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GUEST COLUMN: Friends for every forest would get things done

By: Sharon T. Friedman
February 17, 2018 Updated: February 17, 2018 at 4:10 am
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I hope that the outdoor industry, who recently moved their trade show to Denver, has a chance to put aside the acrimony from their Utah experience and adopt some Colorado values. We're a state with diverse industries and inclinations, and we have a history of working together on public lands issues. The outdoor industry can do better than becoming political activists. They have the capacity to transform public land management for the better.

As veteran of federal public lands policy and politics over the last 40 years, I can tell you that the greatest threat to our federal public lands is not the Republicans or the Democrats. The "enemy" is us - the millions of people who hike, bike, ride, drive, hunt, fish, climb, camp, and everything else in the National Forests and BLM. The greatest problems have resisted solution by R administrations and D administration, R Congresses and D Congresses and all combinations thereof. Maybe it's time to try something different.

The outdoor industry instead could choose, as Amazon, Buffett and JP Morgan are doing with health care, to just "do it," as the shoe people say, instead.

What would disruptive innovation look like? Here in Colorado Springs, we can talk to a few people, and walk a few trails, and get a sense of the problem.

We all like to recreate on the Pike Forest. Some of us feel, like one colleague, "I don't think it's right for some taxpayer in New Jersey to pay to maintain trails where I walk my dog every day." Others feel "Congress needs to provide what is needed, we shouldn't have to pay to use our federal lands (except for National Parks)."

For decades there have been skirmishes between these different views, and the division is not at all along partisan lines. For decades, conditions have only become worse as more people flood the forests and the funding has not kept up. Agency employees do the best they can, but they are not getting the help they need. It seems to me that we the people need to step up and help them, and the outdoor industry could and should take a leading role. They have incredible assets and are in the right place at the right time. They have a network of local businesses, technological know-how, marketing and media skills, and unfettered creativity compared to agency employees (that's in terms of fetters, not creativity).

So what if the outdoor industry put its financial, human and technical resources behind building nonprofit capacity to support Forest Service and BLM programs? They would be choosing a leadership role of uniting, not dividing, something our country greatly needs. What would this look like? Here's one possibility. The outdoor industry could set aside some percentage of their profits to give back to public lands. The first step would be to support the development of nonprofit, nonpolitical (how countercultural is that?) Friends groups for each forest or unit of the BLM.

Colorado has excellent examples, like the San Juan Mountain Association and the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, but there are also excellent examples in other states - for example the Shawnee National Forest Friends in Illinois. These would not be collaborative groups to give advice on projects and plans, but work on fixing the noncontroversial. Ask anyone, there is plenty of that kind of work to go around.

My dream would be that if, say, only three of us in the Colorado Springs area, decided we wanted to form a Friends group for our neighbor the Pike National Forest, we would get a "how to" manual with advice and examples. The industry might also help fund startups and coaching for each Friends group.

Imagine a program with discount coupons for local businesses with a donation or a number of volunteer hours. Or just imagine the imagination and enthusiasm that people would bring to supporting their beloved special places.

The Friends could work with the Forest Service or BLM to prioritize, fund and manage volunteers and projects. Feds are sometimes caught in a net of things they can't do, but Friends go right ahead and get things done.

What outdoor industry could do is to support getting "Friends for Every Forest" and those Friends, could in turn, transform the face of recreation on Forest Service and BLM lands. To paraphrase the classic quotation of President Kennedy, "Ask not what your Forest can do for you, ask what you can do for your Forest."

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Sharon T. Friedman is a former Forest Service planner and National Environmental Policy Act specialist.

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