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The Growing Challenge of Managing Outdoor Recreation1
Sally Collins and Hutch Brown
(Sally Collins is the Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; and Hutch Brown is a policy analyst for the Forest Service, Washington, D.C.)

Abstract. Americans get enormous benefits from recreating outdoors, but the challenges of managing outdoor recreation are growing. New technologies are creating new kinds of outdoor recreation, and demand for them is growing. The average national forest visitor is aging, and the demand for “soft adventure” is rising. Meanwhile, federal funding for recreation programs is declining. Aging facilities need reassessment, and loss of open space on national forest boundaries complicates public access. National forest managers are taking steps to address all of these issues and to better manage off-highway vehicle use. Outdoor recreation offers ways of reconnecting children to nature. As in everything else the Forest Service does, the key to success is partnerships.

Americans love the outdoors. Reverence for nature is deeply rooted in our culture. Other cultures have their great pyramids, cathedrals, and works of art; Americans have their great works of nature. From Niagara Falls, to Old Faithful, to Lake Tahoe and the giant sequoias, America’s natural treasures are renowned the world over. Unlike many other peoples, Americans are removed by only a few generations from their pioneer ancestors, who lived partly from hunting, fishing, and trapping. Americans celebrate their outdoor heritage by visiting their natural monuments and recreating outdoors in great numbers.


And therein lies a challenge. Some of America’s premier recreation opportunities are found on its 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. How can the U.S. Forest Service meet the recreation demands of an evolving population, at the same time protecting the natural resources that provide these opportunities? What is the outlook for the future?


Rising Recreational Use


Long before the close of the western frontier, Americans were taking pleasure in the Great Outdoors. The 19th-century Romantic movement—which turned the deep, dark woods from a place of fear and foreboding into one of fascination and adventure—found fertile ground in the United States. From James Fenimore Cooper, to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Henry David Thoreau, America’s leading literary lights idealized wilderness as a sanctuary from civilization. The Hudson School of art echoed the theme, as did artists of the American West such as George Catlin, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt.


The Romantic-era fascination with nature, coupled with America’s pioneer and western traditions, left a legacy of outdoor living glorified at the turn of the 20 th century as “the strenuous life.” Early conservationists such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who founded the Forest Service in 1905, prided themselves on their woodsmanship, which became a requirement for early Forest Service employees. Facilitated by the Model-T Ford, Americans in the early 20 th century sought out special outdoor places, many of them on the national forests and grasslands.


However, many of the most popular destinations were not in the National Forest System. Places like Yellowstone and Yosemite were set aside as national parks, with tourism a major part of their purpose. After 1916, when the National Park Service was formed to administer the national parks, places such as Olympia National Park and Shenandoah National Park were carved out of national forests to serve the growing public demand for outdoor recreation.


Seeing the writing on the wall, the Forest Service actively integrated outdoor recreation into its multiple-use mission. Beginning in the 1920s, the agency pioneered recreation management and wilderness use through leaders like Aldo Leopold, Arthur Carhart, and Bob Marshall. In 1960, outdoor recreation was expressly written into the Forest Service mission, on a par with timber, water, and other uses, through the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act.


The number of national forest visitors steadily grew, particularly following World War II. By 1996, visitation had grown to 19 times its prewar level (Forest Service 2006a). In the national parks, visitation also soared—by 2000, it was about 17 times higher than in 1940 (NPS 2006a). Since 2000, visitation appears to have peaked at about 205 million national forest visits per year, plus about 175 million driveby visits to take in the scenery (Forest Service 2006b); in fiscal year 2005, there were about 192 million visits (Forest Service 2006c).2 For 2005, the National Park Service reported about 273 million “recreation visits” and 150 million “nonrecreation visits” (NPS 2006b). Hundreds of millions more visits occur each year on other public lands—federal, state, and local—as well as on tribal and private land. In fact, the vast majority of Americans enjoy the outdoors in some way, from a backcountry adventure to a simple family picnic; a 2000 survey showed that 202 million Americans over the age of 15 participated in some form of outdoor recreation (ORRRC 2000).


