The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

Over the last four years, the U.S. Forest Service has been working through travel management plans for every national forest across the country, to determine which trails and routes should be open to hikers, ATVs and everything in between. The plans pitch frequent outdoors rivals: the “quiet” users (a.k.a. hikers and backpackers) against motorized users. Some recent research — completed by my grad school colleague Marc Stern — indicates the government could be doing a better job at achieving successful results, although that doesn’t mean keeping everyone happy and going wherever they want on the national forests.

I have a short news piece in the Summer 2009 issue of Forest Magazine (put out by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, better known as FSEEE), looking at what forest users think of the travel planning process and the resulting plans, and how Forest Service officials are trying to please recreational visitors and protect the land.

(As a sidenote, go check out the historic photographs within the archives of the Umatilla National Forest.)

Unmapped Terrain

Forest Magazine, Summer 2009

The Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho received a double whammy when staff released its travel plan in February 2008.

Off-road vehicle enthusiasts said there weren’t enough roads allowing motorized recreation. Environmentalists and “quiet recreation” advocates, like hikers, equestrians and (sometimes) mountain bikers, said there were too many. An ORV representative appealed the travel management plan; environmentalists filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service.

The reaction to the Sawtooth plan is no surprise. The nation’s 155 national forests and twenty national grasslands are in the process of creating travel management plans, and just about every plan released so far has sparked the wrath of hikers or ORV riders, and sometimes both. There is not much room for agreement between those who make noise in a national forest and those who prefer silence. But according to new research, team leaders should be striving for middle ground if they want their travel plans to be successful.

“We found that a predictive factor of success is whether compromise took place,” says Marc Stern, a social scientist and professor at Virginia Tech who has led surveys and studies of agency travel planners. But he added that participating Forest Service staff members don’t necessarily aim for that when it comes to the plans.

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth called for the travel plans in a 2005 ruling. The rule mandated that all national forests draw up motor vehicle maps, restrict motorized use to recognized routes and ban cross-country travel. Under the conditions of the National Environmental Policy Act, the travel plans would be developed with public involvement and follow standards to protect the environment. All forests are supposed to complete their travel plans by the end of 2009.

Stern says the travel management rule presented a landmark opportunity for the Forest Service to accomplish concrete goals. Travel planning accomplishes an explicit objective, or a “critical task,” Stern says. “A critical task is often difficult to define for the Forest Service. Its mission statement is, basically, balance multiple interests.” Stern collaborated with Forest Service research scientists to examine how team leaders approached the goal of creating their travel plans. He published his findings in the July 2009 issue of the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

The research showed that, during the NEPA process, few team leaders strived to reach compromise among stakeholders or to achieve staff satisfaction. Yet statistical analysis showed that these two factors were leading indicators of positive outcomes as defined by individual agency staffers. In other words, even though compromise or agency harmony isn’t the goal of NEPA or the travel management rule, those elements are usually part of an “excellent outcome.”

A pilot study conducted by Stern and his colleagues also found that many team leaders were unable to articulate a clear purpose for many of their actions—meaning managers were more consumed with bureaucratic procedures than achieving a plan objective or critical task—other than avoiding litigation.

In a follow-up to the survey, Stern and a graduate student completed eighty-one anonymous case study interviews of travel plan staff. The studies revealed communication breakdowns when Forest Service employees were working with each other and the public. There’s a need for agency specialists from different disciplines “to speak a common language,” Stern says. Facilitating communication between hydrologists, range managers and recreation planners, as well as between the agency and forest users, is often a function of leadership and management skills.

Few forest users think in such academic terms, but the researchers’ findings about leadership are apparent to travel plan stakeholders.

“The decision comes down, ultimately, to the manager, and if the manager is willing to make the decision to get recreation under control,” says Aaron Clark, recreation campaign director for the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, an ad hoc coalition of twenty-six conservation and recreation groups.

Clark and other quiet-use advocates support plans in which the agency followed the requirements of NEPA—to manage against cumulative environmental effects of motorized trails, including user-created routes and old logging roads. For Clark, that means travel management should be resource-driven, not demand-driven.

But Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national motorized-access advocacy group based in Idaho, says some plans went beyond the scope of the travel rule or didn’t follow NEPA. Hawthorne claims that extensive route closures on some forests aren’t about managing access in sensitive areas, but restricting motorized use across the landscape regardless of the conditions or impacts on the ground.

As an example, Hawthorne refers to the Lewis and Clark National Forest along the Continental Divide in Montana, where local motorized groups felt they were ignored in their request for loop routes or connectors between designated trails. “We feel it was very arbitrary, very capricious,” Hawthorne says. “It was lame, lame, lame.”

Harv Forsgren, regional forester for the Intermountain Region covering Nevada, Utah and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, says people’s reactions to the plans are understandable. “What makes it so personal is that every trail has a constituency,” he says.

Forsgren, formerly the regional forester in the Southwestern Region of New Mexico and Arizona, implemented travel analyses on all of the area’s national forests before any of them proceeded with designing travel plans. The internal analyses created route inventories, gauged public use and promoted consistency on how to manage certain issues, such as dispersed camping and big-game retrieval. The regional office absorbed some of the ensuing criticism over contentious designations, Forsgren says, and the agency “did not put off the big decisions.”

From an academic point of view, the travel analyses are a good demonstration of leadership and an effective framework for communication among agency team members. Forsgren believes the process provided a context for the decisions that followed and reduced the heartache for both staff and users.

Clark says the travel analyses guided public involvement and led to plans the conservation alliance generally supports. Hawthorne says the assessments were a reasonable attempt to do the advanced work upfront, and that “hopefully it will lead the agency to something that can work on the ground.” But he adds that motorized users in the region were “mildly critical” of some management decisions.

The lions and lambs of recreation travel aren’t going to lie down together anytime soon. Backcountry hikers and ORV riders might not want to cross paths on the forest, but Forsgren believes the Forest Service can facilitate “those diverse interests to sit down and find the common ground and the things they can mutually support.”

— Joshua Zaffos