The Forest Service discriminates against poor kids

  • Alan Durning


The summer before last, I took a four-day hike through the backcountry of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Washington Cascades. I'm accustomed to rugged terrain and steep slopes, so I was impressed when, after miles of travel off the trail, I heard the voices of teenagers wafting toward me.

I met the intrepid boys and expected them to be a group from NOLS, the high-priced and famously hardcore National Outdoor Leadership School based in Lander, Wyo. Instead, I found a dozen teenagers, many of whom had never hiked or camped out a night in their lives.

They were part of the BOLD Mountain School -- a nonprofit program of Seattle's Metrocenter YMCA. BOLD, which stands for Boys Outdoors Leadership Development, immerses urban kids, especially disadvantaged ones, in the challenges of big wilderness. The program is not just a matter of summer fun; it changes lives, instilling confidence and hope in young people who suffer severe deficits of both.

Experiences like this are blessings widely shared among young Westerners from well-off families. The memories of my own such youthful hikes are part of the reason I have devoted my adult life to building a Northwest that protects our wonderful public lands. In fact, outdoor experiences like these are so reliably transformative that the young people who attend the region's exclusive private schools and colleges go on wilderness trips almost as parts of the curriculum.

For the poor and working-class, though, experiencing the outdoors as a mountaineer is a rare and exceptional gift.

BOLD is just one of dozens of nonprofits that expose the less fortunate to their natural birthright. As BOLD works for Puget Sound-area young people, so Big City Mountaineers does for Oregon's and Peak 7 Adventures helps out Spokane's. These and many other outdoors programs across the West provide their services at no cost to public treasuries, relying instead on contributions and modest participant fees to deliver young men and women to wild and beautiful places.

I thought little more about my chance encounter in the mountains until recently, when I learned that the BOLD Mountain School had been banned from the Northwest's national forest wilderness areas. The National Outdoor Leadership School, private schools and college outing programs, however, remain welcome. They may, in John Muir's words, "climb the mountains and get their good tidings."

But poor and working-class kids? They're forbidden entry because the YMCA does not have a guide-outfitter permit to lead such trips. Schools don't need a permit; nor do volunteer-led groups, and NOLS got its permit years ago.

But here's the Catch-22: BOLD cannot obtain the permit the Forest Service says it needs because the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest no longer issues them. Neither do any of the 30-odd other Northwest national forests, ranging from the Siskiyou in southern Oregon to Idaho's Nez Perce and Alaska's giant Tongass. In fact, no national forest today will offer outdoor-program permits.

It would be easy to rail against the Forest Service, but doing so misses the point. Starved for funding from Congress and with diminished staff to support its mission, the agency is following its Byzantine rules and regulations as best it can. Rangers' hands, staffers insist, are tied.

Under Forest Service rules such as the 2008 Guide and Outfitter Regulations, the YMCA or any other group that pays its trip leaders from fees collected in part from participants must be licensed as a commercial guiding service. To issue a guiding license, Forest Service specialists would have to run a gantlet of procedural steps, including environmental and socio-economic assessments -- steps for which the Forest Service has no funding, which explains why the rangers are not issuing new permits.

To untie this regulatory tangle, the Forest Service could amend its Guide and Outfitter Regulations to exempt nonprofit youth-service organizations. Or it could simply photocopy the National Park Service's rules and adopt them. Unlike National Forest rules, National Park rules do not require licensed guides for paid trip leaders.

Of course, some people say keeping large groups out of our national forests saves wildlife and the land from the harm that such large groups inevitably inflict. This has an element of truth because people are always an intrusion into wild places. But that hardly justifies allowing some groups onto our public lands while excluding others, particularly when the others are poor, working-class teenagers from cities. If anyone deserves a trip to the glorious high country of the West, it's the young participants in BOLD Mountaineers.

Alan Durning is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is executive director of Sightline Institute, the Northwest's sustainability think tank, based in Seattle, Washington.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Wes  Swafar
Wes Swafar Subscriber
Dec 10, 2011 02:15 PM
It's a pretty large leap in logic to say that the USFS is actually DISCRIMINATING against lower income children because of the beauracratic nature of permitting. You are seeking to write a hair rising article with many implications, but it lacks that, because your approach, your very basis for writing an article, lacks a logical connection. Poor job, writer, and HCN, as a long time fan of ALL of the articles you run, I would encourage you to never hire him again
George Winters
George Winters Subscriber
Dec 12, 2011 10:25 AM
I don't know if Mr. Durning wrote the title to this article, but that is the way I read it, and that leads me to whole heartedly agree with the comment by Wes Swafar. The incredibly mis-construed logic that Mr Durning presents also makes me question the reliability of everything else that Mr. Durning writes, which is too bad, because I have often turned to the Sightline Institute website for alternate perspectives on transportation and land development issues.

