Last summer, I took a four day hike through the high backcountry of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in the Washington Cascades. I’m an experienced mountaineer, accustomed to rugged terrain and steep slopes, so I was impressed when after a long day and miles of off-trail travel I heard the voices of young teenage boys wafting toward me from near the Tank Lakes. These remote tarns are in a place that feels like God’s own patio—clean-polished stone slabs holding aloft crystalline ponds that reflect the surrounding summits of black rock and glacier ice.
I later met the intrepid boys, expecting them to be a group from the high-priced and famously hardcore National Outdoor Leadership School. Instead, I found a dozen teens many of whom had never previously camped a night in their lives. One of their leaders told me they were part of the BOLD Mountain School—a nonprofit program of Seattle’s Metrocenter YMCA. BOLD immerses urban kids, especially disadvantaged ones, in the challenges and splendor of big wilderness. This program is not just a matter of summer fun. It’s a transformative experience; it changes lives.
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BOLD takes youngsters, like 13-year-old Antonio, on week-long adventures. I learned about Antonio later, through BOLD’s leadership, but his life has been like those of many of the boys I met at Tank Lakes. He is coming up the hard way: he has never had a relationship with his father. His mom is alone, and she works hard to support him and his younger sibling, who he has to watch much of the time. BOLD challenged him physically and emotionally, and it rewarded him spiritually. Antonio’s grandmother wrote to BOLD’s director that Antonio had come home a different person. He had returned a young man: quietly confident, calm, self-assured. His grandmother also reported that Antonio said of the vistas and stars he had seen that he had “never known anything could be so beautiful.”
Experiences like this are blessings widely shared among young northwesterners from well-off families. I count my own such youthful passages as among the reasons I have devoted my adult life to building a sustainable Northwest. In fact, such experiences are so reliably transformative that those who attend the region’s exclusive private schools and colleges go on wilderness trips almost as parts of the curriculum. Many well-funded church groups lead them, too. For poor and working-class northwesterners, though, being a BOLD Mountaineer is a rare and exceptional gift—an antidote to the “nature deficit disorder” that author Richard Louv described in his book Last Child in the Woods.
BOLD, furthermore, is just one of several such nonprofits, organizations that expose the Northwest’s less-fortunate to their natural birthright as northwesterners, a region with dramatically more wilderness than anywhere in North America other than Alaska and the Canadian north. As BOLD does for Puget Sound area young people, so Big City Mountaineers does for Oregon’s and Peak 7 Adventures does for Spokane’s. All three provide this niche service at no cost to public treasuries, relying instead on charitable contributions and modest participant fees to deliver young men and women to places like the one pictured on the right, also in the Alpine Lakes.
My chance encounter with those BOLD mountaineers was in August of 2010, and I thought little more about it until this month, when I learned that the BOLD Mountain School has been banned from the Tank Lakes and the rest of the Northwest’s National Forests. NOLS, private schools, and college outing programs are welcome. They may, in John Muir’s words, “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” But Antonio’s type? They are forbidden entry to places like Azurite Lake (pictured below), a short day’s travel from the Tank Lakes.
The YMCA does not have a guide/outfitter permit to lead such trips. Schools don’t need them. Volunteer-led groups don’t either. And NOLS got its permit years ago. But BOLD does not have one, and it cannot get one. The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is no longer issuing them. Neither are any of the 30-odd other Northwest National Forests, from the Siskiyou in southern Oregon to Idaho’s Nez Perce to Alaska’s giant Tongass.
Just so, Big City Mountaineers cannot get permission to take trips into any National Forest in Oregon. Spokane’s Peak 7 cannot take its clientele of largely Hispanic, low-income middle schoolers into National Forests in Idaho or Washington.
It would be easy at this point to rail against the USDA Forest Service, but doing so would miss the point. The Forest Service, starved for funding to support its diminished and beleaguered staff and buffeted by relentless lawsuits, is following its rules and regulations as best it can, in particular its 2008 Outfitter and Guide Regulations. Those rules tie rangers’ hands.
Here’s part of a letter that the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest’s District Ranger Jim Franzel sent to the Seattle chapter of the Boy Scouts in May of 2010. At the time, the Boy Scouts were offering trips led by (lightly) paid camp counselors on National Forest land. The letter ordered them to halt such trips:
At this time, the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is not issuing new outfitter guide permits, which would be needed to conduct guided activities on the Forest.
