Access vs. excess: Increasing recreation use of woods, waters raises tough questions

Better access to the outdoors was one of the top reasons people moved to Montana over the past decade, a recent study found.

The Montana State University research discovered newcomers are most often trekking to lakes and other water bodies, or taking in cultural and community activities. Along with these activities, parks, trails and campgrounds were popular places to visit.

This is no surprise to Bozeman residents who have seen their community’s population soar. With the increase in new townspeople and visitors, problems at popular recreation sites have increased, said resident Richard Lyon. He cited heavy trail use, difficulty finding parking, long lines of cars to reach the Bridger Bowl ski area on powder days and a surplus of dog poop left in the woods as examples.

This prompts the question: Are we loving our woods and waters to their detriment? If that statement is true, what is the solution to overcrowded campgrounds, fishing access sites and trails? Should we build more? Where would the funding come from? Should prices for facilities like campsites be raised, or should more people (including nonresidents) be taxed to help pay for things like boat launches? The answers can be elusive.


This topic was addressed in part by a three-person panel during an MSU Osher Lifelong Learning Institute talk on April 8. Participating in the discussion were: Patrick Cross, executive director of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation; Pat Doyle, marketing director at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; and Alex Sienkiewicz, district ranger for the Yellowstone District of the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Cross started out the discussion presenting some statistics emphasizing the situation in his neck of the woods. Wilderness visits to the Custer Gallatin National Forest increased from 207,000 in 2009 to 440,000 by 2014, a 110 percent jump.

At the same time, the Forest Service nationwide has seen a 48 percent decrease in staffing since 2002 and a 27 percent decrease in appropriation dollars, adjusted for inflation.

“These are the wilderness rangers, these are the trail crews, these are the people who are there to help mitigate the impacts we’re seeing from the increased visitor use,” Cross said.

Another statistic emphasizing the growth in outdoor trips is National Park Service visitation. It has jumped from 26 million visitors in 1974 to 297 million in 2021. Nearby, Yellowstone National Park set a new attendance record last year with almost 4.9 million tourists.

At Montana State Parks, visitation jumped by almost 1 million between 2019 and 2020, according to Doyle. There was little room for increased use at campgrounds, he added, because many were already at 70 percent to 80 percent occupancy before the pandemic.

At what price point does a fee hike discourage participation and lessen competition for scarce resources like camping spots? Wouldn’t fee hikes make outdoor activities more elitist? Public lands are, after all, not just those who can afford to pay to play.

With state park facilities seeing more use, Doyle said a variety of problems have arisen such as more human waste, more garbage and parking violations, resource damage and an increase in the number of people not paying day-use fees.

“It’s an exciting time to be in outdoor recreation, not that it doesn’t have a lot of challenges,” Doyle said, but he enjoys seeing people visiting places they may have ignored until the pandemic. Now, he added, park visitors are learning more about Montana’s story.

Nothing new

Similar crowding problems prompted conservationist Aldo Leopold to pick up his pen in 1949, Sienkiewicz noted by reading a passage the author wrote.

“Recreation became a problem with a name in the days of the elder Roosevelt, when the railroads which had banished the countryside from the city began to carry city-dwellers, en masse, to the countryside,” Leopold wrote in Conservation Esthetic. “It began to be noticed that the greater the exodus, the smaller the per-capita ratio of peace, solitude, wildlife, and scenery, and the longer the migration to reach them.”

Sienkiewicz said, “This change has been occurring for a long time. I think Aldo probably thought he was pretty novel 75 years ago writing that, but it seems to have been going on for a long time. I think what we are seeing is rapid growth in use levels and volume.”

He went on to question whether the issue is one involving the number of people and crowding or if “other variables are at play.”

A recently published study in the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire was able to provide some answers by surveying visitors to the region during the peak of the pandemic.

“Study findings suggest visitor crowding and conflict, followed closely by visitor access and equity, should be a top priority for management and policymakers,” the researchers wrote.

They go on to write that high- and middle-income visitors are better at adapting to “pandemic related impacts” while low-income visitors are not. Also, “female visitors were significantly more susceptible to negative experiences and impacts.”


To address the findings, the study’s authors suggest resource managers consider educating visitors before, during and after a recreation experience “in recreation norms, trail etiquette, (diversity, equity and inclusion), and Leave No Trace principles.” The education should focus on out-of-state visitors and residents of adjacent communities, they added.

