Sharing Stewardship for Outdoor Recreation

Tony Tooke, Chief
Outdoor Retailer Winter Market
Denver, CO
— January 25, 2018

It’s a pleasure to be here today, and I appreciate having this opportunity to meet and interact with some of our key partners in the outdoor recreation community. Thank you for inviting me.


Importance of Outdoor Recreation

Trust me, we know how important you are. Our relationships and partnerships with all of you are critically important. Outdoor recreation has always been important to the Forest Service, going back to our very beginnings more than a century ago.

The national forests have attracted visitors from their very beginnings as forest reserves in the late 1800s. In the 1890s, for example, forest reserve lands in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles were already teeming with anglers, hunters, hikers, picnickers, and other recreational users. We know this from firsthand reports by early Forest Service employees.

The first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, toured what became the national forests by mapping them, and he saw for himself how widely these lands were used by hunters, hikers, and all kinds of recreational users. In a booklet he published in 1907 on the use of the national forests, Pinchot praised their role as, and I quote, “playgrounds.”

In 1913, the Forest Service’s first national report on recreational use across the National Forest System put the number of, and I quote, “pleasure seekers,” at 1.5 million people. And that was way back before World War I!

So the Forest Service has always known how important the National Forest System is for outdoor recreation. Recreation was one of five uses specifically named in the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act of 1960. Of course, there are other uses as well, and the law prescribes multiple-use management of the national forests and grasslands. In accordance with the law, the Forest Service supports sustainable multiple uses across the entire National Forest System. These lands are there for the use and enjoyment of the American people in multiple ways.

Outdoor recreation has become the main way that Americans access their national forests and grasslands. Since World War II, outdoor recreation in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. By one estimate, the number of recreational users of the National Forest System grew by a factor of 19 from the end of World War II to the late 1990s. Today, outdoor recreation on the National Forest System is greater than all other uses. Outdoor recreation and outdoor experiences connect people to the land. They are the way through which people fall in love with the lands within their national forests and grasslands, with their public lands, and with conservation.

Most Americans connect to their public lands by getting outdoors, whether it’s for skiing, snowboarding, hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, camping, kayaking, riding ATVs … you name it. The national forests and grasslands alone get about 148 million visits each year, with another 300 million visitors who just drive by to enjoy the scenery.

And that means jobs and economic opportunities for the American people. According to a study in 2011, outdoor sports on all lands nationwide account for about 7.6 million jobs, adding almost $900 billion in annual consumer spending. A lot of that recreation-related job creation is in gateway communities in rural areas where other sources of jobs and economic activity might be few. Outdoor recreation contributes significantly to rural areas and rural prosperity. Our whole nation’s prosperity is intrinsically tied to rural America’s ability to thrive in the new global economy. Rural America is where we find natural resources that provide a wide range of benefits for people and an abundance of diverse recreation opportunities.

The national forests and grasslands account for a lot of those jobs. Our latest figures are for fiscal year 2014, when recreation on the National Forest System generated about $10 billion in local wages and payments to sole proprietors and supported over 143,000 jobs.

Excluding skiers and snowboarders, parties visiting a national forest spend an average of $200 per trip. If they stay overnight off-forest, they spend an average of $580 per trip. Downhill skiers and snowboarders can spend more than twice those amounts.

So Americans get tremendous benefits from outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands. Outdoor recreation is how most Americans connect to their public lands; outdoor recreation on the National Forest System supports tens of thousands of jobs, especially in rural areas; and outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands contributes billions of dollars to the economy each year.


Forest Service Priorities

So what do we have to do at the Forest Service to stay true to our heritage of outdoor recreation and to improve access and create even more opportunities?

As I stepped into the Chief’s job, I did an assessment and took a look into the future. I asked myself about the sustainability of our Forest Service mission—about our ability to continue working with our partners and cooperators to deliver conservation and serve people and communities. I looked at our current path, our current trajectory.