This Forest [decision] is due to budget limitations, workloads, priorities and need. We would have to conduct a “Needs Analysis” to determine whether the activities are even warranted or needed in this area. We would also have to perform some level of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis for the affected area. In order to conduct these analyses it takes many “specialists”. Specialists would be needed to determine the effects of the proposed activities for soils, water, wildlife, botany, recreation, socio/economic, Threatened & Endangered Species, etc. It is expensive and time consuming, all of which the Forest does not have the funding and resources to do at this time.
We also know that there are other interested parties out there who would also like to secure guiding permits. If and when these analyses could be performed, and if approved to conduct such activities, we would need to publicly advertise and solicit the opportunity through a prospectus, requesting an outfitter guide application, an operations proposal and a business plan. Potential applicants would be evaluated as to which one best meets the operational purpose and need.
That’s right. Under the USDA Forest Service’s 2008 Guide and Outfitter Regulations and other Forest Service rules, the Boy Scouts or the YMCA or any other group that pays its trip leaders from fees collected in part from participants needs to be licensed as a commercial guiding service. To issue a guiding license, the Forest Service would first need to do “Needs Analysis.” (Who could doubt that there’s a real and pressing need for the kinds of transformative experiences that inspired Antonio?) Then, the Forest Service would have to do a NEPA assessment. They would have to send biologists into the mountains to analyze the likely impacts on soil, water, and endangered species of adding a few dozen boys like Antonio to the way trails and high routes their richer compatriots already traverse each year. USDA specialists would also have to analyze the recreation and socio/economic impacts of Latino middle schoolers from Spokane sleeping under the stars and learning to tie hooks onto fishing lines beside lakes like Angeline (below), two ridges over from the Tank group.
As it stands, BOLD, Peak 7, and Big City Mountaineering are currently planning to drive their teens to the Olympic, Mt. Rainier, and North Cascades National Parks. For Spokane’s Peak 7, the extensive wild lands of northern Idaho spread out for scores of miles before them; instead, the program will haul its participants nine hours across the state of Washington to the Olympic National Park. Why all the way to the Olympics? Because unlike National Forests, the National Parks are as welcoming as could be to BOLD and its peers.
To untie this absurd regulatory tangle, the Forest Service could amend its Guide and Outfitter Regulations to exempt nonprofit youth-service organizations. Or it could photocopy the National Park Service’s rules.
Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal project identifies specific regulatory barriers to affordable, green solutions. If you’ve come across such an obstacle, please let us know by writing Eric (at) Sightline (dot) org.
I’m going to have to side with the Forest Service on this one. BOLD sounds like a great program, but I don’t see why they should get a free pass on proving that they are responsible professionals. Imagine the alternative, where any random person that thinks mountaineering sounds fun and could accidentally lead unprepared teens into danger. BOLD needs to cover the costs of documenting their program just like anyone else, non-profit or otherwise.
I also have to admit my opinion of Metrocenter YMCA has recently been severely downgraded since they displaced the former Cascade People’s Center to use as storage space and staging for BOLD: http://southlakeunion.komonews.com/news/community-spirit/city-leases-community-center-ymca-outrages-cascade-neighbors/643192
Again, BOLD seems like a great program but there is a shortage of public third places in the the center city and storage for camping equipment is not a good use of the building (BOLD was using space at Magnuson Park previously).
I fear you miss my point.
BOLD has no chance to prove anything one way or the other. The National Forests are not offering Guide/Outfitter permits at all these days. And the Forest Service requires no proof of competence from schools or volunteer-led groups.
I guess I did miss the point then. I took the letter to mean that they wanted the program to pay for the specialists. Of course one logical thing to do would be to ask our congressional delegation to get Forest Service funding in place!
Alan, thanks for calling attention to these prejudicial regulations in the National Forests!
Love the exquisite photos, too! Just wondering if there’s a photo missing?…Or if your photo of the “Stand of trees at Tank Lakes” is s’posed to be listed as being *beside* rather than *below*? Thanks! 🙂
cool, thanks for separating the forests from the trees. (…although, as this post points out, in the national forests’ case they really shouldn’t do that!)
