A decade ago, the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department used to hold hayrides on U.S. Forest Service land in Pattee Canyon.
Now an insurance problem keeps the city government from sending children's programs into the surrounding Lolo National Forest. A complicated permit system restricts many other educational and nonprofit groups' ability to get kids into the woods.
At a time when everyone from President Barack Obama to your local pediatrician is encouraging more outdoor exercise, entering the Great Outdoors can require some bureaucratic power-lifting.
"Years ago, lots of groups like ours would simply access public lands," said Missoula YMCA associate executive director Jason Shearer. "If there was a regulating authority, they weren't aware of it."
But over the past several years, lots of those groups have noticed a growing challenge at getting permission to play in the woods. Permits for group activities on national forests are harder to get, change and follow.
Part of that stems from a federal change in the Forest Service's outfitters and guides rules, according to Missoula District Ranger Paul Matter. In 2007, the Forest Service eliminated a category of "institutional outfitters" which covered schools, summer camps and other education-related programs. Instead, all group users were placed in the same category with hunting guides, raft companies and dude ranches.
Retired Forest Service permitting officer Joe Kipphut said the change reached deeper. Somewhere in the mix of growing forest uses, smaller Forest Service budgets and shifting priorities, he said, the system seems to be binding up.
"I administered permits for 22 years out of the Missoula district until the spring of 2007," Kipphut said. "The YMCA had its fee waived by several consecutive district rangers, and then all of a sudden, they're charging. The stuff I've heard is pretty petty, not conducive to having a situation where you want young people in the woods. Is that what they want - to be treating everybody the same, poorly?"
Matter does want everyone treated the same, and well.
"To have a business operate on a National Forest is a privilege, and they need to have authorization to do so," Matter said. "We need to show they have safe service, a responsible level of quality, carry insurance and that they won't degrade the environment. We are very consistent and treat all our outfitters and guides equally."
The Missoula Ranger District deals regularly with five local organizations that take children into the Lolo National Forest. They contribute about 2,000 user days a year, mostly packed into the summer months of June, July and August.
Those Missoula organizations also channel their requests to visit the Bitterroot, Powell or other nearby forests through the Missoula Ranger District. Permit administrator Al Hilshey said that adds several thousand more days to the forest.
The average person can walk into a national forest virtually any time, anywhere, without advance permission. But pay someone to take you there and the rules change.
The Forest Service requires anyone who outfits (provides services or equipment) or guides (supervises or instructs) paying clients to obtain a use permit. These must often be scheduled far in advance of the hoped-for dates: Summer activities are usually set down the previous November. There's also a fee, depending on the type of activity and size of group. Some youth trips cost up to $4 a child.
At the Montana Natural History Center, youth program coordinator Lisa Bickell said the regulations made it hard for her to get kids in the woods.
"When I started, we didn't have many issues," Bickell said. "Now we're submitting our plans a year in advance, saying these are the dates, here's how many kids, rain or shine."
The Natural History Center enrolls between 250 and 300 children a summer in its camps. During the school year that jumps to around 1,200 students in its school-based Visiting Naturalist Program. Coordinating the center's staff, the school teacher's schedule, the Forest Service permit and Montana's fickle weather is a constant headache.
"For those, we're stuck using local areas," she said. "We need some place with a bathroom that's within a reasonable driving distance. So if we're doing something in May and we have a rain day, rescheduling is difficult."
The center has a cap of 45 people per year that it can take to the Forest Service's Blue Mountain Recreation Area. That forces the center to save those opportunities for smaller programs, excluding its children's camps.
"They've worked to open new areas to us, and we've tried to shift away from high-use areas," Bickell said. "They do try to be as flexible as they can."
They've also been firmer. Bickell said the center had been getting more tickets recently than in the past, for being on a wrong trail or coming on a wrong date. Those tickets can cost $100 or more.
At the ranger station, Matter said keeping groups on their dates and trails is more than bureaucratic rule-following. Each forest may have active logging projects, grizzly bear issues, reserved campground gatherings, maintenance work and myriad other competing activities scheduled for the same time and area. Some places, like popular rock-climbing spots, can only hold a small number of users at once.
"I think we have been flexible," Matter said of the juggling act. "We make changes on the spot at times. Most groups don't do that. Some do it on a daily or weekly basis, and that's a little more troublesome. We have to make sure there aren't conflicts that the changes create."
One tenant of Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative is to encourage more use of national forests. But even in Montana, many people feel unprepared to go on their own on the trail.
"If we did have the opportunity to go into the forest, the biggest beneficiaries would be the kids," said Jason Pignanelli, Missoula Parks and Recreation specialist. "The kids are surrounded by forests. If you don't start bringing them into them now, they'll never go. They'll be scared to go into the woods."
The city of Missoula doesn't have permit problems with the Forest Service, because it can't get them at all. The city's insurance carrier isn't structured to indemnify the U.S. government, and without insurance, the Forest Service won't issue a permit.
Matter said that problem occurs all over the nation, where states or cities have insurance policies that don't mesh with the federal government's requirements.
"Neither group is open to break its own laws," Matter said.
Instead, the city takes summer-camp children to state parks, city open-space lands or private facilities like Marshall Mountain for out-of-town experiences. But it's frustrating to recall "Haunted Halloween Hayrides" in Pattee Canyon and similar excursions made in a less regulated and insured time.
The YMCA's Shearer said he could appreciate the tangle of priorities over public lands. Should they be kept in pristine condition, or opened to all comers? Should youth activities trump adult ones? Are nonprofit organizations more worthy than businesses? Do local interests outweigh the desires of distant visitors?
"They may not have exactly the same interests at play, but they're all working for a common good," Shearer said. "It's a complicated question."
Matter said more changes are coming next year that could help people navigate the Forest Service's permit system. One is a new classification of forest lands into "Open Use" with no schedule limitations, "General Use" with some use thresholds and "Areas of Special Concern" that may limit both time and size of activity. That should simplify choosing where to plan activities.
But there still remains the challenge of learning Forest Service rules for things many people assume is rule-free. Missoula District assistant permitting officer Karen Stockman said she sees day care providers haul 20 children out to look at wildflowers without knowing they should have scheduled the trip in advance. Those businesses are usually held to a different standard than the ones that work regularly with the Forest Service and have been exposed to the guidelines.
"I don't blame members of the public for not understanding all this," Matter said. "We constantly work with outfitters and guides to support their programs. And part of our responsibility is to protect the public treasury from litigation and lawsuits. But conservation education is something this forest has supported for a long, long time."