In short, recreation has become one of the most important uses of the national forests and grasslands, serving tens of millions of Americans each year. In caring for the land and serving people, the focus of the Forest Service has shifted accordingly (Bosworth 2004). Today, the benefits that Americans want from their national forests and grasslands are clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. In response, the Forest Service is formulating strategies to better provide these services.


Recreational Benefits


The benefits of recreation are palpable. In 2001, the Surgeon General declared a national “call to action” to reverse a national trend toward obesity (PHS 2001). Health professionals agree that outdoor activities are good for both body and mind. Most national forest visits involve at least some walking, and many entail more strenuous forms of exercise, such as skiing, backpacking, kayaking, or mountain biking. Outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands contributes to a healthy lifestyle while lowering health care costs nationwide.


There are social and spiritual benefits as well. Recreational activities are often occasions for bonding with family and friends. They help us learn about teamwork, about the outdoors, and about our own abilities. They give us a sense of accomplishment in meeting a challenge, such as catching a fish, climbing a cliff, or completing a rigorous hike. They are occasions for aesthetic enjoyment in spectacular surroundings. And they can offer us quiet and solitude in communion with nature—in reconnecting with the land that gives us life.


Communities benefit as well, particularly in rural areas, where many Americans are closely tied to the land. In fiscal year 2005, a quarter of the visits to the national forests and grasslands came from less than 25 miles away—that is, from local communities (Forest Service 2006c). Proximity to the national forests and grasslands contributes to a high quality of life for millions of Americans, partly due to amenity values such as opportunities for outdoor recreation. Such opportunities are retirement magnets: Seventy-four percent of the nation’s top retirement destinations are adjacent to the national forests and grasslands (Cordell and Overdevest 2001).


Not least of all, outdoor recreation contributes to the U.S. economy. The Forest Service has calculated an annual contribution of $8.4 billion to the Nation’s gross domentic product from recreation on the national forests and grasslands (Arnold 2006). The Outdoor Industry Foundation, which represents a cross-section of recreation industries in the United States, has estimated that the total recreation economy is worth $900 billion annually (OIF 2003). Recreation supports millions of jobs and generates billions of dollars annually in retail sales and services, accounting for about 1 in 12 dollars circulating in the United States (OIF 2003). Not surprisingly, outdoor recreation is the largest contributor to many local economies near public lands. Recreation offers hope for rural economies, whether in the form of cruise ships in Hoonah, AK, or off-highway vehicles (OHVs) on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail in West Virginia.


Management Challenges


Americans recreate on their national forests and grasslands in many ways. People go into the woods partly for memorable experiences, and they take home lasting memories of outdoor sights, sounds, smells, and activities. The Forest Service’s job is to make sure that the memories they take home are good. That means furnishing the facilities and services they need—things such as roads, trails, campgrounds, security, and information; providing reasonable access to opportunities for adventure—to rivers for kayaking, cliffs for hang-gliding, slopes for skiing, and so on; and managing recreational uses to protect the capacity of the land to deliver a full range of benefits and values for generations to come.


Changing Recreational Needs


Managing recreation has never been easy, and the challenges today are greater than ever. As outdoor recreation has grown, the range of recreational uses has expanded. Fifty years ago, traditional uses preponderated—uses such as hunting, fishing, backpacking, and canoeing. In recent decades, however, there has been an explosion of recreation involving specialized gear and motorized use, from snowboards, to mountain bikes, to OHVs. Accommodating the new uses is not always easy. For example, motorized uses sometimes conflict with nonmotorized ones, particularly for visitors and wildlife disturbed by noise.


The visitor profile has also changed. The American population has shifted from less than 30 percent metropolitan in 1910 to about 80 percent today ( Hobbs and Stoops 2002). After World War II, growing prosperity and new access to the outdoors through cars and roads brought growing numbers of urban and suburban Americans into the woods. In fiscal year 2005, for example, almost 60 percent of national forest visits came from 50 miles away or more (Forest Service 2006c), presumably from urban centers. Moreover, older visitors now preponderate: In fiscal year 2005, two-thirds of the visits came from people in their 30s or older and almost half from people in their 40s or older.