Old truisms still make sense, such as: If you pack it in, pack it out. Leave only footprints, take only photographs. But what’s the best way to reach people, especially those new to outdoor activities who may know the least? Is a social media blitz across a multitude of platforms in order? Who will pay for these public service announcements?

At Montana facilities, FWP’s Doyle said his agency has chosen to market the benefits of responsible recreation rather than telling people what to do.

He pointed to some of the state’s partners in the tourism industry who have switched from a “destination marketing model” to “destination stewardship.” The state has a variety of recreate responsibly messages including: know before you go, plan ahead, explore locally, respect wildlife and build an inclusive outdoors.

The state is also using messages to encourage visitors to lead by example, Doyle said. The tag line that emphasizes this tack says: “Enjoy Montana’s state parks in a safe and responsible way that inspires others to follow in your footsteps.”

Educating agencies is also important, Sienkiewicz said.

“I believe that ecological data that helps managers make rational decisions that aren’t based on opinions or inclinations … the degree to which we can understand, not just ecology without humans but ecology with human uses on the landscape allows us as public servants and resource managers to make better decisions.”


Writer Todd Wilkinson, whose website Mountain Journal covers a variety of environmental topics in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, recently wrote about the problem he sees with advertising recreation in Montana when trails, rivers and lakes are already deemed crowded by many people’s standards.

“Will the blind promotion continue?” Wilkinson questioned in a recent story. “What are the limits for how much pressure Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife can take? When is enough enough, and will conservation organizations take the lead in helping the public, land management agencies, and developers realize what the threshold of enough is?”

Wilkinson goes on to quote Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director of American Rivers, who wrote in a guest column for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “Recreation is about taking. It’s a form of hedonism. Conservation is about giving. Sometimes that means giving up the opportunity to recreate in certain places or at certain times of the year to protect wildlife. Sadly, far too many recreationists take without giving anything back. That’s why our conservation deficit is worsening in Greater Yellowstone and our wildlife is increasingly under siege.”

Interestingly, the MSU study of newcomers found that many “report high levels of engagement in their new community, including volunteerism, attendance at public meetings and establishing social connections.” Whether this volunteerism and public involvement is aimed at conservation issues was not addressed.

Another question Wilkinson poses relates to recreation and wildlife: “How does putting more humans into spaces populated by sensitive species better the survival prospects for animals actually living there?”


One thing all three MSU speakers agreed on is that partnerships are key to getting things done. Doyle cited the recreation partnership on the Clark Fork River that was established to address the mass of students floating the stream on inner tubes during the summer. He also pointed to a partnership with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center at Cooke City that has increased education while reducing avalanche deaths. At one time Cooke City was unfortunately known as the most dangerous place in the United States to snowmobile.

These groups speak to the “recreate responsibly” ethos Montana State Parks has been advertising, Doyle said.

For the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation, volunteers were key to building and maintaining 58 miles of trails last summer, clearing 1,324 logs and installing 1,666 water bars. The group also relies on volunteers to educate trail users through an ambassador program. These people provided a 435 percent increase in volunteer hours last year, Cross said.

“The partnerships are a great complement for the agency crews but they’re not supposed to be a replacement,” he added. “So I think there’s more work we can do to support our partners.”

He suggested Montanans reach out to the state’s congressional delegation and urge more funding for federal land management agencies to do the conservation and recreation work important to residents and visitors.


The increase in recreation is coming at a stressful time for the environment. Drought continues to wreak havoc in much of the West. Lower, warmer water stresses fish and the entire aquatic ecosystem.

Drought is also increasing the risk and occurrence of wildland fires. Should Montana counties adopt zoning ordinances requiring people who build in rural areas to make their homes and surrounding lands fire resistant?

Should certain areas be set aside through planning to ensure wildlife have corridors to migrate, especially as the land they are utilizing is developed or becomes less productive because of drought or fires?

“I would argue there’s a lot more complexity at play in this conversation, and it’s not a simple problem or challenge, if we want to frame it that way,” Sienkiewicz said.

He also said he’s somewhat hesitant about saying increased recreation is a problem. There are many benefits — from health and wellness of individuals to financial boosts for economies, along with building a coalition that supports wild places, clean air and water.

