View Full Version : USFS Commercial Permit Article

Sedona Jeep School
02-18-2005, 07:18 AM
Howdy! Following is an article I just released regarding commercial users in the National Forests. This may not seem directly club-related, but what happens in the commercial field does have repercussions in public recreation. Warning: it is lengthy (1300 words).

Tour Operators Await Forest Service Decision
Local District Decision in Sedona Will Affect All National Forest Commercial Users

By Nena Barlow

Sedona, Arizona – The Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest has been the hotbed of contention for commercial outfitter/guides in the National Forest. The decisions made here are likely to become the standard by which commercial service provider permits will be managed throughout the USDA Forest Service.

Where Sedona outfitter/guides were once comprised of a couple of guys with a string of dude horses, or one guy with a home-built Jeep, it is now comprised of multimillion dollar businesses with fleets of state-of-the-art Jeeps, spiffy offices, and aggressive marketing plans.* The volume and profitability of the tour industry in Sedona has provided the resources and motivation for tour companies to fight for a piece of the public lands pie.

This is how the situation stands today: In summary, following a lawsuit initiated by a Sedona outfitter/guide whose permits the local ranger district has chosen not to reissue, a federal judge ruled in April 2001 that Forest Service regulations had not been explicitly followed, and that the local district ranger could not, therefore, require permits in the manner in which they were being enforced.* There ensued an “open-season” for commercial outfitters, where anyone with a Jeep, horse, ATV, or pair of hiking boots could utilize Forest Service roads and trails to conduct tours without a commercial permit.* Following a lengthy public comment period, the Forest Service has revised its regulations on the national level which now require commercial outfitter/guides, in all situations and locations, to have a permit before they can conduct commercial services or activities on the National Forest.*

Although the new regulations went into effect in August 2004, the Forest Service has yet to enforce the regulation or issue new permits in the Sedona area.* Instead, local ranger district staff are painstakingly gathering and analyzing data to determine the physical and social capacities and the types and number of permits which would balance all of the different uses of the forest; consider public demand, impact, and access issues; and be consistent with the bigger picture of the Forest Plan.* So, Sedona tour operators are currently in permit limbo, operating under the graces of the Forest Service, rather than being shut down altogether, until determinations are made and released.

During this period, outfitter/guides have made use of some temporary opportunities as a result of the litigation, but they have been limited to the road and trail corridors and a few basic educational and interpretive services.*

Most outfitter/guides have a bigger vision.* Most want to build and secure a long term, partnership-based relationship with the Forest Service and provide a broad range of public services on the National Forest.* During the “open season”, however, the Forest Service was not willing to cultivate these interests.* There are numerous accounts of various commercial service providers initiating discussions with District staff to get questions answered and to pursue short and long term opportunities, but the Forest Service has been reticent and evasive during this period.* It has been difficult for Forest Service staff, frustrating for outfitter/guides, and confusing to the public, intensified by the adversarial tone set by litigation.

Speak to any of a number of the outfitter/guides currently operating in Sedona, and although each of them supports the concept of a regulatory system along with the standard three-percent fee structure, they express a variety of concerns including:*the opacity of the previous system; the ethical and socio-economical need for a healthy mix of competitors; opportunities for the little guy with a niche business; and consideration for longevity, performance, safety and education.

All of the competition and jostling for position has caught national attention, but the issue is actually much larger, and simpler at the same time.

It is larger in that, decisions made here will serve as a touchstone for other National Forests throughout the country. But it is simpler in that the stickiest point of the permit allotments is not which service providers are the most necessary and deserving, but that commercials users, by Forest Service mandate, take a backseat to public interests. This simple point is what most outfitter/guides have overlooked in understanding the process of the Forest Service. Commercial use of public land is a privilege, not a right. The Forest Service must give priority to non-commercial interests.

To clarify, the Forest Service definition of commercial use is any use or activity where a participation fee is charged (as in Jeep tours) OR where the primary purpose is the sale of goods or services (as in SUV expositions).

The Herculean role of the Forest Service is to find a balance between public need, commercial services, and the more comprehensive effects on the National Forest.* Many outfitter/guides assert that their services meet a public demand. However, to the Forest Service, commercial demand is only a small part of public need.* District Ranger Ken Anderson explains “Public need for commercial services must account for various factors including: Does the activity require specialized knowledge or equipment? *Does the safety of the National Forest visitor depend on a guide?* Would guided services reduce the impacts to the National Forest?”

