The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 125: Forest Admission?
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Would a rule change by the National Forest Service affect your ability to visit wilderness areas? This week on The WildeBeat; Forest Admission?
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number one twenty five.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: On Friday, October nineteenth of two thousand seven, a seemingly arcane proposal of rule changes for the national forest service appeared in the U.S. federal register. A lot of political activists are suspicious of government activities that appear on Fridays. You see, Washington journalists often don't get around to reading these things before they go home for the weekend. So sometimes rule changes issued on a Friday aren't reported on. And some say that if a government agency wanted to avoid public scrutiny, Friday is the best time to avoid it.
STEVE: Stick with me here, we'll be talking about wilderness in a little bit. This semi-secret document we're talking about has the mouthful of a title, "Proposed Directives for Forest Service Outfitting and Guiding Special Use Permits and Insurance Requirements for Forest Service Special Use Permits". To break that down, the document proposes changes in the rules that professional outdoor guides have to follow if they're going to use our national forests.
JIM BEDWELL: Well, ...it does several things, Steve.
STEVE: Jim Bedwell is the director of Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources for the National Forest Service in Washington, D.C.
JIM BEDWELL: First, it enables existing businesses, and those that are in both the profit and non-profit education world to plan a degree of certainty in their outfitting operations. We currently have a lot of outfitters who are on temporary permits from year to year, and these changes to the directives would enable us to have ten-year permits for established operations. So they can plan ahead, and obtain financing, and have some certainty about their business... It also updates minimum insurance requirements, the requirements that are in the current directives are quite old and obsolete. So it brings them in line with industry practices, and protects the liability of the U.S. Government and the taxpayer... There are also provisions that calculate the amount of use that's happening compared to their permitted use. Each outfitter has an allocation of user-days. And there is a new formula which enables them to maintain their level of operation, or if they don't, those unused days would go into a pool for which educational institutes, non-profits, and for-profit businesses could utilize.
STEVE: Sounding an alarm about this proposal, a little over a month later, was an Arizona-based group called, "River Runners for Wilderness." Yet, it was another month after that before the only mainstream media outlet to cover this item did a story about it. Brodie Farquhar wrote a column in the Casper Star-Tribune of Casper, Wyoming titled, "Sweet Deal for Outfitters?" In his article, Mr. Farquhar repeated the negative effects that Tom Martin, of the River Runners for Wilderness, said these rule changes would have on wilderness users. Tom said it would allow outfitters to rent parts of the forest for their own, exclusive use, and more importantly, it would give priority access to outfitter guides over the self-guided, general public.
STEVE: Now I found reading this document to be one of the better insomnia cures I'd run across. But it sounded like it might have an effect on you and me, and not just on guide services. So I asked my friend, Todd Vogel to take a look at it. Todd has two jobs, and these rules could affect his two jobs in quite opposite ways. First, he's a professional mountain guide himself, and second, he's also the education and stewardship director for the Friends of the Inyo. They're a non-profit organization concerned with protecting public lands in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
TODD VOGEL: I read through wearing both my hats, as you said as a participant in a non-profit, as well as a for-profit permittee. I just don't see anything in the proposed regulations that are going to affect the public's access. I do see a few things that I think might affect people's access to outfitting services... One, the potential changes in insurance requirements, and two, it seems like there might be some, in streamlining the process as they describe it, they're trying to make it a little easier to people who don't hold what they call long-term or priority permits, at the expense of long-term permit holders, making it easier for people that are asking for temporary access.
DAVE SIMON: ...and one of the key issues is really trying to come to grips with the explosion of use of the backcountry by institutional groups.
STEVE: This is Dave Simon. He's the director of outdoor activities for the Sierra Club.
DAVE SIMON: And institutional groups such as our Sierra Club, but also church groups, university groups, civic groups, and from my understanding is that basically this institutional group use is largely unregulated... So this current effort is an attempt to balance the needs of the three primary groups of people using the wilderness, those that prefer to do it on their own, those who prefer to use a commercial outfitter, and those who prefer to go out into the wilderness with institutional groups.
TODD VOGEL: You know, one of the reasons stated in the proposed change, for the change, is to make it easier for groups that work with youth to get those youth out on the land. And I'm one of those groups. Both my jobs, both my hats I work with youth. And I don't really see much in the regs that really are going to help me in that regard.
STEVE: But what about this idea that outfitter guides are going to be able to rent prime spots in the wilderness, or trailheads for example, for their own exclusive use?
TODD VOGEL: Well, you'd have to show me where that's coming from. I'm just not aware of those kinds of situations. I don't see anything in the regulations that are proposed that grant that. Now I've thought about that particular point, and you know, I read that concern at one of these web sites, ...But I don't see anything specifically in these regulations that grant that ability.
JIM BEDWELL: I don't know where they're seeing that in these directives. It doesn't address that to my knowledge.
