Outdoor Research CEO Dan Nordstrom on a big change to Forest Service permits

On June 17, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced that the Forest Service will take steps to streamline special-use permitting for national forests and grasslands, to make it easier for non-profit organizations, guides, outfitters, schools, and other groups to lead organized trips on public lands.

Over the next two to three years, the implementation of new processes will make it possible for land managers to make permits for group outings more accessible.  Decades long moratoriums on new permits can be lifted and the process of inquiring and securing a permit will be streamlined.

The announcement by the Forest Service comes after more than a year of discussion and collaboration with the Outdoor Access Working Group, a coalition of outdoor industry leaders who joined together to work on improving outdoor access for organized groups. The OAWG represents the full community of organizations focused on leading trips to get people out on their land. There is a vast network of organizations focused on providing immersive outdoor experience, including inner-city non-profits like the YMCA, university and grade school programs, clubs, NOLS, Outward Bound, guide and outfitter services as well as church groups and companies like REI and EMS.  These organizations had become frustrated with the challenges associated with securing access to run their programs.  Outdoor Research CEO Dan Nordstrom was among the founders of the Outdoor Access Working Group and was intimately involved in the efforts with the Forest Service. We asked him a few questions about what the announcement means for outdoor recreation in the United States.

Who does this announcement affect?

As these guidelines are implemented over time they will help any organization get access to permits to run their programs.  The USFS is working toward increased transparency via web based display of where permits are available and ultimately online applications.  In many cases there will be increased capacity for more groups.  We don’t want to increase traffic in already crowded places, but there are vast areas that are essentially empty yet offer excellent venues to run outdoor programs.

What's one thing that can happen now because of this change?

The main thing that can happen now is that forests can create new permits without potentially requiring the expensive scientific studies that it used to require. For example, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has had a commercial guiding permit moratorium for over two decades. So, if you had a new guide service or a nonprofit organization and you wanted to take clients out there, you couldn't get a permit because the Forest Service couldn't offer any more permits. Not because it was too crowded but because they had to do a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to prove the impacts were acceptable.  NEPA studies take a long time and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Yet in many cases it was readily apparent the impact to the land of additional visitors was negligable.  Now they can avoid unnecessary expense when the conclusions are straightforward.

But it will take time to roll out these new guidelines to actual implementation in forests and watersheds across the country.  These are big changes, reversing decades of policy, and we’ll be working closely with forest service leadership to help make it become standard practice.

How did you get involved with this?

I’ve been involved in working to protect access for a long time.  I guess the idea of people being denied the chance to hike or climb for no good reason just gets me really aggravated.  I’m a past president of the Access Fund, which was my opportunity to work on these issues.  I remember being incredibly frustrated by the idea of banning fixed anchors in wilderness.  It was a ridiculous idea and probably the starting point for me getting engaged.  At Outdoor Research we work with lots of great organizations, both non-profit and small businesses like guide services, and I realized that the bolting ban was just the tip of the iceberg.  The reality is that often the people making the rules don’t have much understanding of what we all do out there.  For reasons I don’t entirely understand, it turns out I kind of enjoy trying to fix absurd situations in our government.  I’m old enough now to have the patience for it, for better or worse. 

This seems like a big victory. What's next for the Outdoor Access Working Group?

This is meaningful, but it's just one step in the journey. The Outdoor Access Working Group was created to do this, but we're not declaring victory and disbanding. We've made progress, kind of amazing progress in just over a year. But now we have to work on implementation, and it seems like the reality is there will always be something new coming out as a result of societal and technology change that creates an absurdity.  We have endless examples and there’s no doubt lots more to come.  For instance last year someone in DC ‘clarified’ the rule that said you need a permit for ‘commercial photography’.  The clarification was that if you took a cell phone shot and posted it on your guides website you should have had a permit.  Clearly a ridiculous outcome that we helped them clarify one more time.  Another was when an outfitter in the Southeast, who had permits for years to run canoe and kayak trips, bought 10 SUP boards in response to his clients requests.  The local forest manager shut him down because the permit didn’t say ’SUP’ on it, though they hadn’t been invented when the permit was issued.  It’s pretty amusing to think the government needs to take a position on whether you paddle sitting or standing.

What does this mean for the average recreational outdoorsperson?

This means there will be more opportunity to get outside with experienced qualified group leaders and guides. Right now, there's a lot of energy for getting youth from diverse communities and lower-incomes outside. But if you want to start an organization designed to do that, you'll have a really hard time getting started because the permits are all taken. Now we’re moving quickly toward a future where that will become much more possible.


Cover Photo: View of Mt. Rainier from the Goat Rocks Wilderness in the Giford Pinchot National Forest by Jaeger Shaw