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Mary Wagner, Associate Chief
National Outdoor Recreation Conference
Traverse City, MI
— May 20, 2013

Greetings, and good afternoon. I’m Mary Wagner, Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Among the many hats I have worn in the course of my Forest Service career, I have served as national wilderness director. So recreation-related programs and activities in connection with the national forests and grasslands have always been near and dear to my heart.

I would like to thank the Society for Outdoor Recreation Professionals for their leadership in putting this meeting together and for inviting Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to be part of it. Please understand: Chief Tidwell he did very much want to be here with you today. He is quite disappointed to have missed the chance to engage with you in a thoughtful conversation about recreational opportunities on the national forests and grasslands.

But his loss is my gain!

I understand that this year’s gathering is being held in conjunction with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations Conference on Forests and People. I’d like to thank IUFRO for their hard work and for allowing me this time to address you.

Most importantly, I’d like to thank you all for your continued efforts in support of recreation access, settings, and opportunities on our public lands, waters, and shores. Your many and significant contributions as facilitators for, and providers of, outdoor recreation are critical to our nation’s health, well-being, and economic vitality.

In keeping with the theme of your meeting, A Bridge to Prosperity, I’m going to talk about several very timely and critical issues, not just to the Forest Service, but to the entire recreation community. Some of this information you’ll be well versed in, and some will hopefully be new.

Recreation Trends

In 1919, the Forest Service employed its first recreation professional, Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect. He was a true pioneer, contributing greatly to the development of the concepts or idea of wilderness and developing the first planned recreation facility through a partnership with the City of Pueblo in Colorado.

Since then, the national forests and grasslands have expanded, and demand by the American people for outdoor recreation on public lands has grown by leaps and bounds. Just to give you some idea, according to a rough estimate we prepared in the 1990s, the number of recreation visits on the National Forest System rose from about 5 million in 1925 to about 160 million in 1965. That’s growth rate of over 3,000 percent.

Today, our ways of measuring annual visits on the National Forest System have vastly improved. Over the past few years, the national forests and grasslands have hosted an average of about 166 million visits per year. Recently, visitation seems to have held relatively steady, without a great deal of variation from year to year.

But the kinds of recreation that the public wants are far more diverse than they were in the early 1900s. Think ziplining and snowboards, OHVs and snowmobiles, rafting trips or guided backcountry trips, with gourmet meals and llamas carrying everything but your daypack. Visitors today engage in activities such as hiking, camping, picnicking, skiing, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, wildlife watching, visiting cultural sites and visitor centers, or just viewing the scenery and driving for pleasure.

To help protect our vital recreational resources and justify public investments in outdoor recreation, the Forest Service has a robust program of recreation research led by Dr. Ken Cordell. Our studies have found a series of interesting trends, and I’ll just mention a few:

  • As our population grows, our nation’s outdoor recreation resources will decline on a per-person basis. Growing recreation demand could be constrained by resource limits.
  • The five outdoor recreation activities likely to have the fastest growth are developed skiing, challenge activities, equestrian activities, motorized water activities, and day hiking. The activities expected to decline the most are motorized off-road activities, motorized snow activities, hunting, fishing, and floating activities. But most activities are expected to increase.
  • Outdoor recreation for youth is an important way to connect kids to nature, creating the conservation voters of the future. Our research has found that kids from 6 to 15 spend more time outdoors than the 16-to-19 age group. Hispanic youth spend more time outdoors, and girls generally spent less time outdoors than boys.

About 83 percent of Americans today live in metropolitan areas, where opportunities to experience nature are often few. The Forest Service has an array of programs designed to get people into the woods, especially children. Each year, we reach an average of more than five million people with conservation education programs, providing outdoor learning experiences for about 285,000 children.

Recreation Facilities

We are very proud of our recreation portfolio, and we believe that it both reflects and supports the hunger Americans have traditionally had for outdoor recreation. The Forest Service administers 22 national recreation areas; 11 national scenic areas; six national monuments; and one national preserve. We have over 10,000 developed recreation sites, including 5,000 campgrounds. We manage over 151,000 miles of trail, the largest network of trails in the nation.

Take downhill skiing alone. There are 122 ski areas on the national forests, all operated by private companies under permit from the Forest Service. That accounts for about 60 percent of the downhill skiing capacity in the United States.

Even with all of the special features of the lands we manage and the facilities we sustain, you can use 98 percent of these lands and 65 percent of our developed sites for free, without paying a recreation fee—which is generally pretty modest, anyway. The $65 million of user fees we do collect are ploughed right back into local economies through facilities contracts, seasonal workers, and infrastructure to support increased visitation.

Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers

As you know, the Forest Service also manages a large part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and we’ll soon be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Established by Congress in 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System includes over 700 wilderness areas in 44 states, totaling more than 107 million acres. That’s an area larger than the state of California.

More than half of these areas are within a day’s drive of America’s major cities, including Seattle, Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City, not to mention Washington, DC. Wilderness contributes significantly to our nation’s health and well-being. The public benefits these areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves and far exceed the mere acreage protected.

The Forest Service manages around 440 wilderness areas covering more than 36 million acres. That’s an area about the size of the land area of Michigan. We manage about 60 percent of all wilderness outside of Alaska.

We also manage 119 wild and scenic rivers, more than 60 percent of the entire National Wild and Scenic River System.

These lands and waters are the envy of the world. They provide Americans with unique opportunities to experience solitude and spiritual renewal in truly natural settings. As a whole, the national forests and grasslands connect us to our ancient heritage—to the heritage of the First Peoples, the American Indians—to the heritage of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark. They offer amenity values not only for our visitors, but also for nearby communities. They are retirement magnets, sources of enjoyment and income for thousands of communities and millions of people each year. No wonder these lands are so special!

Economic Benefits

And that brings me to all the economic benefits people get from outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands. Outdoor recreation is by far the single greatest use of the National Forest System, dwarfing every other use. Not surprisingly, it is also the single greatest employer, and it provides the single greatest stimulus for local economies.

It’s worth mentioning that Americans get tremendous economic benefits from the various activities on the National Forest System, including outdoor recreation, but also from investments in recreational infrastructure and in healthy, resilient forests and grasslands. In fiscal year 2011, all activities combined contributed over $36 billion to America’s gross domestic product, supporting nearly 450,000 jobs.

Around 45 percent of those jobs were connected to hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and other forms of outdoor recreation on the National Forest System. Outdoor recreation alone on the National Forest System supports about 205,000 jobs, contributing about $13.6 billion to the Nation’s gross domestic product each year. The direct spending of visitors to ski areas on the national forests amounts to about $4 billion annually.

The vast majority of recreation-related jobs and economic benefits are in gateway communities.  As you know, our gateway communities provide access to public lands and services to the many millions of Americans who visit them each year. The social and economic vitality of our gateway communities depend on the management decisions being made on and for our public lands.

Sustainable Recreation

So I’ve talked about the tremendous value of outdoor recreation on federal lands and the benefits people get from it. Now I’d like to emphasize the importance of making outdoor recreation more sustainable.

Sustainable recreation is a critical part of the Forest Service’s new planning rule, adopted just last year. When we use the term sustainable recreation, we mean a range of recreational settings, opportunities, and access that can be sustained over time. We stressed each of these things in developing our new planning rule.

Managing for sustainable recreation on the forests and grasslands means providing opportunities for small businesses, such as restaurants, motels, and other tourism-related enterprises in gateway communities. It means sustaining current businesses and jobs and helping new ones get started.

Recreation is also a critical part of social sustainability. It helps connect people to nature, and it encourages outdoor activities that promote physical and mental health. It helps Americans understand their natural and cultural environments, and it helps engage them in the stewardship of the natural world.

Our new planning rule is designed to help our units develop new and better forest plans. Under the new rule, our plans will have components for sustainable recreation, including recreation settings, opportunities and access, and scenic character. In providing for multiple uses, plans will also consider aesthetic values, ecosystem services—and those include recreational experiences, and habitat conditions specifically for species that support hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, and subsistence. Plans will also consider placement and management of recreational facilities.

Our new planning rule also calls for stronger assessment and monitoring. During the assessment phase, forests will identify and evaluate existing information relevant to recreation settings, opportunities, and access. They will also monitor recreational infrastructure, benefits to local people, and the contributions to the local, regional, and national economies. Visitor use and satisfaction, as well as progress towards meeting recreation objections, will also be monitored.

Sustainable Funding

Especially in these tough economic times, it isn’t always easy to sustain a robust program for outdoor recreation. We sometimes have to make tough spending tradeoffs between programs, and although most of our spending is on the National Forest System, fire seasons and insect outbreaks have been worsening in the last 10 to 15 years, putting new pressures on our budgets. Taking inflation into account, our spending on National Forest System programs declined by 9 percent from fiscal years 2002 to 2013, and the number of our full-time employees in those programs fell by about a third.

