National Forest Service announces plans to modernize permitting system

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The National Forest Service has announced it will modernize its system, making it easier for groups to access wilderness areas.

In some parts of the United States, it can be so hard to obtain National Forest permits that it’s easier to cross the border into Canada than to take kids on a group outing in their own backyard.

Last week, the National Forest Service promised to modernize its snail mail system to make it easier for guides, outfitters, schools and non-profits to get permits. Currently, groups spend countless hours filling out paper forms, mailing them to the Forest Service and waiting for a response. Steps to improve the system will include hiring more staff members and training people in forests around the country to use a standardized system, according to a press release issued Friday.

Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is ahead of many other regions in the Forest Service, thanks to much-needed attention to its permitting system. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

“It’s important [to fix the system] because it’s the future of our industry and it’s the future of the environmental movement,” said Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research and co-founder of the Outdoor Access Working Group, which started talking with the National Forest Service last year about the need to modernize its permits. “I think we are convinced that young people today are interested in becoming engaged in ways in which they can help be a solution to the global environmental crisis, but they need exposure to the reality of what it’s like out there in nature.”

Nordstrom lives in Seattle, near the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in the Western Cascades. Forest Service staff have made leaps and bounds over the past year or so to improve backcountry access, Nordstrom said. Previously, a longstanding moratorium on permits made it all but impossible for groups to gain access, he said, because the Forest Service simply couldn’t handle the new permit requests.

Until recently, it was a time-consuming process that involved assessing whether an applying party actually needed a permit, and how the specific use would affect the environment. In some cases, no permits were given at all. It was easier for the YMCA in Seattle, for example, to take kids to Canadian backcountry than to hike in the Cascades, Nordstrom said.

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie is ahead of many other national forests, said Jessica Wahl, government affairs manager for the Outdoor Industry Association.

"There are so many different levels in the Forest Service," she said. "Some are ahead of the game," but some are technologically behind.

It has been about a year since the Outdoor Access Working Group started talking with the Forest Service about making changes.

“Leaders within the National Forest Service are doing great things to move this forward,” Nordstrom said. “We want to highlight the fact that these folks are seeing the future and working hard to modernize the Forest Service, in this case to address a changing world. This is a pretty historic thing as far as how quickly they’ve moved and how comprehensive it is.”

The Forest Service didn’t list any deadlines or give a timeframe for its plans to implement change across all of its regions, and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

White River National Forest

Aspen's Maroon Bells, in the White River National Forest, are so crowded by tourists that only buses can enter the area during peak summer months. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

The Forest Service will start hosting webinars in the next few months to train staff, Wahl said. The informational sessions will prepare employees for internal changes. Once they've been trained, Wahl said she expects more dramatic functional changes, such as in the way permits are issued.

Of course, the government can move slowly. But the Outdoor Access Working Group will continue to work closely with the government to make sure it’s moving forward, Nordstrom said.

“Certainly, it’s in Outdoor Research’s interest to have as many people get outdoors as possible,” Nordstrom said. “We think that’s good for business and good for the world. It’s good for the environment. Creating a political constituency for environmentalism is a really important thing for all of us.”

Daniel Nelson contributed reporting.

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