Would New Recreation Invoice Deliver Adverse Impacts To Wildlife And Delicate Public Lands?

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You probably haven’t heard much about the bipartisan legislation known as the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, a bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Republican. But you might want to keep it in mind if you care about the future of wildlands in the West. 

This past spring, The Desert News published a synopsis of the bill and it was enough to make my toenails curl. Thanks to reporter Kyle Dunphy, his description saved me from having to read the entire 155-page document. At present the odds are good, given potential election results, that you’ll be reading a lot more about it here at Mountain Journal.

If you’re concerned as I am, as a retired Forest Service recreation manager, about the industrialization of tourism and outdoor recreation on public lands, there’s a lot in this piece of legislation that’s worthy of your attention. 

The first item on the list, citing Arches National Park as its poster child, is the provision to expand vehicle parking at overcrowded trailheads, attractions and visitor centers. This may seem like a good idea to a politician who has not studied some of the primary precepts of recreation management, but I doubt that anyone who has worked for one of the federal agencies for very long would agree.

Sure, there are places where more parking would be helpful, if only to keep vehicles off the native vegetation, but in general the park and national forest managers have learned long ago that building a bigger parking lot is not the remedy to overcrowding. The new lot immediately fills to overflowing, creating demand for yet another, bigger, parking lot. And the trail, viewpoint, or other attraction becomes even more crowded than before.

Grand Teton National Park went through a parking lot expansion phase a while back when they reconstructed the inner loop road and parking lots at Jenny and String lakes. Sure enough, the spaces filled up and people started parking wherever possible—as much as a half mile down the road on each end—during the past couple of years. The park then had to install barriers, uncountable signs and other infrastructure in an attempt to protect the basic resources of soil and vegetation in the area.

This is a problem affecting many natural areas in the West beyond Greater Yellowstone.

Would it have been better to limit parking? I’m not sure, but what we do know is that more finite acreage has been given over to asphalt, with the attendant need for more infrastructure maintenance and fewer wildflowers. And during the ever-expanding peak tourist season, people are still trying to park wherever they can.

If the proposed legislation becomes law, we would see an increase in the already significant pressure on agencies to make decisions in favor of human recreation rather than protection of wildlife habitat, watershed health, water quality and other values.

As a partial fix, more parks could benefit from a shuttle system like those in Yosemite in California and Denali in Alaska. But Grand Teton and Yellowstone are drive-through parks with several entrances. A shuttle system might help for those going into the park and back out the same way, but it can’t solve the whole problem and it would require its own large parking lot for people using the shuttle. 

Alternate transportation modes can help in some places, if they are used. A bike and pedestrian route runs from the town of Jackson to the park headquarters at Moose, and parallels the inner loop as far as String Lake, but it is used less for commuting than for recreation once people have reached their campsite (if they reserved one early enough).

I wonder where Yellowstone can enlarge its existing parking lots, already sandwiched between dense forest, cliffs and thermal features. Are we looking at a multistory parking garage for places like Old Faithful? Such a structure strikes me as out of place next to one of the premier natural features on the planet. 

The America’s Outdoor Recreation Act would allow agencies to lease non-federal land for parking, but with land values skyrocketing around the Greater Yellowstone region and elsewhere, who is going to offer their prime real estate to the feds for a parking lot? In order to be fiscally attractive, such a use would necessitate a huge rental fee that your tax dollar would subsidize. And there’s plenty of evidence you will be investing in expanding the human footprint pressed into these wildlands rather than helping to resolve a problem.

In short, more parking equals more visitors, and more resource damage, and the need for more park employees from law enforcement officers to search-and-rescue teams. How much of “more” can the cash-strapped federal agencies, and the land, accommodate?

A leftover from former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s time in office has found its way into the bill as a requirement that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maintain at least one designated shooting range for each management district. Now, Mr. Zinke will again serve in Congress following his successful run in Montana’s recent election. 

One might wonder why shooting ranges are singled out. I suspect many of us know the answer. But there’s more: the bill also says that shooting ranges would not be managed as fee sites. If you have to pay to use a campground or other recreation site for which infrastructure and management is required, why does this form of recreation get special treatment?

Shooting ranges are fine in themselves, and there’s a perfectly good one a short drive south of Jackson, partially on the national forest. Yes, it costs to use the range, and I wonder what its owners would have to say about the Forest Service installing a free one on every district, thereby competing with it? I can think of many instances of services offered to the public—from ski-track grooming to designated target shooting areas—that were scrapped because of complaints from nearby private providers.

People I know have asked me why the Forest Service allows commercial developments on public land that don’t meet forest plan objectives or obey the laws and regulations that apply. I don’t have a good answer for that, but I suspect it is in part due to pressure from above, including from Congress, state governors and other elected officials.

There are other provisions in the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act that should raise eyebrows. They represent a fundamental change in emphasis—access and convenience over protection of the natural resources that most people seek when enjoying their public lands. These include, among others, the following:

The National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service are to be charged with identifying at least 10 “long-distance” (defined as at least 80 miles) bike trails. I was surprised to see the Fish and Wildlife Service included in this list, being unaware that its mission is to provide bolstered recreation infrastructure unrelated to the purposes of the refuge system. 

