Ensuring the Future of Outdoor Recreation

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Partners Outdoors 2004
Snowbird, UT
— January 11, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here today. There are a number of things I like about my job as Forest Service Chief, and one of them is the chance to get out of Washington, DC. I like getting out to forums like this and talking to folks who share our passion and our concerns for what’s happening on the ground.

I want to talk a little today about the partnership opportunities we see in the next few years. To put things in perspective, I’ll start by talking about how recreation has grown on the national forests. Then I’ll talk about the situation we face today. We’ve got four major threats to the nation’s forests and grasslands, and I think they all affect outdoor recreation. Finally, I’ll talk about what we’re doing to address the threats and how we can work together for the future of outdoor recreation.

Our Job: Making Memories

Next year, the Forest Service will be a hundred years old. This year, the National Wilderness Preservation System is exactly 40 years old. On both accounts, it’s appropriate to look back and see where we’ve come. That can help us better understand our job today.

In the past, when people thought about the national forests, they probably thought more of logging trucks than of opportunities for outdoor recreation. There’s a reason for that. From the 1940s to the 1980s, every Administration—with strong bipartisan support—asked the Forest Service to get out more timber to meet public demand for new housing. And we did. By the 1980s, we were getting out six or seven times more timber than we do today.

But that wasn’t by any means all we were doing. It never has been. Our mission has always been multiple use. From the very beginning, it included a strong focus on outdoor recreation.

The Founding Fathers of the National Forest System were President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. Both men were big recreation advocates. They thought of the national forests as places where people could go into the woods for several days or weeks of rugged living. In 1907, Gifford Pinchot wrote a booklet explaining our mission to the American people. That booklet has a major section in it on outdoor recreation.

So we’ve always been deeply concerned about protecting the land for recreational use. That includes protecting wilderness. The Forest Service set aside the first wilderness areas, such as the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. That was in 1924—40 years before the Wilderness Act. By 1964, we were already protecting millions of acres of wilderness.

For the last 40 years, the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act of 1960 has been the foundation for much of our mission. Recreation is specifically named in the Act, and the value of wilderness is also recognized—even before the Wilderness Act.

But recreational use has changed. After World War II, it greatly expanded and diversified. More people now had cars and the time to get out in the woods. People came up with all kinds of new ways to enjoy the outdoors—snowboarding, dirt biking, triathlons, and so on.

Today, outdoor recreation is huge in the United States, and it will probably just keep on growing. We estimate that the number of national forest visits is 15 to 20 times greater today than it was in 1945. In 2002, we had more than 214 million visits, including 12.7 million wilderness visits. There were also hundreds of millions of visits to the national parks and other public lands. And recreational uses just keep on diversifying. You heard presentations on some of the new technologies people are using to enhance their recreational experiences—things like geocaching, global positioning systems, and the four-stroke snowmobile.

But its not really the technology that keeps people coming. It’s the memories. Most people will always remember catching their first fish, making their first climb, or seeing their first bear. People are coming for memories like these. They come for memories of splendid scenery and natural landscapes, which consistently rank among the highest values in our visitor surveys. Some come for memories of wildlife or outdoor adventure. Some come for memories of wilderness.

Our job, as I see it, is to make sure that people take home the memories they come for. That includes furnishing the services they need—roads, trails, campgrounds, security, and information. It also includes furnishing reasonable access to opportunities for adventure—to rivers for kayaking, cliffs for hang gliding, trail systems for off-highway vehicles, and so on.

But above all, it means protecting the air and water, the habitat for wildlife, the splendid scenery, and the naturalness of the landscape. Without these things, the national forests would be just like any other landscape. There’d be no more reason to come, and we might all be out of a job.

Four Threats

That brings me to the situation we face today. In the past, people have focused on timber harvest and road building as the biggest problems on national forest land. In my view, those just aren’t the biggest threats we face. The biggest threats today are fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. I’ll say a little about each, beginning with fire and fuels.

Since 2000, America has had some of our worst fire seasons in 50 years. Two years ago, we had record fires in four different states, and a fifth came close. Last fall, we had a huge fire season in southern California. Twenty people lost their lives, and more people died in the debris flows that followed when rains fell on slopes where fires had burned away the vegetation.

The answer is to reduce fuels before these big fires break out. Where fire-dependent forests are overgrown, we’ve got to do some thinning, then get fire back into the ecosystem when it’s safe. Where shrubby systems such as chaparral have taken over, we’ve got to use prescribed fire to restore more of the original intermix of shrubland and grassland.

Another threat is the spread of invasive species. These are species that evolved in one place and wound up in another, where the ecological controls they evolved with are missing. They take advantage of their new surroundings to crowd out or kill off native species, destroying habitat for native wildlife. Where cheatgrass or leafy spurge takes over, for example, the range loses forage value for deer and elk. We are losing our precious heritage—at a cost that is in the billions.

A third threat is loss of open space. Every day, America loses about 4,000 acres of open space to development. That’s about 3 acres per minute, and the rate of conversion is getting faster all the time. In some places, we’re losing large, relatively undisturbed forests that animals like marten, bear, and cougar need. In other places, we’re losing rangeland that many plants and animals need. And where private open space is lost, recreational pressures on public lands tend to grow.