On the whole, today’s national forest visitors have fewer outdoor skills than they did a century ago and a greater need for facilitated activities. The demand has grown for day use activities—in fiscal year 2005, almost three-quarters of national forest visits lasted 12 hours or less (Forest Service 2006c). There is also a new demand for “soft adventure,” such as outfitted wilderness excursions, with pack animals carrying the gear and guides cooking gourmet meals.


Sustainable Funding

To meet today’s demand for outdoor recreation, the Forest Service maintains a wide range of resources, including 133,000 miles of hiking, biking, and riding trails, 4,300 campgrounds, 135 ski areas, 277,000 heritage sites, and 14,900 recreation residences. Maintaining such resources requires a source of steady funding, which traditionally has been through congressional appropriations. Despite new and pressing priorities for homeland security, congressional funding for the Forest Service’s recreation programs has remained relatively stable; however, flat funding amounts to a gradual decline due to inflation. At a time when the management challenges are growing, the Forest Service’s recreation programs are not sustainable through congressional appropriations alone.


Concessionaires, particularly for campgrounds, and volunteer workforces have helped make up the difference. The value of all volunteer work for the Forest Service is estimated at about $1 billion per year, much of it in support of recreation and heritage programs. As of October 2006, for example, 376 volunteers had each contributed 500 hours or more of their time working on projects at archeological sites on the national forests and grasslands through the Passport in Time program.


In December 2004, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act was signed into law. The new legislation allows the Forest Service, in consultation with local communities, to collect user fees from recreational visitors and to invest the funds directly in the sites and facilities used. Local recreation resource advisory committees will help district rangers determine where collecting user fees is appropriate. Based on its years of experience with the Recreation Fee Demonstration pilot program, the Forest Service expects the new user fees to steady the flow of funds, putting parts of its recreation program on a sustainable basis.


Facilities Planning


After a century of national forest management, the Forest Service has a huge inventory of facilities on the national forests and grasslands, many of them designed to meet recreational needs from a bygone era. A challenge for managers is to reassess the agency’s recreational facilities and reevaluate the need for keeping them. The agency’s Recreation Facility Analysis is designed to do just that. Its purpose is to assess today’s need for outdoor recreation and provide the combination of recreational facilities that will best meet that need, resulting in the most efficient use of funds.


All actual decisions on facilities will be made at the local level, in consultation with local communities. Recreation managers will analyze user trends and perform a cost/benefit analysis for local facilities, then involve the public in determining where the agency can best invest its recreation resources. In fiscal year 2005, for example, only 8.7 percent of national forest visitors used a campground, whereas 24.5 percent used forest trails (Forest Service 2006c), suggesting that the Forest Service’s resources might generally be better devoted to dispersed recreation than to developed sites. Of course, in some locations, the opposite might be true; any decision to close a particular facility will be based on a site-specific analysis, with full public participation.


Public Access

A century ago, almost all national forest land was surrounded by ranches, farms, and private forests. Today, that is no longer the case. Private land in rural areas is being sold to developers at a rate of more than 4,000 acres per day. In many parts of the country, suburban and exurban developments have mushroomed on national forest boundaries. Where recreational visitors once had relatively easy access to the national forests and grasslands across privately owned ranch- and forestland, today they might have to get permission from several homeowners, none of whom are obligated to give it. The Forest Service is working with local communities to secure rights-of-way before new developments spring up. Part of the solution might be to tie forest trails to local greenway corridors, sharing trailheads and parking facilities with local communities.


Another aspect of the access challenge is the condition of forest roads and trails. The public cannot take advantage of recreation opportunities without reaching them, usually by car or truck; yet the backlog for bringing forest roads up to standard is in the billions of dollars. In fiscal year 2005, visitors generally rated forest trails and signage as good or very good (Forest Service 2006c), but the poor condition of some trails and the occasional lack of proper signage can lead to bad visitor memories. The new user fee program might help, along with access to new pools of congressionally appropriated dollars for public roads.


