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Faced with a growing crowd of folks who want to play on public lands, U.S. Forest Service specialists are strategizing how to provide an expanded array of recreational opportunities.

“We created a lot of work for ourselves,” said George Bain, who wears the unwieldy title of director of recreation, lands, minerals, heritage and wilderness for the agency’s Region 1 in Missoula. “We want to stay relevant to the American public, but we don’t want to be in competition with other recreation providers.”

To refine that thought, Bain and several dozen Forest Service colleagues spent two and a half days brainstorming the issues, goals and actions surrounding better recreation management. The group included trail crew foremen, heritage experts, landscape architects, wildlife biologists and forest health specialists.

A 2013 GAO report found the agency had a $524 million maintenance deficit, and had done upkeep on just 37 percent of the 158,000 miles of trail in 2012.

Region 1 alone has 28,000 miles of trail, 1,600 developed recreation sites like boat ramps and picnic areas, and another 10,000 dispersed recreation areas that need upkeep. That doesn’t count the thousands of miles of forest roads crossing those public lands.

All that maintenance competes with continually shrinking agency budgets, growing firefighting activity and changing public interests.

Fat-tire bike-riders are showing up on trails previously dominated by cross-country skiers. Photographers are attaching their cameras to flying drones. Hiking ranks as the No. 1 activity people seek on national forests, but backpacking ranks down in the 20s.

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A big part of the strategy involves figuring out the Forest Service’s role in recreation.

For example, while the National Park Service manages motor coaches in its parks, Bain said the Forest Service didn’t see that as a service it’s expected to provide.

There’s also a growing need to collaborate with the multitude of public lands users who are asking to help the Forest Service with the backlog. That involves sorting out who can do what and what things need to be done first.

“We’re working on how to bring in external folks, including government agencies like Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the BLM and National Park Service, as well as groups like the Backcountry Horsemen,” Bain said. “We want to make sure we get them engaged in the development of strategies – not just get to them at the end and say, ‘Here’s your role.’ ”

Ideas from last week's workshop in Missoula will be translated into briefing papers due to the Region 1 leadership team by the end of January, with a public document possibly ready by next summer.

“This is not a new dawning in the agency,” Bain said. “A lot of us have recognized the value of recreation for a very long time.

"But we’re not sure the public and Congress have recognized that. So many people still think of the Forest Service and think of timber. That’s changing more and more.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.