That brings me to the fourth threat—unmanaged outdoor recreation. I’ll use an example to explain what I mean. Off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, are a great way to experience the outdoors. But the number of OHV users has just gotten huge. It grew from about 5 million in 1972 to almost 36 million in 2000. That’s a 600-percent increase.

With all those tens of millions of users, even a tiny percentage of problem use becomes relatively huge. Each year, the national forests and grasslands get hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads and trails due to repeated cross-country use. We’re seeing more erosion, water degradation, and habitat destruction. We’re seeing more conflicts between users. We have got to improve our management so we get responsible recreational use based on sound outdoor ethics.

How do these threats affect outdoor recreation? As I said, our focus in the Forest Service is on protecting air and water, habitat for wildlife, scenery, and naturalness. That’s what people come to the national forests to find—but increasingly they’re not finding it. They’re not finding it if forests are out of whack and unhealthy. They’re not finding it if invasives and loss of open space are driving out our native species. And they’re not finding it if streambanks are collapsed, trails eroded, and sensitive meadows degraded because we’re not properly managing recreational use.

Partnership Opportunities

So what are we doing about it? With respect to fire and fuels, we’ve made a start through the National Fire Plan. We’ve also gotten more tools through the Healthy Forests Initiative and the recently passed Healthy Forests Restoration Act. We can use these new tools to restore fire-dependent ecosystems before the big fires break out. We appreciate all the help we’ve gotten from the Administration and through a bipartisan effort in Congress to get us these new tools.

Now it’s up to us to use the new tools to make a difference. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. It took decades to develop our forest health problems, and they won’t be solved in a year or two. But if we use our tools in the right way, we should see steady improvements on the ground. And that will ensure the future of outdoor recreation.

In addition, we should see some improved efficiencies. Our forest supervisors often tell me that they devote 60 to 70 percent of their direct work to planning and assessment, including a lot of needless paperwork. The new tools we’ve gotten will let us streamline some of those processes. That should let us redirect some of our resources to the ground.

But I’ll be straight with you: Since 9/11, our national priorities have shifted. Even if we asked for it, I don’t foresee a huge surge in funding for outdoor recreation in the next few years. If we’re going to meet the public need for trails, campgrounds, and other recreational services, then we’re going to have to do business a little differently.

As I see it, there are a number of things we can do together:

  • The Forest Service is going to have to rely more on our partners. You play the most important role for the future of outdoor recreation, and we value your expertise. We know that our ski areas and resorts, our outfitters and guides, and our concessionaires all need to make a living from public land. We want your businesses to be viable.
  • We’re also going to have to rely more on our volunteers. We already have more than 100,000 volunteers on the national forests, a lot of them involved with recreation. We need more. That means expanding our partnership authorities and streamlining our partnership processes to make it easier for partners to work with us. I invite you to work with us through the National Forest Foundation to achieve these goals.
  • We need to make fee legislation permanent. The user fee is a vital tool for delivering recreational services and maintaining recreational facilities. We ask you to support us in making this tool permanent.
  • We’ve also got to deliver more “one-stop shopping” for recreational opportunities. We’re improving the National Recreation Reservation Service to make it easier for people to plan their trips and make reservations through the Internet on an interagency basis. We hope to have the new system up and running by November. We urge you to support it.
  • The Forest Service can also do a better job of integrating our recreational infrastructure into the surrounding landscape. For example, we can work with regional leaders in the tourism industry to find joint funding for recreational opportunities. Or we might link national forest land to surrounding communities through greenways. We’ve got some promising MOUs along these lines with the Western States Tourism Policy Council and with Healthier USA.
  • Similarly, we can do a better job of utilizing our ski facilities. Ski areas and trails represent the largest concentration of developed infrastructure in mountain ecosystems in North America, and the Forest Service manages 60 percent of it. Most areas are not fully utilized except in winter, and there might be possibilities for more year-round use, so long as it’s sustainable. We invite you to join us in exploring the possibilities.
  • The Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act give us other opportunities for partnership. As we use our new tools for ecosystem restoration, the Forest Service will need to coordinate with local communities and stakeholders across the landscape. For example, we will need to tie our thinning and burning treatments to local tourism seasons and to local plans for maintaining trails and open space. Our new stewardship contracting authorities give us some additional capability for that. We invite you to work with us to develop appropriate strategies and plans.
  • Finally, the Forest Service will need to work more closely with our state and county counterparts in transportation planning. We’d like to see more community-based partnerships for utilizing national forest land as a catalyst for developing local tourism and economic growth. We’ve had some notable successes along these lines in Minnesota and northern California.

Future of Outdoor Recreation

In closing, I’ll repeat my main points. As I see it, our job is to make sure that people take home good recreational memories from 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, because that’s what visitors come for.

Today, the main threats to these values come from fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. Fortunately, we have acquired a number of tools in recent years to address the threat to forest health. That will help us protect the foundations of outdoor recreation for years to come.

With respect to the other threats, we look to you and to other national forest users and partners. I’ve mentioned a few ideas, and we’d like to discuss them with you. The bottom line is this: We are committed to working with you in every way we can to make every recreational experience one to remember.

One final note. As I indicated at the outset of my remarks, the Forest Service will be celebrating our centennial next year. We are planning a number of events to help broaden support for public lands and expand our partnerships. We invite every one of you to get involved. Please help us celebrate a hundred years of outdoor recreation on the national forests.