Lack of information can also be a barrier to public access. Today, Americans use information technology unheard of a generation ago, giving the Forest Service relatively inexpensive ways to deliver up-to-date information about recreation sites, trails, and access. However, visitors also expect complete information about tourism opportunities, including local community attractions. The Forest Service can meet today’s visitor expectations by modernizing its information systems and linking them to local tourism services, perhaps even collocated at a ranger station or local tourism office.


Broadening the Circle of Conservation


America’s national forests and grasslands belong to future generations, yet the future does not look entirely promising. In fact, the growth in outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands—a major way for Americans to connect to their outdoor heritage—appears to have dipped in recent years, despite soaring population growth. There are two reasons for concern.


First, the future of conservation belongs to our children, but relatively few young people are visiting the national forests and grasslands. In fiscal year 2005, barely 18 percent of the visits were from those under 16 years of age (Forest Service 2006c); for teenagers 16 to 19, it was barely 3 percent, and those in their 20s accounted for only 12.5 percent (compared to 17.9 percent for those in their 30s and 20.7 percent for those in their 40s).


A second reason for concern is the apparent lack of diversity among visitors to the national forests and grasslands. In fiscal year 2005, almost 97 percent of the visits came from those who identified themselves as “white” (Forest Service 2006c). The only other group with visitation at or above its representation in the general population was American Indians/Alaska Natives. Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics/Latinos were all enormously underrepresented (as were women).


The national forests and grasslands offer opportunities for reconnecting to the land, especially for urban youth. In the past, it was obvious to most Americans that the food they ate came from farms and ranches and the lumber in their homes from forests. They made those connections in their daily lives, often by growing their own food and cutting their own timber. Today, the effects of their consumption choices are not so obvious. Many people grow up knowing that the food they eat and the lumber they use comes from their neighborhood stores—but not how it got there.


Outdoor recreation can reconnect people to the land. National forest visitors begin to treasure the outdoors and to think through the connections between the land and their own livelihoods. Through positive outdoor experiences, they begin to care about forest health, invasive species, loss of open space, and treading lightly on the land. Accordingly, the Forest Service has started programs for engaging more urban Americans in outdoor recreation, such as More Kids in the Woods, a program for getting more children outdoors and connecting them with the land in meaningful, enduring ways.


Unmanaged Outdoor Recreation


Failure to properly manage recreational use can compromise the Forest Service’s ability to care for the land and serve people. Most recreational uses occur near streams and lakes, areas with resources that are relatively sensitive to disturbance. Unfortunately, unmanaged recreational use has contributed to the decline of more than a quarter of all imperiled species in the United States (Wilcove and others 2000). Adverse impacts include the spread of invasive weeds, the destruction of fragile soils and vegetation, wildlife disturbance, the violation of sites sacred to American Indians, and damage to cultural resources and historical sites.


One of the fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation involves the use of OHVs. The number of OHVs in the United States more than doubled from 1993 to 2003, rising from almost 3 million vehicles to more than 8 million (Cordell and others 2005). In 2004, the Forest Service identified about 14,000 miles of unauthorized trails created by OHV users on the national forests and grasslands and more than 780,000 acres of unauthorized user-created areas (areas akin to OHV parks, where the primary use is for OHVs).

OHVs are an appropriate use of the national forests and grasslands, but better management is needed. The first step for the Forest Service was to promulgate a new rule in 2005 governing motorized access. Reflecting more than 81,000 public comments on a draft version, the rule requires each unit in the National Forest System that allows OHV use—some do not—to work with user groups and others to designate an optimal system of roads, trails, and areas open to motorized use.


The next step, currently underway, is more difficult: deciding on the actual system of OHV routes and areas that makes the most sense. Decisionmaking is entirely at the local level; over a period of years, individual Forest Service units will work with partners to identify roads, trails, and areas to be designated for motorized use. Anyone interested can join in the decisionmaking process.