Thank you for bringing to attention one of largest challenges we face in operating programs. As a point of clarification, we at Big City Mountaineers, have Forest Service and Park Service permits around the country. Our experiences with individual rangers have been nothing but stellar, in fact our experiences have shown permitting rangers have bent over backwards to provide permits for us. The issue lay in the number of user days available and possibly how the regulations are written. We believe there should be a limit to the number of commercial user days, however we would like to see a system in which new commercial entities, be it for profit or non-profit, can gain access to Forest Service lands.
Thank you for calling attention to this issue, I have been directing the BOLD program for the Metrocenter YMCA since it’s inception in 2007. We have tried every avenue possible to bring kids to our local public lands and have been denied access to every National Forest in the Northwest. We are not alone however, nearly every non profit that serves low income youth is denied access as well, including:
The Boys and Girls Club
Rite of Passage Journeys
The Urban Wilderness Project
The Service Board
Seattle Parks and Rec
Terra Forma Education
Camp Orkila and Camp Colmen
YMCA in Snohomish, Whatcom, Pierce, Kitsap and all other counties.
While the National Forest is clear that black and brown children are not welcome on public lands the National Parks have been increadible supportive, North Cascades National Park and the Olympic NP provide access for all the above groups and administer all 200 of their permits with a staff of one! We also send quite a few trips to Canada.
In the end what we need from the National Forests is a clear message that non-profits that serve youth are not required to have outfitter guide permits and shall be treated like the general public (the same category that schools groups fall into).
Andrew Jay – Director
I’m sorry Andrew, am I missing something? How did this become a racist issue? Can you please justify the statement “…the National Forest is clear that black and brown children are not welcome on public lands…”
Can’t the group partner with an existing permitee? As a permit holder, i’d be interested in a partnership.
Partnering is the answer! There are several qualified outfitters that already hold permits that would be happy to partner with organizations that want to give kids these amazing experiences. There’s no need for every single organization that wants to guide trips to get a new permit – just go with the companies that have the permits!
This kind of issue around who can have access to resources and opportunities being defined as an issue of finances and bureaucratization limitations is an excellent example of how white privilege plays out in a modern context. Yes, we can talk about this as an issue of class, which it is too, however when funds are low the opportunities for people of color seem to always get cut first. In the non-profit world, “diversity” budgets get cut, and in this case full forest access gets redefined as an “objective” issue of funding and not being able to provide opportunities that were presented in the past.
The problem is that in the past, even less of these people (youth of color from low income backgrounds) had such opportunities, and even fewer (if any) of these programs even existed. Giving YMCA BOLD and other organizations that serve these populations access when the money if available/when people are willing to change policy is only a step towards equality. It only makes things right for now. In not addressing, identifying, and working to engage with a way to make up for lack of access in the past, there is no room for an EQUITABLE solution. Equity would mean finding a way to address the fact that this demographic does not have the same access it has had in the past. When talking about budgets, objectivity in decision making, and doing what is “fair”, it is easy to lose sight of what is right. How will we (community members), these organizations, and our National Forest administration choose to address this legacy of least access to opportunities?
What kind of effect does this have on the developing worldview of these youth who, before even being able to go to the parks on these trips, did not know their world was so open to them?
I’m representing myself with this post, but I would like to add that I’ve been a past employee, am currently a volunteer for two of those inspiring organizations that Andrew Jay listed above.
Another point relevant to this conversation is the silos between federal agencies and their various missions. The silos carry over into budgeting. The USFS doesn’t have the money to do the work necessary to work with youth outdoors providers and develop programmatic best management practices that might justify a special rule for them. These youth programs have significant lifetime benefits for low income youth and their communities, as shown in Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle. Yet even if these programs are cost effective solutions to social problems, the human services and health agencies aren’t working with the USFS to come up with the needed funding–and the USFS doesn’t realize the ‘savings’ from having kids’ lives and sense of well-being improve.
It is strange that this problem with new rules seems to have arisen when the last Chief of the Forest Service was making getting kids outside a major initiative.
