Forest Recreation's Growing Impact
"There's a huge rise in recreation demand on natural resources. It's getting harder to provide the quality recreation experience Americans enjoy and expect."
By Paul McHugh
The father of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Gifford Pinchot, is probably not spinning in his grave. But some timber company executives may be steaming at their desks. The USFS top managers have revealed that outdoor recreation and general ecology uses of National Forests are now of much greater economic value than timber harvest. Not only that, but this trend shall accelerate. The Service is trying to respond in its management plans.
"There's been a perception American forests are only good for servicing American woodlots,'' said U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons before a recent conference of outdoor industry execu tives. "But our business really is broader than that. There's a huge rise in recreation demand on natural resources. It's getting harder to provide the quality recreation experience Americans enjoy and expect. Despite our efforts, demand is clearly outstripping supply.''
From his perch at the podium, Lyons eyed leading makers of backpacks, wetsuits, tents, hiking boots, canoes and the like. "If recreationists don't have a quality experience, they won't be real interested in buying your stuff. So, you've got a role to play in supporting these changes. Frankly, I think it's time you stepped up to the plate and began to play it.''
Lyons backed up his statements with figures from the draft RPA (Resources Planning Act) of 1995. This document states that $130.7 billion dollars in gross domestic product will be created b billion dollars from fish and wildlife benefits. Only $3.5 billion dollars will be generated by timber harvest.
If such trends continue, the "recreation/fish and wildlife'' shares of the pie will swell by 3.8 percent by the year 2,045, as timber harvest shrinks by .8 percent.
`These numbers surprised members of Congress, when I offered them at appropriations hearings a little while back,'' Lyons said wryly. Lyons understates a major struggle. A political war is being waged over the direction the USFS will take in the 21st Century. This battle has huge implications for the future of outdoor recreation in California -- where our wild, semi-wild, and industrial forest landscapes are dominated by National Forest holdings.
Nationwide, the USFS is landlord of 191 million acres, or 8 percent of the U.S. Nearly 20 million of those acres are in California, covering 19 percent of our state's landbase. Forest Service policy has tremendous effect on what happens here.
There's a reason the plan Lyons cited is a "draft'' dated 1995 -- yet still not approved by Congress. If the USFS path is likened to the trajectory of a space capsule, these five-year RPA's are the "thrusters'' used for mid-course corrections. Dominant powers in the 104th Congress dislike what they see in this RPA.
A letter from the Senate and Congressional subcommittees that oversee the Forest Service called this plan an illegal "abandonment of multiple use,'' and a policy shift that cannot be condoned. Congress has always micro-managed the Forest Service, deciding line-by-line how much of its budget will go to support timber sales, versus how much gets invested in ecology, recreation, wilderness management and so forth. Any shift in allocation or emphasis is currently stalled, pending the outcome of the next national election.
On the ground in California, our "Pacific Southwest Division,'' comprising 18 National Forests, may lack an approved RPA for guidance. But it still rumbles along on its own, trying to weigh the demands of timber, recreation and ecology. A large degree of autonomy is vested in each forest supervisor. -- Campgrounds -- There are approximately 800 developed Forest Service campgrounds in California (and a host of "primitive'' campsites). A stated national goal isto save operations money by having up to 70 percent of these developed camps run by private sector concessionaires. This level is now being approached in California.
Another goal is that the concessionaires will reduce some of the backlog in restoring facilities. Information is not yet available on whether this is occurring.
-- Recreation -- Although 75 percent of the benefits to the gross national product come from recreation, only 21 percent of the Forest Service budget goes to nurture it. A California trend is revealing.The recreation-related budget (trail building and maintenance, facilities, wilderness, etc.) has risen 15 percent from 1990 to 1995. But in that same period, recreation usage has shot up by 32 percent.
-- Deferred Maintenance -- Trail maintenance was cut in 1995 as a national budget line item. Allocations are at the mercy of individual Forest Supervisors. The amount of deferred trail maintenance in the U.S. is now $267 million dollars; or $35 million in California.
Deferred maintenance on campgrounds and other visitor-serving facilities in California is reckoned at $125 million dollars. The hope is that concessionaires and volunteers will help make up the lack. However, in National Forests, the level of citizens volunteering for projects has dropped 15 percent in the last five years. In California, "green sticker'' off-road drivers do contribute $5 million dollars yearly to roads and trails.
-- User Fees -- Polls have shown the public supports recreation user fees if the money stays on site to be used for improvements. A demonstration fee project will begin next year at 47 recreation sites in National Forests. Northern California will see experiments at the Mono Basin Visitor Center, at Desolation Wilderness and the Tahoe Basin, and in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Specific fees, services and schedules are still being developed.
"The recreation industry has never flexed its whole muscle,'' Jim Lyons says. "Timber has been very effective at speaking with one voice. But the recreation group produces more a cacaphony; the ski industry shouts over here, the off-road drivers talk over there, and the backpackers say something else.
"It's not our job to advocate one thing over another. We have to act in the ways that the president, Congress and the public direct. But if the recreation industry and the conservation community ever joined in making a plea, I can tell you that would be a very potent force.''
California's 18 National Forests cover nearly a fifth of the state's land area. The forests hold: 2,600 lakes and reservoirs; 13,000 miles of fishable streams; 14,360 miles of hiking, horseback riding, and OHV trails; 23 segments of wild and scenic rivers (46 more rivers segments, totalling 570 miles, may be eligible for designation. In addition, California has 52 National Forest wilderness areas holding 4.3 million acres, which currently receive 2.6 million visitor days per year.
RECREATION IN CALIFORNIA'S NATIONAL FORESTS - FACTS & TRENDS
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Updated March 18, 2007