BLM has a plan to tackle booming recreation — at least in theory
People visited Bureau of Land Management land more than 80 million times in 2022, hiking, biking, driving, exploring, hunting, fishing, climbing, camping and otherwise recreating. That’s a 40% increase over the past decade. In the same time period, the BLM’s recreation budget rose by only 22%.
The combination translates into a vexing problem for public-land managers in the West: Popular areas risk being loved to death. On the ground, this means more cars, trucks and ATVs barreling over sensitive species, and more garbage littering more trails through winter wildlife range and campsites. Meanwhile, the agency lacks the resources to keep up.
“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being passive, because our lands haven’t faced that much pressure,” says Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But now, if we’re not proactive, it’s going to have some serious consequences.”
In an attempt to head off those consequences, the BLM recently released a 28-page document called the “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation.” In it, the agency takes on persistent issues linked to recreation’s increasing popularity, including harm to sacred tribal sites, chronic funding shortfalls and barriers to equal use, such as limited outreach and lack of diverse staffing.
The plan itself reads at a high level, addressing four broad goals: bringing in more money, building partnerships across public and private sectors, improving outreach and inclusion, and protecting the land while meeting the demands of increased recreation. The public has until Sept. 30 to give feedback to the agency.
The document is not a formal plan, but Webster said its recommendations could help relieve some concrete recreational pressures, beginning with the fact that only about 30% of BLM lands have a basic travel management plan. That means new roads and trails pop up across landscapes from sagebrush to slickrock, with little regard for an area’s wildlife and cultural sites.
As a first step, the agency should account for existing trails and roads, said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Montana. The BLM has successfully identified most of its natural resource development opportunities. Doing the same for its trails would not only help protect important sites, but also help local communities manage and benefit from recreation.
The agency also needs to figure out just how many people are using various sites and find ways to prevent crowding and overuse at the most popular areas.
Take Moab, Utah. Visitation exploded there with hikers, bikers, climbers and campers drawn by its famous swooping sandstone, wavy dunes and towering crags. But Moab is also heralded as an example of how to respond, with hikers, bikers — both motorized and non — and other community members working with the BLM diligently, year after year, to build and maintain trails able to handle the ever-increasing crush of visitors. The coalition has also helped ease the burden on nearby national parks by redirecting thrill-seekers to other vast tracts of public land.
But it takes money, Lawson said, to track trail-users and post signs, build outhouses and educate visitors in multiple languages, and not all communities have the financial resources of an outdoor mecca like Moab.
And the BLM’s recreation budget is “trending in the wrong direction,” said Kevin Oliver, BLM’s division chief for recreation and visitor services. Ten years ago, the BLM spent about 84 cents on each visit. Today that number has fallen to 74 cents.
The agency is seeking fundraising help from the Foundation for America’s Public Lands, its congressionally authorized charitable partner, Oliver said. This could include individual donations and possibly corporate sponsors. It is also hoping for a financial boost from federal laws like the Great American Outdoors Act, which set aside billions of dollars for access to and infrastructure improvements on public lands.
BLM officials aren’t complaining about having more visitors; Oliver called the recreation spike “fantastic.” But they acknowledge that, as things stand, they simply cannot cope with the increasing demands. They know that the 40% visitation bump isn’t an aberration: Americans want to get outside.
The new document stresses the importance of states, tribes and local communities working with the BLM to come up with solutions. But the coalitions they create need to be durable, Oliver said, given inevitable changes in administrations and political priorities.
Webster agrees. While the growing numbers of visitors have already damaged some popular areas and put pressure on wildlife from elk to sage grouse, especially in states like Colorado, the bulk of BLM lands are not yet recreation destinations. But that can change quickly, and Webster wants the agency to plan ahead.
“It’s a lot harder to pull things back in if you’ve made a mistake than it is to do it right from the beginning,” Webster said. “And there’s just more people in the West, and more people recreating on our public lands.”
Christine Peterson lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outdoor Life and the Casper Star-Tribune, among others. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.