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Joe Meade, the Forest Service’s national director of recreation, recalls once hearing an agency wildlife biologist say “we protect our natural resources from those people” — meaning those actually use the lands, i.e., the public. That’s a mindset – long held by the agency’s many ‘ologists,’ who’ve spent decades laboring to protect fragile ecosystems – that the Forest Service is changing.

“We are asking them now to pivot, to shift, to recognize to be relevant to this generation and be relevant to the next, its essential that we transform,” Meade said this week at a Denver workshop with several dozen recreation permit holders, many of whom have a combative history with the Forest Service.

That meeting launched what Meade called a “historic, cultural shift” for the 111-year-old Forest Service, a first stop on a national tour to enlist special use permittees – like hunting and fishing outfitters, and rafting and climbing guides – as partners in a massive overhaul that will see the agency transition from a long history of strict control over access to enabling and encouraging more broad and diverse recreational access.

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“We have a strange tendency of gearing toward ‘no’ than gearing toward ‘yes.’ We want to pivot from no and pivot toward yes,” said Tinnelle Bustam, the assistant director of recreation for the Forest Service in Washington D.C.

The workshop marked a watershed moment for the Forest Service. The federal land management agency that has spent more than century pretty much treating recreation as the annoying stepchild in a family dominated by oil, gas and timber, is embracing recreation as its future; a pathway for grooming the next generation of public lands advocates.

That elevation of recreation is anchored in a sweeping modernization of the recreation permit process with an eye toward making it easier for groups and urban youth to find first-step, safe introductions to the outdoors.

In June, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsak revealed plans for modernizing the agency’s process for issuing special use permits, with an online application process, a massive database of permit data, new employees dedicated to permitting and, perhaps most importantly, an overhauled approval process that gives local land managers more leeway when allowing recreational uses.

“This is so long overdue. So long,” said Harry Kent, a 40-year professional guide whose Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park has led thousands of climbers into the peaks surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park since 1987. “I just hope they can fund this thing.”

Outdoor recreation on public lands contributes $13 billion to the national economy and supports 205,000 jobs, many of those based in rural economies. But the agency has seen its budget scorched by wildfire. Fire suppression has grown from 16 percent of the agency’s budget in the 1990s to more than 50 percent now. Wildfires have consumed funds from every department in the Forest Service: recreation, heritage and wilderness budgets are down 15 percent in recent years. Roads: down 46 percent. Facilities: down 68 percent. Deferred maintenance: down 95 percent. Since 2011, the Forest Service has seen its staff cut by 30 percent.

Partnerships with recreation permit holders will help the agency swing toward a customer service type approach. With budgets decimated, it’s time for “those creative, innovative approaches to easing the permit process and making things move easier, faster and better,” said Meryl Harrell, chief of staff for the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment.

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That’s beautiful music for Rachel Vermeal with the Colorado Mountain Club, which just hired a staffer whose sole job is wading through the dense Excel spreadsheets required for the Forest Service’s archaic permit system.

“It’s more about moving to a ‘yes-first’ approach to see how we can work to get the public into public lands and creating systems that actually involve less work on both sides,” Vermeal said. “Colorado’s population is exploding and everyone wants to get outside. Our want for that public … it to make sure they have the education and access to skill-building opportunities to allow them to enjoy this awesome outdoor playground and do it safely.”

Photo by Nick Fisher

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