“I love it when people use their public lands,” Sienkiewicz said. “It makes my heart sing. I don’t necessarily like adverse impacts, I don’t like loving-it-to-death problems, but I also feel like these are problems that we can manage through policy.”

Idaho park fees rise for out-of-staters, but most state campgrounds already booked

Idaho started doubling camping fees for out-of-staters at its five most popular state parks on Thursday, as required by a new law passed by the Legislature this year, but it will be at least a year before we see if it helps Idahoans get spots in the popular parks — because all five booked up immediately for the whole summer as soon as reservations opened back in December.

“It’s kind of a scramble when the nine-month book-ahead window opens,” said state parks spokesman Craig Quintana. “It books up within the hour.”

Existing reservations are grandfathered in under the law, HB 93, and their fees won’t rise.

“The sad fact is if we could magically snap our fingers and double our inventory, we would still sell out,” Quintana said. “We need more camping, pretty much across our system.”

State lawmakers this year did approve funding for a new 50-space campground at the Billingsley Creek unit of Thousand Springs State Park in the Magic Valley near Hagerman. That’s just gone out to bid; those campsites won’t be done until next year’s camping season. Also in the works is a new 50-space campground at Eagle Island State Park in the Treasure Valley, but it’s several years out.

Freshman state Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, proposed HB 93 this year, citing his personal pet peeve that he could never get a spot for his camper at popular Farragut State Park, just 30 miles from his home, unless there was a cancellation, because that park is so popular with out-of-staters, including those traveling over from nearby Washington.

Idaho state Parks Director Susan Buxton welcomed the move, and the bill passed both houses and was signed into law March 19, taking effect immediately. However, that was too late to affect this year’s camping season, since all the most popular state park campgrounds already are booked for the summer.

“The changes will keep Idaho competitive with surrounding states, which have similar surcharges for out-of-state guests,” Buxton said in a news release. “Even with these increases, our parks are a good value given the exceptional recreational opportunities.”

At popular Ponderosa State Park, on the shores of Payette Lake in McCall, a basic campsite costs $24 per night and one with full hookups costs $32. Next year, out-of-staters will pay double; if fees remain the same next year, they’d pay $48 and $64 for the same sites.

Those same fee increases will apply at four other busy state park campgrounds: Farragut, Priest Lake and Round Lake in North Idaho; and Henry’s Lake in eastern Idaho.

HB 93 also required Idaho’s state parks to double daily park entry fees for out-of-staters at five busy state parks. The state parks department chose Bear Lake State Park in southeastern Idaho; Hells Gate State Park in north-central Idaho; and Farragut, Priest Lake and Round Lake state parks in North Idaho. Daily entry fees there for residents are $7; as of this week, out-of-staters will pay $14.

Idaho’s state parks saw huge, record use last year, despite opening for camping two months late due to the coronavirus pandemic; visitation exceeded the previous year’s mark by 1.2 million. North Idaho’s parks were especially popular with Washington residents when that state’s parks were closed during the pandemic, but Idaho’s were open.

Under terms of the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund grants that paid to acquire and develop most of Idaho’s state parks, the state can’t restrict out-of-state use or have an “Idahoans-first system,” Quintana said. But it can charge up to double in fees for non-Idaho residents.

“We think we’re still a pretty good value when you look at the destinations you get to come to,” Quintana said. “So we’re unsure whether this will have the effect that some of the lawmakers were looking for, and only time will tell.”

Idaho residents also can buy a $10 Idaho State Parks “Passport” that covers daily entry fees, but not camping fees, at all Idaho state parks for a year. The passports are vehicle stickers sold through the Department of Motor Vehicles when Idahoans renew their vehicle registrations.

There’s more information on Idaho’s state parks at the state parks website:

Simpson applauds announcement of Great American Outdoors Act projects in Idaho

Thanks to a bill signed into law last year by President Donald Trump, outdoor areas across the U.S. and Idaho will soon be getting upgrades. 

The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed Congress with bipartisan support, will provide $9.5 billion over five years to address a backlog of maintenance issues in America’s national parks and public lands.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who was one of 59 sponsors of the bill, praised the legislation and the announcement of Idaho’s improvement projects that will be funded by it in a recent press release.