There is are some real issues hinted at in this article such as the use of public lands for commercial purposes, or on another topic about the prospect of helping disadvantage people find ways to enjoy public spaces such as national parks and forests, or the way budget constraints can have very important implications about the application of seemingly simple land management policies, but the author contributes very little to investigating any of those questions.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Dec 13, 2011 06:38 AM
I worked for USFS and NPS for a long time. There were often claims of overt racism due to the fact that these agencies mainly employ white males and seem to cater to the wealthy.

Overt racism surely exists in some cases, like it does anywhere else, but the problem here is much more complex than that. The below post may seem slightly off-topic, but it's relevant, I promise.

Few minorities work in public lands conservation. Few poor white people do either, though it's not as overtly visible. Why? Well, because to get into the field you need to VOLUNTEER your time, or at best work as a low paying intern, for sometimes several years. I'm not talking occasional weekend trips to pull weeds, plant trees, or help with bird counts. I'm basically talking about a form of indentured servitude, albeit doing work that is usually a lot of fun. I was extremely lucky that I mostly bypassed the volunteer/intern phase but most can not. And you know what? Most poor people can't AFFORD to work years without making a living wage. Those who try have to compete with a bunch of upper middle class kids who depend on their parents for money. Can you imagine if a bunch of 24 year old white suburban kids 'volunteered' to work in a steel mill for free and a bunch of workers got laid off? It wouldn't fly there and it shouldn't here either. (full disclosure: i am white and from the suburbs)

I understand that the public agencies are underfunded so this is largely not their fault. It's someone's fault though. NPS and USFS NEED to pay at LEAST minimum wage plus basic benefits to any 'volunteer' who works more than a couple days a month. You say they don't have the money? That's true... but they should. All this blabbering about job creation in our government and they won't pay up for jobs that actually return something to the American people? We need to DEMAND better.

When I was at the Santa Monica Mountains NRA in southern California, there was a very neat program that was working to do this... see . I don't know if it's still in effect, but we need to see more of this sort of thing. In sparsely populated rural areas we wouldn't be seeing as many 'minorities' being hired, because they just demographically aren't in some of those areas... but the white rural poor also desperately need jobs, as is evidenced in rural Vermont where I live now.

With less "economic diversity" in the parks and forests, it's hard to reach out to demographically varied visitors. Employees don't understand poverty issues. Fees are enacted like the Adventure Pass in southern California which further unwelcome the poor (I know some will argue anyone can afford a 30 dollar pass but when money is tight you do not spend 30 dollars on something you don't need, period). Where there IS open space available to a wide audience it is overvisited due to lack of accessible conserved land near cities, as referenced in another recent HCN article. The system is rigged, like it is in other aspects of our country, but in this case it is fixable if we yell loud enough.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 13, 2011 07:19 AM
I'd have to agree Charlie, public lands by charging fees discriminate against the poor and near poor. I followed that other article and was surprised. Many don't realize that for half our population $10 is a significant amount of money.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Dec 13, 2011 08:44 PM
The author, Alan Durning, makes a valid observation about USFS "POLICY" discriminating (whether intentionally or not) against the inclusion of poor kids (of any race or ethnicity) whose only opportunity to visit National Forests is through the efforts of organizations like the YMCA, which do not quite meet forest service policy requirements for receiving a waiver for the costly and no-longer-obtainable USFS group-guiding permit.

And yes, Durning (and various of my fellow respondents here) make clear that the USFS is hampered in its outreach efforts by being significantly underfunded itself. Nevertheless, it should be possible for the USFS to make the simple rule change that is required to welcome nonprofit service organizations like the YMCA, as well as the better funded organizations.

In the end, it will help protect federal lands to be more inclusive in building their user and support base, from the bottom up, irrespective of social class distinctions.

Wealthy folks will always have access to special places to recreate and recuperate. Poor folks seldom do. Our public lands are one "great equalizer" for the classes. Retaining policies that intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against the poor (whatever race they may be) will only serve to perpetuate socioeconomic inequality and in end will tend to generate hostility by those who are excluded from our public lands toward our nation's environmental public gems and the land managers who perpetuate and enforce such discriminatory policies.

The USFS Administrators can and should do better, and Congress too can and should do better by providing the necessary resources for improved public land management by the USFS and related public agencies.
Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
Dec 15, 2011 02:19 PM
Mr. Durning, I'm sure, is aware that this is much more a bureaucratic oversight than a deliberate attempt to keep a specific demographic out of the woods. Calling for him "to never be hired again" is ludicrous. Why so vindictive?

This issue echoes the larger issue of minority participation in our nation's public parks and programs, sure, but it is hardly one that can be properly debated in a few hundred words. Mr. Durning was right to bring attention to the matter in this context because it appears that this is one instance in which it can be fixed.

Will changing the guide and outfitter rules result in more black kids touring Lamar Valley? Nope.

But it's a start.