Forest Service proposes a “cultural shift” for more access to public lands


Agency plans to streamline recreation permit process to encourage next generation to explore public lands
 By Jason Blevins
FLAT TOPS WILDERNESS AREA – SEPT. 1, 2014: Trappers Lake and the surrounding Flat Tops Wilderness Area are recognized as the “Cradle of Wilderness” after inspiring U.S. Forest Service employee Arthur Carhart to use it as an example of public land that should be preserved for all to enjoy. Carhart is credited with sparking the Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrated its 50 anniversary last Wednesday.
(Photo By Scott Willoughby / The Denver Post)

The U.S. Forest Service is scheming a historic shift from a century of strict regulation focused on controlling and limiting access toward a new mission that encourages more Americans to more safely explore public lands.

The agency’s top recreation officials Wednesday gathered at the REI flagship store in Denver with dozens of outfitters, guides and outdoor-industry leaders to discuss the transformation of the 111-year-old agency.

The Forest Service last year began exploring how it could draw more newcomers to public lands. The agency found it would need a cultural shift, transitioning toward using Forest Service staff and upgraded technology to enhance the visitor experience and enable more use.

“We have a strange tendency of gearing toward ‘no’ than gearing toward ‘yes,’” said Tinnelle Bustam, the Forest Service’s assistant director of recreation. “We want to pivot from ‘no’ and pivot toward ‘yes.’”

Several dozen permit holders — rock climbing, mountain biking and rafting guides, university outdoor programs, climbing clubs, inner-city outdoor groups, hunting and fishing outfitters, dude-ranch owners — cheered the proposed transformation of an agency that has caused them many headaches over the years.

The Forest Service’s permit-system revamp stems from a two-year effort by the Outdoor Access Working Group, a loosely knit collective of about 40 outdoor industry partners. The group pleaded for an overhaul of the recreation special-use permit system to provide opportunities to inner-city youth and minorities, and lure other new visitors to public lands.

U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak in June announced the first steps toward changing the way special-use recreational permits are issued. Outdoor recreation on public lands contributes $13 billion to the national economy and supports 205,000 jobs,many of those based in rural economies.

The Forest Service plans to revamp they way it manages 23,000 recreation special-use permits, streamlining application processes that now are different for every federal land management agency.

The agency wants to add staff to its permitting team and train those on-the-ground workers in the new standardized program. Most importantly, district rangers and permit managers will be given more leeway to waive more intensive reviews and fast-track approvals for commercial or nonprofit activities that don’t have any greater impact that normal public use.