When we think of major threats to Utah’s redrock wilderness, the first to come to mind are mining, drilling, chaining and off-road vehicle abuse. Less obvious is the explosive growth of human-powered recreation and its impacts on wildlife and wild places.
That recreational segment—hiking, biking, camping, climbing, river running, horseback riding, and the like—has grown rapidly over the past decade across the West. Utah public lands began seeing drastic increases in visitation as a result of aggressive advertising by the State of Utah in 2013. The pandemic piled on, exponentially increasing recreational use.
The obvious result is what many of us have already experienced: packed parking areas, full campsites, no permits, crowded trails, and a diminished public land experience. Beyond these human inconveniences are the larger ecological and cultural concerns: loss of wilderness values, loss of wildlife and its habitat, impaired water quality, trampled native vegetation and soil crusts, and damage to irreplaceable cultural sites—some deliberate, some inadvertent.
To Solve a Problem, First Acknowledge It
To be clear, this is not an indictment of those who recreate on public lands. Nor are we saying that human-powered recreation is bad or ought to stop. We’re all public lands recreationists, too. Study after study has shown the significant benefits of being outside in nature. More time there means less sedentary screen time, and that’s good for everyone.
This is instead a heartfelt plea that we collectively acknowledge that our love of recreating in Utah’s redrock wilderness is having unintended and often harmful consequences. The reality is that the current trend is unsustainable for resources and wildlife—something that no one who cares about the natural environment wants to see.
So the question is: How do we both conserve public lands and wildlife and provide for a spectrum of high-quality experiences—from backcountry solitude to frontcountry trail systems—for an increasing and increasingly diverse user base? We can do both, but only if the public demands action from federal land managers who, for reasons detailed below, lack the tools and the motivation to tackle the issue in earnest.
Public Land Management in Utah
Several federal agencies manage America’s public lands, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLM manages 244 million acres of public lands, primarily in the West, with nearly 23 million acres in Utah. Here, BLM-managed public lands include national monuments, designated wilderness areas, and all of the proposed wilderness in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. This article focuses on the BLM’s management.
According to the agency, visits to BLM lands in Utah more than doubled between 2011 and 2021, jumping by 107 percent from 5.7 to 11.8 million visitors. During the first year of the pandemic, 2020-2021, visitation saw an unimaginable increase of 3.5 million people. But resources for—and strategic approaches to—managing this visitation have not kept pace. The BLM is woefully understaffed and underfunded, and thus ill-equipped to proactively manage for that growth. The public lands bear the consequences. Absent a clear, landscape-level, forward-looking strategy, the agency ends up reacting piecemeal, stuck in a game of whack-a-mole in which everyone, including the land, ultimately loses.
We know that many BLM staff understand and are concerned about these impacts but are overwhelmed by these rapid changes. They lack direction from leadership and are hampered by decreased funding and limited personnel, particularly for law enforcement, outreach, and education. Those are hurdles, certainly, but they alone cannot excuse the failure to think creatively or to follow the body of established science around recreation trends, management, and impacts.
This failure creates a range of problems. The most damaging is the oft repeated but wrong-headed belief at the federal and state levels that the solution to increased public land use is to disperse users across a larger landscape.
For example, the state’s “Mighty 5” national parks tourism campaign overwhelmed Utah’s national parks in just a few years. Then the state tourism board pivoted to a new message, “The Road to Mighty,” which sought to fix the problem by promoting and directing visitors to state parks and BLM-managed public lands instead. Predictably, the results were increased use, overcrowding, and associated environmental and cultural degradation at those newly-recommended destinations. Longstanding recreation management research roundly debunks the notion that dispersion is a sound strategy, yet the idea remains pervasive and pernicious.
A Scientific Approach to Recreation Management
To help educate land managers, the public, and ourselves, and to begin a conversation about science-based recreation management, SUWA commissioned a report from Dr. Christopher Monz, a professor of recreation management at Utah State University. Dr. Monz specializes in recreation ecology, which is “the study of outdoor recreation activities and their associated ecological disturbance.”
The report, Outdoor Recreation and Ecological Disturbance, A Review of Research and Implications for Management of the Colorado Plateau Province, synthesizes more than 60 years of published scientific research to identify the environmental impacts of human-powered recreation on the Colorado Plateau. It also recommends management strategies to ensure ecological integrity while accommodating growing recreation demands.
The report describes the major impacts of human-powered recreation. It’s a daunting list that includes soil erosion and compaction; wildlife habitat destruction and fragmentation; theft and destruction of cultural objects; dispersal of noxious weeds; and water, noise, and light pollution. It also finds that because most impacts occur as a result of initial use, even elevated levels of additional use in previously disturbed areas results in minimal further impacts.