That’s why our partnership programs are so critically important, and they are going to become even more important in the years to come. Securing permanent fee authority is one of the top legislative priorities for our immediate future, as well as the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The President has endorsed the reauthorization of Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act for one year in his fiscal year 2014 budget request, but we need to position ourselves for the long term.

FLREA authorizes five agencies, including the Forest Service, to collect and expend recreation fees on lands they manage. This authority was enacted in December 2004 and expires in December 2014. The fee collection and retention authorities enable the agencies to collect over $260 million per year, more than 80 percent of which is expended on fee sites for facilities and services that benefit present and future users.

We use recreation fees to implement thousands of projects to enhance public safety, maintain recreation sites, provide educational experiences, build informational wayside exhibits, and offer a wide range of recreational and cultural opportunities. If there is no law enacted to replace this authority when it expires, we will lose even more of the revenues we need to maintain and improve recreational sites and opportunities and support visitor experiences


Public access is a key part of sustainable recreation. The Forest Service strongly supports the President’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which called for establishing the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation, or FICOR. The purpose is to support outdoor recreation access and opportunities on federal lands. The goal is to promote better coordination and collaboration among government agencies, tribal entities, and private industry. FICOR leadership rotates annually among the agencies, and Chief Tidwell is the 2013 Chair.

FICOR also consults with representatives of three federally chartered advisory councils: the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council; the 21st Century Service Conservation Corps; and the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council. We also engage other stakeholders, such as the National Association of State Parks Directors.

The FICOR Working Group meets weekly; the FICOR Principals meet twice a year. These meetings are critical to ensuring seamless collaboration in addressing access-related problems and opportunities. We are confident that FICOR’s role in improving coordination and communication will enhance public access and heighten public awareness of access issues.

At their April 2013 meeting, the FICOR Principals identified a number of priorities for action this year, including:

  • Improving access to public lands, waters, and shores by exploring the feasibility of addressing inconsistent business practices that impede participation by external stakeholders and partners.
  • Elevating the idea of outdoor recreation so that the health and economic benefits are more readily understood and valued by all Americans.
  • Enhancing public access to information about outdoor recreation on America’s public lands by supporting the web-based site.
  • Seeking opportunities to sustain a financial foundation for America’s public lands.

International Programs Overview

When  people think of the Forest Service, they generally think of firefighting and Smokey Bear … or maybe camping and hiking on a national forest. But we are involved in all kinds of activities to protect trees and forest resources in rural and urban communities alike. And that extends to communities around the world.

Over the years, our programs have reached 89 countries on 5 continents. We currently work in more than 50 countries, partnering on a wide range of natural resource management, recreation, policy, and research issues. Many parts of the Forest Service are engaged in this work; we have researchers, technicians, and land managers who participate in projects overseas. But all of our work has one thing in common: to advance sustainable forest management and recreation both here and around the world.

To that end, we support dynamic international exchanges around the globe through partnerships with land grant universities, environmental NGOs, and the private sector. We’ve worked on recreation master planning, visitor experience enhancement, and tourism projects in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

Our work also involves improving management in some of the world’s most threatened forests, including in the Amazon Basin, Russia, and Indonesia. We’ve used our specialized fire and incident management skills to support humanitarian responses following disasters around the world. We’ve responded to disasters in Kosovo and Rwanda—remember the genocide there? We currently have teams in Iraq.

And we benefit from all these overseas exchanges ourselves. Our researchers and managers gain important insights, bringing knowledge and technology back to the United States.

I also want to stress the importance of our international partnerships with global organizations, such as IUFRO.  The Forest Service has been a member of IUFRO for over 70 years. Many of our researchers are active in IUFRO Division 6 working groups, collaborating on outdoor recreation and tourism research. The Forest Service is especially proud to host the 2014 IUFRO World Congress in Salt Lake City, Utah, from October 5 to 11. I hope that many of you will be able to attend and share the results of your work.

Vitality of Outdoor Recreation

In closing, public lands are vitally important for outdoor recreation. Our national forests and parks are important to all of us, and they provide a broad range of values and benefits, including outdoor recreation.

The private sector will play a growing role as a provider and facilitator of outdoor recreation opportunities. Collaboration will be key in developing public/private investment opportunities in developing and operating concessions that supply visitor services.

Recreation resources could become less available as more people compete to use them. A major challenge for the Forest Service will be to ensure that recreation opportunities remain viable and that they grow along with the population.

I hope this gives you a better idea of where we as an agency are headed with regard to outdoor recreation on the national forests. As Chief Tidwell has said on several occasions, when Americans think of the national forests, they often think first and foremost about outdoor recreation. And that is appropriate and right!