Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

A National System of National Recreation Areas

National forest ranger districts are so 20th century. They were created in an era when “multiple use” meant logging and grazing—other uses be damned—as local economies were based on exploiting nature. However, in the 21st century, local communities can make more money by helping people enjoy natural values on public lands.

With declining commodity industries and a growing outdoor recreation industry—as well as increased concern for watersheds, ecosystems, and native species—it’s time for a 21st-century management structure for the nation’s national forests. It’s time to replace Forest Service ranger districts with national recreation areas (NRAs) as the fundamental management unit—and to do the same for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

An NRA designation would acknowledge current—and very likely future—realities. While the designation signals a management emphasis on recreation, this doesn’t trump all other uses and values. The acts of Congress designating most NRAs have generally subordinated recreation to greater long-term conservation values. If established by Congress with proper purposes, directions, and sideboards, NRAs can better conserve and restore natural, scenic, ecosystem, watershed, fish and wildlife, historical, and other public values than can the 20th-century ranger district model, while at the same time encouraging appropriate outdoor recreation.

Such NRAs would

• facilitate stronger levels of conservation protection for federal public lands,

• modernize and streamline bureaucratic management, and

• promote local economic development based on enjoying—rather than exploiting—nature.

The Rogue Wild and Scenic River is a narrow corridor along the river. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have legislation to establish a Rogue Canyon National Recreation Area and also expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness to fully protect the lower Rogue for this and future generations. Photo: Oregon Wild

The Piecemeal Recalibration of “Multiple Use”

When the multiple-use mandates for the Forest Service and the BLM were enacted by Congress in 1960 and 1976, respectively, the statutory multiple uses of timber and range (livestock grazing) were favored by the management agencies at the expense of other statutory uses (recreation, watershed, and wildlife and fish for both agencies, and also for the BLM natural scenic, scientific, historical, and minerals values). Interestingly, in the 1976 multiple-use mandate for the BLM, Congress said the multiple uses are “not limited to” those mentioned in statute.

For the Forest Service, the mandate is to manage for the combination of uses “that will best meet the needs of the American people,” and for BLM, “that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” Today, the American people clearly favor using their public lands for purposes other than providing saw logs and livestock forage. This trend will continue as America urbanizes and suburbanizes.

While the BLM and the Forest Service have the authority—in fact, the requirement—to periodically rebalance multiple uses, history has shown that the management bureaucracy lags behind in adjusting uses. In piecemeal fashion, Congress has adjusted “multiple use” multiple times and will continue to do so—by the designation of wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national recreation areas, and other special designations for discrete portions of the National Forest System and public lands. With each new NRA, or expansion of an existing NRA, Congress is rebalancing “multiple use” for the modern era.

Though wilderness and wild-and-scenic-river designations are the bedrock of a sound public lands conservation network, often neither designation provides full landscape conservation. Many NRAs are underpinned by lands designated as wilderness and streams designated as wild and scenic rivers. The most enduring conservation protection is afforded by overlapping designations of wilderness and wild and scenic rivers with an overarching landscape-level conservation designation.

Past and Pending Congressional Action

To date, Congress has established 22 NRAs, administered by the Forest Service as part of the National Forest System. (It has also established 18 National Park Service NRAs.) The statutory language for each NRA applies only to the particular NRA.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has introduced S.2702, a bill to establish a National Recreation Area System that would apply to federal public lands administered by the Forest Service and the BLM. The legislation would establish conservation and management standards for new NRAs. It would still take an act of Congress to establish an NRA. Wyden has separate legislation that would establish the nation’s first two BLM NRAs (Molalla and Rogue Canyon, both in Oregon).

I have proposed that a total of 37 (31 Forest Service and 6 BLM) NRAs be established in Oregon. These would replace 72 ranger districts or their BLM equivalent. The NRAs would be based on large watersheds or mountain ranges.

Two almost down and 35 more to go, Senator Wyden.