Is Recreation in the Rockies Becoming a Bigger Forest Service Priority?


By Steve Bunk, 1-25-11

The West’s outdoor recreational industry—including ski resorts, outfitters, and others—is on track to have a stronger say in how national forests are managed in coming years.

A vigorous lobbying effort, in which recreational groups and politicians of Rocky Mountain states played key roles, has had a big impact on new regulations for national forests to be released within weeks by the U.S. Forest Service.

Perhaps even more significant is that the lobby appears to be influencing how the agency interprets its role as the chief custodian of the country’s 155 national forests and 20 grasslands.

Whitewater rafters in the Gunnison National Forest. Photo courtesy Flickr user Ashlie Dove.

Recreational use of the forests, which was not given a major place in written materials released by the agency when the new regulations were being developed last year, is now a key component of the plan. Moreover, the lobby has argued forcefully that the Forest Service must plan actively for recreation, just as it does for species and habitats.

The new regulations —collectively called a planning rule—are required by federal law to guide the development of land management plans at the local and regional levels for each of the country’s national forests. A draft of the new planning rule, which replaces one established in 2000, is being reviewed by officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget. It should be released in about six weeks, according to a spokesman at the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.

The recreational lobby’s push to influence the planning rule reached a critical point last September, when 71 organizations representing many types of outdoor recreation wrote to Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell about their concern that their interests were underrepresented in preliminary documents posted on the planning rule website.

Seven leaders of the groups met with Tidwell later that month, including Lyle Laverty, CEO of the National Association of Gateway Communities, headquartered in Denver. Laverty’s job history includes Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, director of Colorado State Parks, and associate deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

He said the letter to Tidwell and the subsequent meeting with him were sparked by a Forest Service document issued during last year’s development of the planning rule. Addressing input received by the agency concerning the new rule, the document said, “Many noted that the Forest Service does not have much ability to influence economies, and should focus instead on the land management business it knows.”

“That stimulated a lot of angst,” said Laverty. During about 38 years working for the Forest Service, he never had heard anyone in the agency question its importance in influencing economies, he said.

For years, a notion has been brewing in the agency that it should leave the planning for recreational uses of national forests up to local and regional officials, Laverty said. “My personal sense is that this didn’t just happen. It’s a trend we’ve observed, starting back in the early 1990s.”

Derrick Crandall, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Recreation Coalition (ARC), which organized the letter to Tidwell, suggested that other aspects of Forest Service work are trendier than planning for recreation. Global planning issues, such as climate change and biodiversity, “have a lot of cachet within the beltway circle,” he said.

Recreation is a key use of national forests under various federal laws, but the agency’s written materials that outlined the core concepts of the upcoming plan did not include it, he noted. “We did find it very serious that the number one benefit of national forests—camping, hiking, fishing, skiing, and other recreational activities—wasn’t even represented.”

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, headquartered in Lakewood, Colorado, which is the leading trade group for ski resort owners and operators, also attended the meeting with Tidwell.

“We all know that recreation, particularly in the 11 western states ... plays a huge part in economies,” he said. “The issue of the agency’s ability to manage recreation is a topic that we want to continue to ensure will be addressed.”

The lobby’s emphasis on that topic bore further fruit last November, when 41 House of Representatives members wrote to Tidwell in support of recreational opportunities in national forests, including Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Denny Rehberg of Montana, Mike Coffman of Colorado, and Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Simpson, chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees Forest Service funding, is expected to become chairman of that body in the new Congress.

“We were very interested to see the dramatic interest of the congressmen in this issue, and we think that’s probably been very helpful, also,” Crandall said.

In a recently updated list of core concepts for the planning rule, recreation now holds equal place with four other concepts: people and the environment, climate change, watershed health, and resilience, the latter of which is defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.”

In terms of inviting public input, the process of developing the new planning rule has been impressive. More than 40 public meetings were held in 2010, and more than 26,000 written comments were received, plus many informal comments on the agency website devoted to the rule.

Even so, Laverty thinks that a deeper change might have been instigated by the recreational lobby’s involvement in developing the new planning rule. He said the traditional model of collaboration with interest groups is shaped like a wheel, with the Forest Service at the hub. That process involves one-on-one dealings between the agency and each interest group, with the Forest Service reviewing comments received.

The new model, which he and others suggested to Tidwell, is a circle with a number of nodes on it, one of which is the Forest Service. The others include representatives of county and city governments, wildlife management, ATV use, hunting, and numerous other special interest groups. Final decision-making power still resides with the Forest Service, but all the nodes interact with each other.

“It’s a table of trust,” Laverty said. “You have to take off your stripes and sleeves and leave your gun at the door when you come to the table.”

His first experience with this model arose more than a decade ago, when he was the Forest Service’s head of the Rocky Mountain Region. While developing a land management plan for Colorado’s White River National Forest, he and others decided to use the circular collaboration model.

White River is one of three Colorado national forests that are severely infested by bark beetles, and a coalition arose to address the problem. Laverty was approached by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments for help in structuring a collaborative process that is now used to address the environmental, social, and economics impacts of the beetle infestation.

“It’s a great example of folks coming together in that collaborative way, rather than having the Forest Service chief sit at the head of the table,” Laverty said. “If you’re a student of organizations, it all of a sudden leads you to change how you would search for a line officer. You’ve got to have confidence in yourself, and be able to work in a shared leadership environment.”

Tom Toman, who worked in Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 25 years and is now director of conservation for the Missoula-headquartered Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, offered a perspective on the challenges of satisfying the disparate needs of many interest groups.

“People are loving our public lands to death,” said Toman, whose group has 175,000 members. How to accommodate the many different needs of recreational users is the problem, he said. “The American public has not been very clear on what they want our public lands to be managed like. And there’s no consensus.”

He said the Elk Foundation has a strong relationship with the Forest Service, many of whose employees have good forestry educations and expertise. “They’d do a great job out there if we’d just stop jumping on their backs,” he said. “My heart goes out to the people who are trying to do that job, because there’s no strong direction.”

After the proposed planning rule is published along with a draft environmental impact statement, a 60-day period will begin for accepting formal public comments. The final environmental impact statement is scheduled to be released this September, and the final planning rule in November.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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