“I’ve often said we love our national parks to death. The backlog of maintenance to both the parks and forests is overwhelming and that is why I worked hard to make the Great American Outdoors Act law,” Simpson said. “Idahoans love to get out and enjoy our public lands and it is rewarding to see the goals of GAOA come to life through these projects.”

In Idaho’s 2nd congressional district, which Simpson represents, the following projects are planned with funds provided by the Great American Outdoors Act, according to the press release.

Caribou-Targhee National Forest:

— Repairing and chip sealing 5.31 miles of road up to Scout Mountain Campground through an agreement with Bannock County

— Improving the Kinney Creek Trailhead by adding gravel, increasing parking spaces, adding kiosks and maintaining the trail

— Repaving the Cherry Springs Nature Area and making sure it complies with ABA/ADA standards

— Recontouring the Lead Draw Trailhead, removing garbage and installing new signs

— Giving portions of Scout Mountain Campground a much-needed face-lift by restoring picnic tables, installing new toilets, upgrading the water system and ensuring it complies with ABA/ADA standards

— Improving the East Fork of Mink Creek Trailhead and Trail #164 by putting in new trail bridges, refurbishing the kiosk, adding water dips and replacing culverts 

Salmon‐Challis National Forest

— Dagger Creek bridge replacement

— Boundary‐Dagger Road repair

— Central Idaho Wilderness Complex Priority Area trails maintenance

— Salmon River Road Corridor Recreation Site maintenance

— Silver Creek Road (Road Forest 60108) Repair

— Salmon‐Challis National Forest Developed Recreation Site maintenance on Sawtooth National Recreation Area satellite sites

Boise National Forest:

— Yellow Jacket, Ten Mile Ridge and Silver Creek Summit trail maintenance

— Scriver Creek priority bridge replacement

— East Fork Burnt Log Creek priority bridge replacement

— Edna Creek Campground redesign and improvements

— Toilet replacements at Buck Mountain, Penny Springs and Trout Creek campgrounds

— Idaho City Compound Water System reconstruction

— Third Fork Project Camp and Recreation Rental Cabin water system reconstruction

Tawnya Brummett, Boise National Forest supervisor, and Chuck Mark, Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor, said in Simpson’s press release that the projects picked were ones “that reduce deferred maintenance, are ready to implement and provide the greatest immediate benefit to the public.”

In the press release, Caribou-Targhee National Forest supervisor Mel Bolling praised the Great American Outdoors Act.

“Each year, approximately 2 million individuals recreate in the forest,” Bolling said. “GAOA funding is a great opportunity to improve many of our local facilities and enhance access to these popular areas.”

The Great American Outdoors Act, which The Associated Press called “the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century,” was signed into law on Aug. 4, 2020. Afterward, then-Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt declared Aug. 4 as Great American Outdoors Act Day. Because of that, each Aug. 4, there will be no entrance fees on Department of Interior lands.

“Thanks to public input and our Forest Service employees, rural economies and communities in and around our national forests will benefit from the implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act,” Simpson said in the press release. “I look forward to getting out on our public lands and seeing these projects upon their completion.”

Going outdoors? Experts say have a plan before arriving

If there’s one thing learned from 2020 about enjoying the great outdoors, especially in the busy national parks, it is: plan ahead.

Nearby national parks report countless visitors showing up at the park last year with their dogs, kids, a tent they’d never set up before, all the campgrounds full, and no backup plan.

Gone are the days when families could jump in the car and show up at the park entrance gate “figuring things out when we get there.”

Going armed with reliable information and reservations is now critical to having a good experience in this current pandemic-driven outdoor recreation frenzy, say public land officials. At certain times of day, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park roads, parking lots and other facilities are bulging at more than 100 percent capacity.

“The big message is that if you’re coming and spending the night, do you know where you’re spending the night? And if you don’t, do you have a plan B?” said Denise Germann, communications officer for Grand Teton National Park. “What we saw last year and in 2017 during the eclipse, is that when people couldn’t find a campground in the park, they went to the (National) Forest. That creates challenging conditions on the (National) Forest next door.”

This year, Grand Teton National Park switched to an all-reservation system for its campgrounds.

“Most of those sites are filled through the summer at this point,” Germann said. “We don’t allow camping outside of the designated campsites in the park.”

That policy prohibits pulling your camper van off the side of the road for the night.