The Forest Service is analyzing data compiled during its recent Needs Assessment Survey. A determination will be made, activity by activity, whether currently permitted and proposed new outfitter/guide services are strongly supported by public need. The Forest Service makes this capacity determination by considering the environmental, social, and economic factors appropriate to the National Forest involved. In Sedona’s particular environment, semi-arid with a visitation estimated at two to three million people annually, gross usage is already critical in many areas. If a need for certain commercial services on the National Forest is established, the Forest Service must quantify the need, deciding how many permits to issue.* Anderson demonstrates that “Decisions are constructed, not made.”

Commercial service providers are hopeful that the implementation of the new rule will speed up processes that have been criticized for their glacial speed, and further hindered by the reluctant communication.* They are also hopeful that the new rule will offer the opportunity to compete for a permit, and partner with the Forest Service to creatively utilize new niche opportunities.* Some have waited a long time for such an opportunity. *

It is apparent that the Forest Service is making progress towards more effective communication.* For example, the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest recently hosted an Open House to present their Commercial Outfitter/Guide Needs Assessment and Estimated Capacity results to the public, answering questions and actively seeking feedback.* As of last fall, the Forest Service sends out e-mail updating outfitter/guides on road and trail status.* They also keep the website content much more current and navigable than it has been in previous years.* Through the improvements in communication, some outfitter/guides have commented that it is apparent that the new permit process will be more transparent than it has been previously, bolstered by clearly defined objectives and criteria.* These are all positive steps toward a viable, dynamic relationship between the land managers and the commercial service providers.

As of the writing of this article, the Forest Service has not projected a date when new permits might be available.* Local District staff continue to speak of anticipated opportunities on the Red Rock Ranger District, but they quickly add that these opportunities are not likely to be the traditional type and in the traditional locations.* It is expected by many commercial service providers that any new permits issued will reflect the Forest Service Plan for small group, dispersed usage.

For the foreseeable future, the reality may ultimately be that by virtue of the multitude and strength of diverse commercial interests and the Forest Service’s mandate to comprehensively balance all use and effects, the greater Sedona area will be predisposed to tension and crippling litigation.*

02-18-2005, 05:46 PM
I had just heard about this two days ago. How is this affecting business? Is there anything the club can do to help the tour businesses out? Maybe we need to have a Jeep parade on Pennsylvania Ave.??? ;)


02-18-2005, 09:19 PM
Very well written, Nena. While I hope this works out for all commercial tour/instructional businesses, such as yours, I applaud the decision that non-commercial use of public land takes priority over commercial use. The last thing we want is to be considered an annoyance to tour groups using the same trails, or worse yet, see our favorite trails being dedicated to commercial ventures and off-limits to us.

btw, my CJ has been in a "parade" down Pennsylvania Ave (when I lived in Virginia), although it was just a few of us on the way through D.C. :D

02-18-2005, 09:26 PM
Very well written, Nena. While I hope this works out for all commercial tour/instructional businesses, such as yours, I applaud the decision that non-commercial use of public land takes priority over commercial use. The last thing we want is to be considered an annoyance to tour groups using the same trails, or worse yet, see our favorite trails being dedicated to commercial ventures and off-limits to us.

btw, my CJ has been in a "parade" down Pennsylvania Ave (when I lived in Virginia), although it was just a few of us on the way through D.C. :D

Power in numbers; Buddy! ;)

Sedona Jeep School
02-19-2005, 08:22 AM
There is an opportunity and an urgency to partner here in the interest of keeping trails open for everyone. Tour operators have the motivation and resources to pursue open trails, but what most of them do not grasp is the essential element of public support. Most of them have not connected the dots between public right and commercial privilege as a result of that public right. I am working on creating an AWARENESS of the importance of public support, then I can actually work on creating public support!

Is there an organization that represents both commercial and non-commercial offroad users? An organization which promotes responsible usage, and promotes the interests of anyone driving a Jeep on public land, whether commercial or non-commercial? Does UFWDA fit this? I have a lot of reading to do today--good thing it's raining!

