Forest Service Aims to Revamp Special Use Permit Process to Encourage, Enable More Access to Public Lands
Originally published by Jason Blevins in the Denver Post, this story can be found as a PDF here
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.
The agency also will invest $6 million to create an online permitting process and build a special-use database for applicants.
But beyond the cash, the changes proposed require a cultural shift in the agency, said Joe Meade, the Forest Service’s national director of recreation.
“It is the challenge of transformation. It’s really an issue around transforming a culture that is steeped over 110, 115 years of agency history,” Meade said. “We are striving toward a focus on common sense.”
The transformation is a monumental task for an agency that has seen its budgets and staffs torched by wildfires. Over the past two decades, fire suppression has grown from 16 percent of the agency’s annual budget to more than half. Budgets for recreation, heritage and wilderness are down 15 percent in recent years. Dollars for roads are down 46 percent; funds for facilities are down 68 percent and money for deferred maintenance — such as new boat ramps and campground toilets — is down 95 percent. In the past five years, the agency has lost 30 percent of its staff.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first of many planned workgroups designed to educate outfitters and permit holders about the changes, and to gather tips on implementation.
“There is good energy and good momentum around the issues we need to talk about, and the agency has long been stuck in ‘no’ mode on these issues of commercial access and public access. Call it commercial access, but it’s still public access,” said Craig Mackey, a veteran lobbyist for the outdoor industry who called Wednesday’s meeting “one of the most exciting” in his 25 years in the industry.
It wasn’t 20 years ago that a conservation-focused federal government mulled a proposal to reject all commercial activity in wilderness areas — including permits for hunting, horseback or rafting trips. Now the conversation has flipped toward how the federal government can encourage the younger generation of Americans to get outside and explore public lands. Those new visitors could become the vital next generation of advocates who help sustain the nation’s open and wild spaces.
“We are really looking for those creative, innovative approaches to easing the permit process and making things move easier, faster and better,” said Meryl Harrell, chief of staff for the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment.
That’s good news for Rachel Vermeal, membership director of the Colorado Mountain Club, which recently hired a staffer to handle nothing but Forest Service permits — wading through dense spreadsheets to meet the federal government’s archaic paperwork requirements.
“It’s more about moving to a ‘yes-first’ approach to see how we can work to get the public into public lands and creating systems that actually involve less work on both sides,” Vermeal said. “Colorado’s population is exploding and everyone wants to get outside. Our want for that public is to make sure they have the education and access to skill-building opportunities to allow them to enjoy this awesome outdoor playground...and do it safely.”