Mitsu, AJ, and GW,
Thanks for your notes — and for your work. The ironies/contradictions here are thick. With Mitsu, I want to be careful not to personalize/vilify USDA Forest Service workers. This problem is systemic. As GW says, it’s also systematic, in the sense that government inaction locks out the disadvantaged. But I have no doubts that if this issue actually rose to the attention of a member of the president’s cabinet, it would end. Keeping poor kids out of the National Forests does violence to the guiding values of the administration. Unfortunately, changing regulations is HARD. We’ve built such a thatch of procedural thorns around federal regulations that common sense often dies, as Philip Howard argues in The Death of Common Sense.
The roots of this problem are democratic impulses, such as guarding against favoritism, fraud, and corruption. Unfortunately, it turns out that writing utterly universal prescriptive regulations often yields unintended consequences. The solution, it seems to me, is to trust the leaders of public institutions, such as the USDA Forest Service, to reflect public values.
With Mitsu, I have few doubts that the rangers of the Northwest’s National Forests would be as welcoming to BOLD and its peers as is the National Park Service, were the regulations not binding their hands.
Sorry. I don’t know. But also, a work-around would seem disappointing in such a flagrantly ridiculous case. If ANYONE should be welcomed into National Forests, it seems to me, it ought to be these groups.
Former Girl Scout
I’m not sure if the present administration regards this issue as highly as you think it does. It seems to have other “priorities” on its agenda:
Former Boy Scout
Don’t be silly, this is just fox news spin. The sitting president is invited to the jamboree every year, but no president have ever attended every year. Bush only attended once out of the 8 years he was president. Did fox run a similar article when he declined?
Spending more time outdoors improves your eyesight, too:
Tell me again why the national forest needs to do all this work to allow these groups into the forests? Biologists? Really? The Boy Scouts can’t do this either? Or, actually SOME Boy Scouts can and others can’t.
Troops in my neighborhood (Medina) have great volunteer adult leaders, but the Scouts have difficulty recruiting experienced adult leaders in neighborhoods with more challenges. A great program to improve inner-city scouting depends on (lightly) paid adults to runt he troop. Would this troop be denied the ability to take their kids on a 50-miler into the National Forest?
It’s fine to have some limits on the number of people in the forest, but why it’s the Forest Service’s responsibility to pick one over the other is beyond me.
No, the guideline for commercial use is payment by the attendee, not payment of the leader.
At the risk of sending all of you into cardiac arrest – there was a time not that long ago that these forests sold timber – that generated lots of revenues and the Forest Service used its timber program to pay for most of its other programs and the agency wasn’t dependent on Congress for all its timber. But lots of folks like yourselves and Mr. Franzel worked to end those programs and now your getting the results.
No money so they don’t have the people needed to manage the programs you want to take advantage of.
Sorry to have to remind you of what once was and could be – but somehow I suspect most of you will be horrified by going back to the days when the timber program in Region six generated millions of dollars per year and funded many of the programs that reacreation now competes with for funding.
would it be possible for BOLD and other similar NGOs to partner with another organization that already has the necessary permits? I am not sure how the day-uses limitation works, but a partnerships could be a good way around the problem. Other than that, the YMCA surely has connections with the Congress, this sort of story is exactly the kind of thing that gets regulations changed.
Isn’t the solution as simple as getting volunteers to lead these programs?
A program like BOLD requires a staff of over 30 to run trips. They need experianced rock climbers, mountaineers and backpackers to safely run their courses. Additionally, each trip must have (as mandated by the YMCA and best practices of the industry)a staff member trained as a Wilderness First Responder. While BOLD staffs as many trips as it can with an adult volunteer, it would not be able to serve very many kids of it relied on community volunteers alone.
However, I like your line of thinking. Perhaps the Forest Service could find some volunteer biologists…etc who want to help perform a risk assessment. Those volunteers could really have an impact!
I agree, the YMCA Orkila kayaking expeditions that I went on as a teen required a very skilled staff! Hopefully this story will reach the right readers and the rule will get changed. Personally, I think the need for specialists to determine the impact of kids going backpacking is laughable and unnecessary. Just let them go!
I was waiting to see if someone saw the key! You found it.