I attended a meeting of commercial operators last night. An example was brought up about the Colorado River corridor through the Grand Canyon. Previously something like 90% of access was granted to commercial users, over which there was much contention and litigation. Apparently, (I have to research this) there is an association which facilitated an agreement between commercial and non-commercial interests whereby usage was divided up 50/50. This proposal is currently being presented to the land (and water?) management entities. The power of cooperative solutions is immeasurable.

It is in everyone's best interest to work together for trail access. Do you want to know what the big picture for the Forest Service is? Read this article, posted on http://www.fs.fed.us/publications/

Unmanaged Motorized Recreation What is unmanaged motorized recreation? Recreation visitors expect a great deal from their national forests and other public lands in terms of settings, experiences, facilities and services. The challenge for recreation managers is to address the needs and conflicting expectations of millions of people who use and enjoy national forests while protecting the health and integrity of the land. Recreation is the fastest growing use of the national forests and grasslands; other federal, state, and private lands are also experiencing increased recreation use. Increased pressure from growing populations, coupled with advances in recreation technology, will continue to challenge public land management agencies, state and local governments, and private landowners. While the focus of this threat is on national forests and grasslands, management decisions must take into account the impacts of unmanaged recreation on adjacent private and public lands. Unmanaged off-highway vehicle (OHV) use is a spotlight issue representing this threat because of the unauthorized creation of roads and trails and the associated erosion, water-quality degradation, and habitat destruction. National trends in OHV use OHVs are a popular choice for outdoor recreation. According to a national survey on recreation and the environment about 36.3 million people participate in off-highway driving, ATV use, or motorcycle use (Cordell and others 2001). The same survey found that 11.6 million people use snowmobiles. Cordell reports a 43.8-percent increase in OHV use and a 34.8-percent increase in snowmobile use between 1982-83 and 1994-95 (Cordell and others 1999). An estimated 11 million visits to national forests involve OHV use; this constitutes about 5 percent of all recreation visits to national forests (English 2003). Another trend is the uncontrolled proliferation of trails arising from repeated cross-country forays by OHV traffic. Unauthorized trails from motorized use cause much of the natural resource damage and some of the public safety concerns on national forests. Unauthorized trails are a major problem for forest managers. For example, Lewis and Clark National Forest personnel in Montana currently estimate that the forest has 1,348 unauthorized roads and trails extending for 646 miles (Robertson 2003). The U.S. population in the southern and western regions is expected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2050 (USDA Forest Service, 2003). Given the popularity of OHV use on public lands throughout these regions, it is reasonable to assume that the recreational use of OHV will become increasing significant for national forests for the foreseeable future. Biophysical effects The effects of OHVs on soil, water, vegetation, heritage sites, and wildlife have long been recognized in the scientific literature.
The magnitude of effects varies depending on local characteristics of the landscape including slope, aspect, soil susceptibility to erosion, and vegetation type. Riparian areas and riparian and aquatic species are particularly vulnerable to OHV damage. More recently, OHV use has been implicated in the spread of invasive species. Some wildlife species are also affected by the associated noise and disturbance, particularly throughout the winter and during reproduction season. Extensive study of biophysical and social impacts of OHV use is reflected in an annotated review of the scientific literature by Stokowski and LaPointe (2000). Effects on soil erosion and vegetation The primary effects of OHVs on soils are compaction and erosion, which may result in sedimentation into waterways. Damaged grasses and forbs may open the door to invasive plant species. The effects of OHV use on soils are most evident in desert soils or other easily eroded soil types such as the granitic soils of the Sierra Nevada. These effects are minimized when OHV travel is limited to roads and trails located and designed for motorized use. The adverse effects of motorized use are most evident where cross-country travel is permitted or motorized use is allowed on trails that are not designed for that purpose. Effects on wildlife The scientific literature indicates some wildlife species may be affected by excessive noise and disturbance. Displacement during winter depletes energy reserves needed for survival and reproduction by mammals and birds. The noise-insulating effect of snow can be reduced by extensive use of snowmobiles, thus decreasing survival rates for small mammals. On the other hand, some species (especially deer) adapt to the noise disturbance over time and may no longer be displaced by the activity. What is the role of the Forest Service? Providing outdoor recreation opportunities with minimized impacts to natural resources is a primary goal in