In some ways, the final step will be the most difficult: managing OHV use. The key will be local partnerships with user groups. One way is to set up effective signs and to distribute maps indicating the routes that are open and closed to OHV use. Another way is to police roads and trails and to keep them maintained and free of damage. Many OHV user groups, in partnership with the Forest Service, have volunteered to take the lead.


Partnerships Are Key


It is too soon to tell whether the Forest Service’s approach to managing OHV use will succeed, although similar measures pioneered in the 1990s in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains have proven remarkably successful. What is certain is that the Forest Service cannot manage outdoor recreation alone; the challenge is simply too great. And the challenge will only grow: By 2100, the nation’s population is expected to reach 571 million, more than double what it was in 2000 (Cordell and Overdevest 2001). Research suggests that the demand for outdoor recreation, despite occasional dips, will grow over time and that the kinds of recreational use will continue to expand as new technologies emerge (Bowker and others 1999). Partnerships will be needed to manage the recreational challenges of the future.


With more than a century of experience in caring for the land and serving people, the Forest Service has areas of special proficiency and expertise, such as wildland firefighting, wilderness management, and conservation-related research. However, in an age of information technology and global interconnectedness, no single organization has a corner on information, knowledge, or talent. In business as well as in government and community service, the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver benefits and values that people want is through strategic partnerships—by sharing and leveraging resources.


The Forest Service has learned that public land management works best when people find solutions for themselves. The people who live on the land and use it know it best; they know their communities, understand local needs and resources, and have a long-term stake in the land. Recreational needs vary widely by region; for example, the 20 states of the Northeast and Upper Midwest have 41 percent of the nation’s population and 9 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas (Forest Service 2006d). Recreational needs and resources in the region differ greatly from those in the West, where the population is less dense and metropolitan areas are more scattered among larger blocks of open space. Local partnerships are needed to steer public land managers in the right direction, helping them make decisions tailored to local and regional resources and needs.


Therefore, the U.S. Forest Service plays the role of a catalyst or facilitator. The trick is to bring people together at the community level to agree on mutual goals and then decide on the steps needed to achieve them.


Collaborative community-based stewardship entails a long-term investment in the human capacity needed for truly sustainable land management. Partnerships extend land managers’ limited resources, building their capacity to maintain trails, repair resource damage, educate recreational users, and promote a spirit of cooperation among national forest visitors. In managing recreational use, the Forest Service needs help from those with special resources and competencies that the agency lacks, such as concessionaires, outfitters, and local trail and recreation associations. The most effective recreation management involves partnerships with these and others, including other federal agencies, state, local, and tribal governments, and motorized and nonmotorized recreational users.


The Future of Outdoor Recreation


The national forests and grasslands are truly a national treasure, not least for the wonderful opportunities they offer for all kinds of outdoor recreation. The job of the Forest Service is to ensure that people take home good memories from their recreational experiences on the national forests and grasslands. Above all, that means protecting the air and water, the habitat for wildlife, the splendid scenery, and the naturalness of the landscape.


Partnerships are key. In decades to come, the challenges will increase as an ever-growing, ever-urbanizing population makes new demands for recreation opportunities. The Forest Service cannot meet the demands alone. Fortunately, the agency enjoys an array of partnerships with recreation specialists, user groups, and local communities dedicated to meeting the need for outdoor recreation while protecting the land for generations to come. As long as people focus on community-based stewardship, the future of outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands looks bright.



The authors gratefully acknowledge the invaluable assistance received in preparing this article, including from Kate Balet, Jessica Call, and Trey Schillie, policy analysts for the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; Jim Bedwell, Director of Recreation and Heritage Resources, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; and Bill Lange, Director of Policy Analysis, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC.


End Notes

1 This article appeared in Journal of Forestry 105(7) [Oct/Nov 2007]: 371-375.


2 The apparent decline is partly an artifact of monitoring refinements introduced in fiscal year 2005 (Forest Service 2006c).




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