Guide Introduction to USDA Forest Service Recreation Special Uses

The United States Forest Service (USFS) issues over 8000 special use permits every year for outfitting and guiding activities. These permits authorize the holder to conduct business on public land managed by the Forest Service. For decades, the process of obtaining a permit has been unpredictable and difficult due to variations in requirements from one ranger district to another. Additionally, requirements have rarely been published for viewing in advance of submitting a proposal, making it very difficult for a potential applicant to prepare for the process. This has prevented new guiding businesses from being established and it has made it challenging for existing guide services to expand their offerings.


There are many types of outfitted services provided on National Forest lands, traditionally they included fishing and hunting. Today the opportunities are highly diverse and take place not only in the backcountry, but also in heavily populated areas. These opportunities include: snowmobiling, cross country skiing, mountain biking, dog sledding, white water rafting, jeep touring, and many others. Educational groups such as: schools, universities, YMCA’s and church camps, are also frequently considered outfitters, as are those groups that use the National Forest for therapeutic and rehabilitation benefits. The number and type of available outfitting opportunities vary among the forests. Contact the local Forest Service office for information on availability of permits for the area you are interested in.


On some of the forests in the Rocky Mountain Region there are limited opportunities for additional outfitting businesses, due to the fact that land capability and social capacity will not sustain increased use. The Rocky Mountain Region has thousands of guides that fulfill public demand for experience in these specific areas. In instances such as this, it may be necessary to purchase an existing business in order to secure the opportunity to have the permit issued to you. Prospective purchasers should check with the local Forest Service office to learn if the permit will be issued to the new owner, or if existing permits are being consolidated or reduced in that area. These new use opportunities can be identified by a prospective permittee or by Forest Service officials. If determined that the use is feasible, it must then be determined if competitive interest exists. If there is interest, a selection process must be followed allowing all interested parties an equal opportunity to apply and be considered for a permit. This will ensure that the most qualified applicant is selected. All of this can be very challenging and sometime insurmountable.


USFS Modernization of Special Uses


Despite the challenges of the past, there is good news for the future. In 2015, the Forest Service embarked on an initiative to modernize the special uses program. This includes an effort to standardize the permit application process across the agency and improve communication between the agency and the public.


Learn How To Navigate the USFS Permit Process


In cooperation with Transforming Youth Outdoors and Coalition for Outdoor Access, the Forest Service has created a guide to help potential applicants understand and navigate the USFS permit process. The Introduction to USDA Forest Service Recreation Special Uses provides an overview of the special uses program, describes how to apply for a permit, and offers tips for a successful application. It also provides a brief overview of related topics such as nominal effects, non-commercial use, and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).