I immediately outlined national priorities for the Forest Service that do three things:

  • First, they help us focus on critical needs.
  • Second, they help foster the work environment we want for our employees, partners, volunteers, and customers.
  • Third, they set expectations for the manner in which we accomplish our work with citizens, communities, partners, cooperators, volunteers, and each other.

They also support Secretary Perdue’s OneUSDA vision and expectations for USDA to be the most effective, efficient, customer-focused Department. They support USDA strategic goals that focus on customer service, efficiency, rural prosperity, and stronger stewardship and that the productive and sustainable use of National Forest System lands.

One of our top priorities at the Forest Service is enhancing recreation opportunities, improving access, and sustaining infrastructure. You know better than most why that has to be a priority. I have just given some of the reasons.

Another reason is all the challenges we face. The settings and visitor experiences on the National Forest System are increasingly at risk. Roads and recreation facilities are deteriorating … trails are eroding … user conflicts are on the rise. Currently, we can maintain to standard only half of our roads, trails, facilities, and other components of our infrastructure. Access to the National Forest System has become more limited. All this means a decline in the quality of the visitor experience.

The Forest Service is committed to restoring premier recreation experiences for visitors. We want to work with our partners, stakeholders, communities, and volunteers to address these challenges and create more sustainable recreation opportunities, improved access, and improved infrastructure to better meet the needs of visitors, citizens, communities, industry, and users. This may mean some hard choices to have a sustainable path forward.

Improved NEPA environmental analysis and decision making as well as improvements to the permitting process can help us achieve goals and objectives for enhanced recreation, improved access, and a more sustainable infrastructure. We are committed to making it happen. We are committed to creative and innovative solutions and willing to approach our work differently.

But we will need help from our partners, and another priority for the Forest Service is being good neighbors and excelling at customer service. Our motto at the Forest Service is “Caring for the land and serving people,” and service has always been a central part of our culture. As Chief, I want to reemphasize that part of who we are. We are very humbled by the thousands of partners and volunteers who are helping us.

We are committed to working with efficiency and integrity with a focus on the people we serve. I envision broad, diverse coalitions for conservation and outdoor recreation. I envision us working across boundaries, leveraging resources with our partners, and using all tools and authorities available to us. We have a backlog of special use permits, a backlog of recreation, deferred maintenance, and other needs to address, along with a backlog of work on a lot of the national forests and grasslands.

Understanding customer requirements is a must if we are to improve customer service, including our customers in the outdoor recreation industry. Citizens, communities, partners, and stakeholders must see their values and needs reflected and their needs being addressed in our work. Expanding our use of best practices, applying innovative tools, and addressing barriers that get in the way of doing good work are critical success factors.

Each and every American deserves our very best service. That includes each and every visitor, forest or grassland user, contractor, partner, cooperator, permittee, volunteer, and citizen. Everyone.

A third priority for the Forest Service is promoting shared stewardship by increasing partnerships and volunteerism. We can’t succeed alone, especially when it comes to outdoor recreation. It takes others to help us make a difference in meeting the needs of the people we serve. We are committed to working with partners and volunteers to meet public needs for outdoor recreation, in the spirit of shared stewardship. My goal is for our partner and volunteer programs to be built on a solid foundation and the values and needs of partners and volunteers to be reflected in our work.

As we pursue our goals of caring for the land and serving people, we will work with anyone interested—with all citizens, from rural and urban communities alike—to strengthen and expand our partner and volunteer programs. Coming together with all citizens across shared landscapes and around shared values is critical for the future of conservation—and for the future of outdoor recreation on public lands. We are committed to maintaining strong relationships with traditional partners and creating opportunities for citizens and communities who may never have had the chance to participate in conservation and have outdoor experiences or a direct connection to the land and natural resources.


Partnerships With the Outdoor Recreation Community

In reaching our goals of excelling at customer service and sharing stewardship with our partners and volunteers, we need your help. We simply can’t meet the expectations of our visitors without the help of our partners. 

For example, the role of the outfitter and guide is critical. Over 8,000 outfitting and guiding permits are issued to small businesses and others nationwide. Nearly 3,500 permits are for a variety of recreation events on the National Forest System alone.