These agencies must also identify 10 additional “areas” for new bike trails. While it’s unclear what is meant by an “area,” I gather that either a network of new trails will have to be built or existing trails redesigned to feature and promote one mode of transportation rather than a multi-use system that is currently the standard.

The BLM and Forest Service would also have to identify recreation sites that lack broadband and find a way to provide and pay for it. Isn’t the idea of getting out in the wilds to remove oneself from the distractions of modern life? Is it the mission of the agencies to install fiberoptic cables into campgrounds 30 miles from pavement that will never have cell service due to topography?

I fear that legislation like the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act and whatever else will come along behind it will force the agencies to weed out those managers whose sense of responsibility for the land they are paid to oversee exceeds their desire to go along to get along, advance their careers, or please their bosses. 

The above-mentioned agencies would have to minimize seasonal closures on lands where such closures would restrict or prevent recreational activities that “provide economic benefits.” There go the wildlife winter range closures in our area that have been in place for decades. There’s no economic benefit in keeping those, unless you count the elk and deer populations that out-of-state hunters can shoot at. 

The Department of the Interior would also be made to identify solutions to housing shortages and to “provide financial and technical assistance to gateway communities to establish, operate, or expand infrastructure to accommodate visitation including hotels and restaurants.” More hotels means a worsening of the affordable housing crisis and more subdivisions built to allegedly provide “affordable” housing means more impacts on wildlife in towns around the national parks.

The way I read it, it sounds like the Park Service and BLM are being asked to help pay for private business establishments beyond the federal land boundary. This is a bit different in emphasis than the last time Interior embarked on an infrastructure remodel, when housing and visitor services inside the national parks were upgraded as part of the Mission 66 program and more housing improvements in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. There are many more provisions of the bill that deserve serious scrutiny of their direct impacts and cumulative effects. Among them:

           * The America’s Outdoor Recreation Act would give the Forest Service 18 months to develop a plan that balances provisions in the Wilderness Act with recreational climbing. The agency already has a plan along these lines, but perhaps its “balance” of protecting nature tips a bit too much in favor of wilderness values and wildlife to suit the drafters of this legislation. 

            * Several provisions in the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act would increase access to “real-time data” – like finding out if a campground is full. That sounds all right, since so many campgrounds, especially in the national parks, require advance reservations. But it won’t stop the current practice of tourists reserving sites and then not showing up. Thus, many in-demand sites will continue to go empty. 

             * The bill would encourage the “modernization” of campgrounds, using public-private partnerships. I am not sure how different this would be from the private campground concessions already in place, but I see a trend toward more and more services and infrastructure that will have to be maintained by these “partnerships.” I should also point out that nothing in the bill suggests that the agencies will get a dime out of Congress to accomplish all of this. Those same agencies are already being asked to do more with fewer people and less funding, and a new emphasis on modernizing campgrounds will leave even less for scientific research and land stewardship. 

               * The bill would “modernize” film and photography permits so that any crew of fewer than eight people would not have to obtain one. I guess modernize means eliminate permit requirements in this case. This will reduce the already paltry revenue the agencies receive from such permits, and which help to pay for their proper administration.

Indeed, there’s more, but this is enough to give a sense of where our public lands might be headed in the near future. It is obvious enough which interest groups have the ear of this bill’s sponsors. If enacted, it will accelerate the wave of industrial tourism that is already washing over the Greater Yellowstone and just about everywhere else. 

As a civil servant when spent three decades working for the Forest Service, Susan Marsh has a question for Mountain Journal readers: think of your most memorable moment on public land in the West: did it involve a place where crowds dominated the setting or an experience quieter and more intimate? Marsh says the bill mentioned in her piece would incentivize public land managers to expand infrastructure and trails to support more industrial strength tourism and yet the agencies have little idea what the impacts are to wildlife, landscape and sense of place. Photo of Old Faithful courtesy Susan Marsh

If the proposed legislation becomes law, we would see an increase in the already significant pressure on agencies to make decisions in favor of human recreation rather than protection of wildlife habitat, watershed health, water quality, and other values. An agency manager who tries to protect the basic resources that attract visitors in the first place would likely lose support from above as managers who more aggressively try to pack in more people would be rewarded. 

People I know have asked me why the Forest Service allows commercial developments on public land that don’t meet forest plan objectives or obey the laws and regulations that apply. I don’t have a good answer for that, but I suspect it is in part due to pressure from above, including from Congress, state governors and other elected officials.

I fear that legislation like the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act and whatever else will come along behind it will force the agencies to weed out those managers whose sense of responsibility for the land they are paid to oversee exceeds their desire to go along to get along, advance their careers, or please their bosses. 

If we are going to retain any remnant of the wild and functioning ecosystems that we inherited, we’re going to have to look for them within our public land. Once we overrun even these remote places that have offered respite for so long, what will be left?