the Forest Service strategic plan (USDA Forest Service 2003). The expected outcome is high quality recreational opportunities that contribute to meeting the outdoor recreational demands while sustaining natural resources. OHV use has been allowed on national forest lands since at least the 1970s and is one of the fastest growing recreational activities on public lands. Two objectives of the goal in the strategic plan emphasize (1) improving public access and (2) improving the management of OHVs to protect natural resources, promote safety, and minimize conflicts among users (USDA Forest Service 2003). Mechanisms for managing the effects of OHVs include designated routes, prohibited use in sensitive areas, user education, designed facilities, and appropriate enforcement. Estimates vary on the percentage of OHV users who cause extensive damage to natural resources by thoughtless or irresponsible behavior (such as hill climbs or mud bogs). 2
However, a disproportionate effect from irresponsible OHV use is likely because motorized vehicles are powerful, can travel many miles quickly, and can easily damage sensitive resources (Patterson 2003). Upward trends in vehicle ownership coupled with the decreased availability of open space outside of public lands influenced the Bureau of Land Management to disallow cross-country travel in its northern region (USDI Bureau of Land Management 2000). Inherent characteristics of OHV use tends to create motorized- versus non-motorized-user conflicts that are difficult for land managers to resolve. OHV users generally travel farther using vehicles that are relatively loud compared to other recreational users. This applies both to national forest use and to use of lands adjacent to urban areas. These effects are also disproportionate to the number of users. Activities and noise levels that are acceptable in developed or urban areas commonly are less acceptable to non-motorized recreational users in a natural setting. The OHV community has made considerable efforts, along with the Forest Service, to educate and inform OHV users about acceptable OHV use; however, irresponsible behavior by a few OHV users adds to negative perceptions about OHV use on national forests. Forest Service managers have observed that OHV users may displace other recreational users adding to the complexity of resolving user conflicts. Other users may prefer not to share facilities with OHV recreation because of the impacts of noise and speed on their recreational experience. Some users are demanding that zones for motorized versus non-motorized activities be established. OHV impacts and management challenges are outlined in a series of case studies on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service units (Government Accounting Office 1995). Law and policy governing OHV use Federal policy on OHV use was established by Executive Order 11644 (1972), amended by Executive Order 11989 (1977). The executive order establishes policies and provides for procedures to ensure that OHV use on public lands is controlled and directed for the purpose of (1) protecting land resources, (2) promoting safety for all users, and (3) minimizing conflicts among the various users. Forest Service regulations address OHV use in several parts: 36 CFR 295 addresses forest planning and management, 36 CFR 261.12 sets the prohibitions for use of national forest roads and trails, and 36 CFR 261.50 provides for Forest Orders to further regulate use of national forests. They are also addressed in Executive Orders 11664 and 11989 referenced in 36 CFR 295. Forest Service senior leadership recently has advocated that OHV travel be allowed only on designated roads and trails. This guidance will be explored with revision of national regulations and manual direction. Currently, designation is a local decision (Paterson 2003), Local OHV management polices are addressed in forest plans, separate access and travel management plans, or project level decisions. For example, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management decided to restrict motorized wheeled cross-country travel to designated roads and trails on nine National Forests and public lands in Montana, North Dakota and parts of South Dakota.
This decision was a result of heavy OHV use causing damage to resources and creating user conflicts (USDA Forest Service and USDI Bureau of Land Management 2001). International context Unmanaged motorized recreation promotes resource degradation on province, public and private lands throughout the world. In the international context, this issue is sometimes discussed in terms of ecotourism but often the focus is recreation management. Many countries are struggling to balance economic development and resource capacity. Well planned ecotourism is a boon to rural economies in many countries. Additionally, ecotourism and the associated funds often are critical components for protecting the world’s great resources. However, if increased recreation is not well-managed, it can cause resource degradation. As the focus on ecotourism increases, land management agencies must understand how much recreation an area can absorb before the resources are negatively affected. For all public lands, the long term resolution may be limiting use based on capacity. While ecotourism focuses mainly on international travelers, globally protected areas near urban centers often have high numbers of local recreational visitors. As more local people begin recreating in protected areas, it will be necessary to work with nearby communities to manage recreational impacts.