Outdoor recreation is one of the many things that make our public lands special. Hiking, biking, fishing, camping and backpacking are just a few of the many activities we get to enjoy on our public lands. However, besides the growing number of people spending time outdoors, you may have noticed that public lands are changing. Whether it be from large-scale forest fires or limited access due to dead and downed timber, forest health has a significant impact on our recreational opportunities.
Forest management is a critical resource for maintaining public lands to support outdoor recreation and create better air quality, water quality and diverse ecosystems. By actively managing our forests, we can maintain trails, create a healthy habitat and prevent large-scale wildfires so we can ensure continued access to our public lands.
The Importance of Recreation
Outdoor recreation is an essential part of many of our lives, especially if you live in Montana. Connecting with nature and disconnecting from the distractions and responsibilities of our everyday lives is important to both our mental and physical health. Outdoor recreation is also a large part of the U.S. economy, accounting for $454 billion of gross domestic product in 2021 (Bureau of Economic Analysis). The benefits of public land access go on and on, which is why it’s such a critical part of land management plans. In fact, according to the U.S. Forest Service:
“How the Forest Service manages for recreation purposes is more important today than ever before. Recreation on national forests and grasslands helps businesses and communities directly or indirectly connected to recreation; provides economic stability and jobs for local communities; and serves as a quiet place of respite for everyone, especially suburban and urban city dwellers.”
However, managing our lands for multiple use isn’t the only thing forest managers must keep in mind. Wildlife habitat, water quality, resilience and diversity all have to be balanced in order to encourage resiliency and the long-term sustainability of our forests.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976
Managing our public lands to achieve all of these different goals isn’t a new concept. In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) enacted the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The plan sought to establish guidelines for managing lands for “multiple use and sustained yield.” According to the act, multiple use is defined as “the management of public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized to the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people [...] including but not limited to recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural, scenic, scientific and historical values.”
The policies outlined in this act help guide land managers as they consider not only what is best for the land and environment but also the needs of the people, including providing recreational opportunities and maintaining the quality of the environment for future generations to come.
How Does Forest Management Support Outdoor Recreation?
Forest management has many benefits beyond creating healthy, sustainable forests. By properly managing our forests through logging, thinning or prescribed burns, we can help maintain air quality, water quality, wildlife habitat and, of course, recreational opportunities.
Preventing Forest Fires
Active forest management is an essential tool in our fight to prevent large-scale forest fires. While low and mixed-severity fires can be beneficial to lands, high-intensity fires can completely destroy stands leaving nothing in their wake. Gary Ellingson, a forester with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, discusses how catastrophic wildfires can impact the land for many years:
“With a low severity or an intermediate severity [...] the fire will burn, but you will still have an organic layer of material on the soil that will allow water to infiltrate. It will soak in slowly, the watershed is still healthy, and you still have clean water coming out. When you have a high-severity fire, there’s nothing left but mineral soil. When you get thunderstorms and rain events on that, it just washes off the hillside, and you lose the soil. That’s impacting the long-term productivity [of the forest]. If you lose that, it’s gone for many generations.”
The degradation of soils that Ellingson references can affect soil quality for decades, causing erosion, increasing runoff and leaving us without access to these areas. But by managing our forests through mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, we can create fuel breaks that mimic the nature of low or mixed-intensity fires. This helps clean up stands, promote regeneration and avoid high-severity wildfires, preserving the state of our recreation areas.
One of the simplest ways that active forest management supports recreation is through access. Forest management activities create a large network of roads that allow us to safely access public lands. Along those same lines, these activities also maintain trails, removing dead and downed timber so that hikers and bikers can more easily navigate the trail systems.
Creating Healthy Habitat
Forest management activities also provide healthy habitats for wildlife. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “National forests and grasslands provide 80 percent of the elk, mountain goat and bighorn sheep habitat in the lower 48 states; 12 million acres of waterfowl habitat, 28 million acres of wildlife habitat; and habitat for 250 species of neotropical migratory birds.” Managing our forests to support all of these different species is a huge task that requires careful consideration.
Like most foresters, John Ottman of Ottman Forestry Consultants understands the importance of this task. A forester of nearly 40 years, and an avid outdoorsman, Ottman prides himself in being able to support the diversity that is key to maintaining healthy habitat. According to Ottman, “The more mosaics you have, the more wildlife, the more birds, the more grass, forbs and shrubs. A mosaic of forests creates a whole melting pot of plants, animals and birds.” By cultivating this diversity through each stand, forest managers are able to create forests rich with wildlife habitats that sportsmen and recreators can both enjoy.
There’s something special about disconnecting from the world and getting out into nature. Our access to public lands provides us with the opportunity to do just that. By managing our public lands with sustainable forest management techniques, we can help ensure continued access to the recreational opportunities we all know and love for many years to come.