Monz’s overarching recommendation for the BLM and other federal land managers is that “concentrating visitor use in previously impacted or hardened sites and trails will likely be a successful management strategy, while dispersal strategies may result in a proliferation of recreation disturbance.”
“Unused locations are the most precious and fragile, and thus should be intensively protected and managed to avoid the proliferation of impacts,” the report finds.
It is hard to imagine how current management practices could be any more at odds with such solid science, yet dispersal remains the all-purpose tool for dealing with recreational pressure. The report makes clear that this reactionary management strategy will not suffice if the BLM hopes to accommodate “a likely continued increase in demand while also protecting the natural landscapes visitors seek.”
Creating a New, More Sustainable Recreation Model
As human-powered recreation continues to grow and the recreating public continues to diversify, the central question remains: How can federal land managers juggle the competing responsibilities to protect public lands, cultural resources, and wildlife while also providing for a spectrum of high-quality experiences?
We at SUWA start from the simple fact that the interests of the recreating public are as diverse as the public lands themselves. Some visitors ask no more than a picnic table, shade, and restrooms; others prefer a more primitive backcountry experience of solitude, natural quiet, and dark skies—and no or very few human encounters. Others are somewhere in between.
As Dr. Monz’s report recommends, we believe the BLM must move toward recreational planning that involves a landscape zoning approach focused broadly on the idea of “frontcountry” and “backcountry” management, with additional zones as needed. This strategy is not new nor even new to Utah. The BLM successfully implemented it in its 2000 management plan for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which divided the entire monument landscape into four management zones: frontcountry, passage, outback, and backcountry or primitive.
Generally speaking, frontcountry zones are the focal point for visitation. Located near communities, the frontcountry provides developed, concentrated recreational amenities—trail systems, picnic areas, campgrounds, and information kiosks that BLM staff can manage more efficiently and effectively. Among other things, this cuts search and rescue costs and helps focus economic activity.
By contrast, backcountry or primitive areas are mostly devoid of developed amenities. They are farther from towns and distance provide buffers for flora and fauna. While some management prescriptions may still be needed in backcountry areas to protect resources (designated dispersed campsites, for example), the management hand will be lighter. In its 2000 Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument plan, for example, the BLM was clear that it would provide no facilities in backcountry areas and would limit signage to the minimum necessary for human health and safety.
Zoning May Be the Only Management Route to Balance
We believe this approach is the only way the BLM will be able to reconcile the tension between protection and the availability of varied recreational opportunities. Zoning allows land managers to analyze and define use patterns and user expectations. That, in turn, guides them in setting clear goals, objectives, and management prescriptions for each zone.
The Monz study leaves little doubt that if the land management agencies persist in using dispersal as the sole or dominant tool for managing recreation growth we will end up with fewer backcountry opportunities, new disturbances to sensitive natural and cultural resources, and the compounded inability of the BLM to effectively manage increasing recreational use.
It is worth noting that while permit systems can be effective in managing use levels in some specific high-use locations like river corridors and slot canyons, they are not panaceas and should be a last resort. Permits are often just reactions, not strategies, that signal a failure to plan for recreational use at a landscape level. Permit systems can also be exclusionary, and operate as barriers to entry for underserved populations and new public land users.
As the Monz report illustrates, human-powered recreation can significantly impair even large landscapes. Scientists say that to maintain functioning ecosystems, we need to protect more land, and the benefits increase dramatically when we protect large landscapes that connect ecosystems and wildlife habitat.
While legislative protections are our ultimate goal, we urgently need the BLM to begin doing its part to manage for human-powered recreation in a way that is sustainable and equitable. This requires comprehensive, proactive planning that protects undisturbed landscapes while accommodating increased demand and providing meaningful recreational experiences.
When we released the Monz report last year, SUWA and more than a dozen Utah-based and regional organizations petitioned the Utah BLM to establish a human-powered recreation and visitation working group to undertake a comprehensive review of current recreation management policies, to identify emerging issues and management challenges, and to develop recommendations to address current problems. While we continue to encourage the Utah BLM to take the lead in addressing this issue through a formal working group, we are currently working to create our own diverse stakeholder group to tackle those same issues.
At the same time, as the BLM develops management plans for the newly designated San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, the Green River Wild and Scenic River segments, and the re-established Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, SUWA will press the agency to implement science-based recreation management strategies.
—Judi Brawer & Neal Clark
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Spring 2022 issue)