STEVE: This is Jim Bedwell from the forest service.
JIM BEDWELL: There could be some confusion surrounding the flat fee for temporary use. Which is a very simplified process for again the temporary use which these directives establish... But taking that to exclusive use of an area is not something that we're seeing or intending.
DAVE SIMON: All the land agencies have been unequivocal in their stance that permits do not confer property rights...
STEVE: Dave Simon again.
DAVE SIMON: ...and that by allocating a particular kind of use to a particular outfitter or group of outfitters... does not lock-in that use forever, and does not allocate any kind of property right to that permit holder. These permits can't be sold, these permits just are not property.
STEVE: I even asked a very established outfitter guide if he'd even want to do this. Matt Bloom is the owner of the Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station, on the edge of the Emigrant Wilderness in California's Stanislaus National Forest.
MATT BLOOM: No, not at all, and... we would never, even if we could, limit anybody's access to wilderness. You know, we're proponents of people's access to wilderness... Most of our clientele starts off as people using the wilderness on their own, and they decide to enlist the services of a guide or an outfitter to help them with their trip, so we definitely encourage public use of the wilderness as long as it's, you know, in the proper form.
STEVE: Tom Martin of the River Runners for Wilderness, said that these proposed rules would reduce the public's direct access to wilderness, and give more use allocations to the for-hire outfitter guides. In effect, making more of us pay an admission fee to enter the forest. Todd Vogel asks.
TODD VOGEL: How did it do that?
STEVE: I guess my question is do you see any examples where that would appear to be the case?
TODD VOGEL: Well, I don't. And I've been looking for them, because I know this is a concern that people have, and, you know, I'm just not seein' it.
DAVE SIMON: I think it's really important to point out that there were bills in congress that the Sierra Club fought very hard against that would have mandated that the forest service make those kinds of allocation decisions, because there were bills that were saying that the forest service had to guarantee the right of an outfitter to make a profit. Later bills said right of an outfitter to engage in a successful business. Those we were dead-set against, because those we could see, could be taken to the logical conclusion of making decisions that are based for the benefit of the outfitters, not decisions based on the stewardship of the land. And we fought very hard against those. These current regulations ...are not trying to accomplish the same objectives.
JIM BEDWELL: Well, we don't just allocate entire areas to outfitter guides only. We always look at the capacity for an area and try to balance public and private use.
STEVE: So these rule makings don't make any change in the balance of access between outfitters and the public that doesn't require an outfitter?
JIM BEDWELL: That's correct. The total number isn't affected, and the total amount available to the outfitters is not affected by these proposed directives. It's just how they are permitted, and factors within their permit, but does not increase the amount of allocation they have.
MATT BLOOM: I think it's just important that people realize that we are the public.
STEVE: Matt Bloom.
MATT BLOOM: I think the only dfference is that if somebody hires an outfitter or guide to go into the wilderness, it's not that different than if somebody goes down and pays a bunch of money and buys their own horses and horse trailer, and all that, and pays all that money versus paying to hire us to take them in, or if they hire a backpacking guide, you know, that's just a preference thing. But at the end of the day, it's all public. All of our customers are the public. And my customers, as well as the general public, should all be treated the same. It's the same wilderness, and it belongs to everybody, and it should be treated with respect.
JIM BEDWELL: We always try to provide the maximum spectrum of recreational opportunities and support those that can do that on their own; both have the physical ability, equipment, and experience to do that, and I believe there will always be room for that on national forest system lands. Not everyone has that ability, equipment, experience, fitness level, and the outfitter guide experience or opportunity enhances their ability to experience the lands, but we're always looking out for the individual, and believe that's part of the national forest experience and what's so special about it.
STEVE: This story isn't over; in fact, it's really just starting.
DAVE SIMON: Everybody's very anxious for the comment period that ends this month to submit their comments and see the next version of the regulations. I think it's quite fascinating that while many in the do-it-yourself community and in the institutional group community are opposed to the regulations, so are the commercial outfitters. So once taken a step back, perhaps these regulations are neither all bad nor all good if essentially all the user groups have issues with them.
STEVE: The comment period for these proposed changes to forest service regulations ends soon, on February ninteenth. You can find a link to information about how to comment on this proposal on our web site. Whether you hire guides, or visit the wilderness on your own, these rules will probably have some effect on you when they do eventually go into effect. If you're a tax-paying citizen, then the forest service works for you, and we think it's your responsibility to let them know what you think.
STEVE: We'd also like to hear your comments about this matter. And we always like to hear whatever else you think about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373, or send e-mail to comments at wildebeat dot net. You can find links to the proposed rules mentioned in this program, more information about our guests, and an extended version of this show, on our web site.
STEVE: WildeBeat members can download two extended interviews, one with Jim Bedwell, and the other with Todd Vogel, from our WildeBeat Insider web pages.
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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.
This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twenty five. Thank you for listening.
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Next time -- scared indoors?