Hollis sees the Forest Service’s commitment to improving access as a way of acknowledging that recreation is as important as other land uses, like mining and logging.
In September, agency representatives announced plans for a redesigned permit database, online applications and better ranger training for identifying low-impact activities, a big step forward in a long process. Seventeen national forests, all in the West, are testing the new system. That includes Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, where an environmental study on recreation concluded last year, opening up more permits. BOLD & GOLD will begin trial permits in summer 2017. Now, if a guided group wants to hike and camp in an area already used for recreation, the Forest Service encourages district rangers to consider the effects, and waive the special-use permit requirement when possible. Permits will continue to exist, but the agency is taking a more nuanced approach.
Although the Forest Service has earmarked $5 million for the changes, guided groups worry about the agency’s tight budget: Over the past two decades, staffing has plunged, and wildfire costs consume 52 percent of the budget while recreation and wilderness funding has dropped 15 percent. All that detracts from permit capacity.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service’s recent actions are evidence of its changing attitude toward recreation, says Courtney Aber, national director of BOLD & GOLD. Once more kids get outside, close to home, she says, “they’ll understand why this is a place for them.”
Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Follow @annavtoriasmith