The Forest Service values our many partners in outdoor recreation, including the members of the Coalition for Outdoor Access. Our work together over the past two years has been instrumental in supporting the Forest Service’s efforts to modernize recreation special use permitting. We are working together to eliminate redundant processes, simplify forms, improve external and internal communication, develop electronic permitting capabilities, reduce regulatory barriers, and enhance customer service. Our shared goal is improved outdoor experiences for visitors and robust economies for rural communities.

The Coalition for Outdoor Access has partnered with the Forest Service in cohosting workshops throughout the United States to increase understanding and streamline approaches regarding outfitter and guide policies and permit processing. We are breaking down barriers to access while sharing business practices to make working with the agency easier and more predictable.

Another example of a great partnership for the Forest Service is with the National Ski Area Association. The national forests host over 120 alpine ski areas, and the ski areas meet a huge and healthy demand for winter sports and recreation each year. They also contribute $2.7 billion to the economy each year and provide around 41,200 jobs.

The Forest Service is working with the ski resorts to go beyond the snow season and encourage year-round recreation opportunities for visitors, like zip lines, mountain bike terrain parks and trails, disc golf courses, and rope courses. This will give the ski areas a more sustainable business model while also creating additional jobs and economic opportunities for gateway communities.


Where Do We Go Next?

The Forest Service has made it a priority to improve access to the National Forest System and to work with partners to provide outstanding customer service and to create new opportunities for outdoor recreation. We are committed to continuing that work together with the ski areas, the Coalition for Outdoor Access, and all our other partners so that our processes, systems, training, and leadership culture support getting more people outdoors, people from all walks of life.

We are also working with other land management agencies in creating an Outdoor Recreation Satellite account. The account will draw information from multiple industries where some share of economic activity is attributable to outdoor recreation. This will help us all better understand the size and scope of the portion of the U.S. economy that is related to outdoor recreation. It will help us better integrate the benefits of outdoor recreation into future discussions about economic policy.

I want to mention another priority for the Forest Service, one that affects us all: improving the condition of forests and grasslands. As you probably know, the risks and threats are at an all-time high. For example, about 80 million acres of the National Forest System are at risk from drought, insects, disease, wildfire, invasive species, and the effects of climate change. About one-third of these lands are at high risk.

What’s at stake? Drinking water, homes and communities in the wildland/urban interface, wildlife habitat, historic places, sacred sites—and, yes, recreation opportunities and scenic vistas, the very things our visitors come for.

Something else at stake is our own capacity as an agency. With growing fire seasons and fire severities, we are forced to shift resources into wildland firefighting and away from our other operations, services, activities, and responsibilities. That includes outdoor recreation. When it comes to permitting, for example, workforce capacity issues stand in our way.

As fire activity increases, suppression costs are soaring. Fire alone accounted for 56 percent of our budget this past year. Compare that to 1995, when fire accounted for just 16 percent of our budget—that’s more than a threefold increase in 22 years! And at the rate things are going, suppression will take up 67 percent of our budget by 2021.

The results are predictable. In response to increased wildfire activity, Forest Service fire personnel has more than doubled in the last twenty years. As a result, staffing levels have fallen in other areas, including outdoor recreation. Nonfire staffing has fallen from 18,000 employees in 1998 to under 11,000 in 2016.

We know how to solve the problem, and we are working very hard with Congress and the administration to find a solution. Secretary Perdue is working very hard, and we are very close. I am very optimistic. But my optimism alone won’t get it done.

Another top priority for the Forest Service is uplifting and empowering employees in each and every way possible. They deserve a safe, rewarding, and resilient work environment where they can do their best work and excel at customer service. Our work as shared stewards with our partners and volunteers is foundational.

In closing, we at the Forest Service value your partnership. We share with you a responsibility to meet public needs for outdoor recreation on public lands. We are committed to improving our customer service to you and to sharing stewardship with you for outdoor recreation on public lands. We are committed to fostering an environment where we act on the feedback and good ideas brought forward by our partners.

Thank you for all you to do support connecting people to their public lands. I look forward to meeting with you and working together.