From Jim Franzel’s letter that Alan quoted in the post:
“In order to conduct these analyses it takes many ‘specialists’. Specialists would be needed to determine the effects of the proposed activities for soils, water, wildlife, botany, recreation, socio/economic, Threatened & Endangered Species, etc. It is expensive and time consuming, all of which the Forest does not have the funding and resources to do at this time.”
If President Obama is serious about creating more green jobs for the economy, this could be a GREAT place to start. It could also be a terrific funding opportunity for an environmentally-minded philanthropist. The sooner the better for the kids’ sake!
If trip costs were offset by donations to BOLD (vs. fees), seems like BOLD would qualify as a noncommercial group and not need any permit if the group size was less than 75.
Why do permits are needed? Don’t we have the right to visit national parks??Breil Watches
You’re right on in terms of the generalities, but missing some of the complexities that make this so vexing. Having directed a program that serves underprivileged (and privileged) youth AND has permits, I can say from experience that there are both positives and negatives to the permit process and regulations. The regulations and legal implications are very complex and are interpretted differently in various ranger districts because of that complexity.
Firstly, commercial users (including non-profits) of the national forest must hold permits, which is why public schools do not need to hold permits, whereas BOLD, NOLS, Outward Bound, BCA, etc. must hold permits. Basically, if you charge someone (even if that fee is paid for by scholarship) and you use the national forest, you must hold a permit. The USFS collects ~3% of your tuition as a permit fee.
There is significant disagreement between ranger districts as to whether a NEPA and Environmental assessment are needed for groups such as BOLD (as opposed to higher-impact groups, such as horse packing outfitters). Some ranger districts require NEPA of backpacking/mountaineering outfitters, while others do not. The NEPA/environmental requirement came about largely because of a lawsuit in California which charged that a ranger district had issued permits to horsepackers without the NEPA/environmental assessment, and sought to revoke these permits primarily for environmental reasons (horesepacker impact). To be clear: I do not hold a personal opinion on the impact of horsepackers relative to bakcpackers, but this is some useful background.
Generally, in the most popular places (e.g. Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie), the permits are long gone, and favor the older outfitters who have held them for years. There is no doubt that this can create the perception of unfairness, and the actuality of privilege for these permit holders. In my mind this is a negative that keeps great groups, such as BOLD, and great kids out of the backcountry.
On the plus side, we need only to look at areas that grant a lot of commercial use (Mt. Rainier, the Boston Basin area of NCNP) to see that there is a real and valid reason to limit access to some of these delicate and popular places for the sake of having a less crowded and less environmentally damaged experience. This is why the Alpine Lakes Wilderness has such a pain in the neck restrictive permit process for every overnight hiker. Limiting access to the popular spots is, in my mind, a necesary evil. The real question is how to balance the need to limit access in a way that is equitable…so that we aren’t handing out permits in a way that (inadvertantly) favors members with certain dimensions of diversity, but not others.
The other big benefit to the permit system is that it does, to some degree, create a higher degree of risk management for the commercial groups that take other people’s kids into the wilderness. In my experience, the permit review process has delved deeply into the risk management plans, instructor training, logistics and other elements of our program and the high expectations of our local ranger district have likely led to trips that were ultimately better run.
Lastly, I’ll say this: ultimately, the people that are limiting the number of permits (NOT the way they’re distributed) are those that seek to protect the environment in these areas and the wilderness experience for non-commercial users. There is a valid reason for the permit process and limiting access for commercial groups. Again, we need a process that balances the needs of a wide variety of user groups in an equitable manner.
Very well said.
I’ve noticed that this has been published multiple places. Have you actually called Special Use Permit Administrators on any forests to confirm your story? The basics may be accurate but painting a picture of poor unfortunate disadvantaged youths being discouraged from using the forest is untruthful and unfair to the goal of the policy and people. With increasing population and commerical entities the Forest Service must perform thier service of protecting the resource. If the purpose of the Wilderness (a place of solitude, natural setting, little human influence, etc.) is sacrificed to provide a camping experience for every group that is interested and every commercial entity we might as well scrap the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as the need for safety, resource protection, positive user experience and give a free for all on lawsuits for our self-insured already strained government finances. I’m sure many Special Use Permit Administrators and District Rangers would also say “I devoted my adult life to building a Northwest that protects our wonderful public lands.”