The nearby Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests are a mix of reservations and first-come, first-served campgrounds. On weekends, most sites were full across the system this past summer. Another newer phenomenon is that many older campgrounds were created with smaller camp trailers in mind and don’t accommodate the behemoths of today.


Enjoying an outdoor visit on public lands can be all about timing. One repeated mantra is “go early or go late” to avoid crowds in the middle of the day and see the best the outdoors has to offer.

“Spotting wildlife is more about when than it is about where,” said Darin Skidmore in a Facebook message. “I make at least two trips a month to those two national parks. I leave home when most people are sleeping, and I am in the park long before the sun is up. I avoid the crowd by being out of the park by 9 a.m. I always see animals, always. But I don’t just drive and hope that I run into something. I am a hiker. I always have bear spray, I always have gear in case of emergencies. And I follow all of the rules.”

Coming early or coming late also works for better parking, officials say. Good timing also applies to the day of the week.

“Last year threw us such a wild card because things were filled 24/7,” said Mary Cernacek, of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “It was just constant. As things are leveling out, the middle of our week tends to be less impacted than our weekends. Folks that are showing up Tuesday morning are having more spaces to choose from, whether it’s parking, camping, choice launch lanes at a boat ramp — mid-week folks are finding a bigger range of choices.”

Yellowstone National Park staff echo the mantra of timing your visit.

“We like to tell visitors to plan on venturing into the park early or even late to beat the crowds, generally, before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m.,” said Ashton Hooker, at Yellowstone’s public affairs office. “We anticipate another very busy summer season ahead of us.”

Visit the surrounding places

While the national parks are the giant visitor magnets, officials said visitors shouldn’t limit themselves to just the parks.

“There are some spectacular public lands in Idaho and Wyoming,” Germann said. “Part of it is planning ahead. People will be surprised at the number of opportunities that are there.”

Plus, outside of the national parks, the public land is dog-friendly. Inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks dogs are restricted.

“Dogs are not allowed on the trails,” Germann said. “They are allowed on leashes anywhere a car can go. If you are traveling with your pet you need to plan ahead, because what are you going to do with your dog when you are hiking in the backcountry? Last summer we saw more dogs on trails in the backcountry. We got more calls about dogs in places they shouldn’t be.”

Another current restriction is that inside all federal buildings, such as visitor centers or ranger offices, masks are still required.

National parks are not the only areas slammed with visitors.

“This year for our rivers we have an increase in the amount of folks putting in for river permits for the four rivers lottery which includes the Main and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River,” said Amy Baumer, a spokeswoman for the Salmon-Challis National Forest. “We’re seeing that trend as well.”

Baumer recommends calling ahead on campground availability if you’re planning on sleeping in that neck of the woods.

“I would encourage people to call ahead to the local ranger district office where they plan to go,” she said. “Those folks will get the reports from the recreation staff and have an idea of the use that’s going on in their district and help people plan.”


One headache public land managers are not looking forward this summer is abandoned campfires. Last summer, the Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center was reporting 60 or more abandoned campfires per weekend across the region, many causing wildfires. The same headache was plaguing land managers across the West. Some campers haven’t figured it out.

“I think that’s going to be a huge headache,” Cernacek said. “People don’t understand what abandoned campfires are. Abandoned campfires is walking away from any campfire that still has heat in it. They may have dumped water on it and walked away thinking they have done their due diligence, it not necessarily so. Abandoned campfires have to stop.”

Leave no trace

With increased visitors last summer, came increased trash. Land managers reported spending more time cleaning up after sloppy and irresponsible campers.

“If you pack it in, pack it out,” Germann said. “Those are just basic concepts about outdoor recreation that some folks have probably never been introduced to.”

Enjoy your visit

National Forest and park officials said despite unprecedented use, they still expect that most people will have an enjoyable experience in the outdoors.

“There is not a bad experience in Grand Teton National Park or the Bridger-Teton National Forest,” Germann said. “The landscape is spectacular, the hiking is spectacular, the views are incredible, the wildlife is very visible. I don’t know that there is one place better than another.”

Biz leaders quit Trump panel after Charlottesville comments

By Josh Boak and Michelle Chapman/Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) — A fourth business leader resigned Tuesday from President Donald Trump’s White House jobs panel — the latest sign that corporate America’s romance with Trump is faltering after his initial half-hearted response to violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. The parade of departing leaders from
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