Foresters of a certain age will recognize the question, “Forests for whom and for what?” posed by Marion Clawson in the title of a forest policy book widely read by students learning how to juggle multiple use management.
Recreation is commonly thought of as a light use of the land, but as society gets bigger, better, faster, so do our recreation habits. Hiking morphs into trail biking. Snowmobiling morphs into year-round, backcountry, motorized use. Canoeing becomes motor boating. Recreation has become harder on the land, and the numbers of us doing it have increased.
In fact, the USDA Forest Service considers unmanaged outdoor recreation as one of the four major threats facing private and public forests today (fire and fuels, invasive species, and loss of open space are the others). It cites both the increased use – an astounding 97 percent of U.S. citizens over the age of 15 participate in some form of outdoor recreation – and the rapid rise in the use of off-highway vehicles.
We typically think of recreation as a non-consumptive use of the land, but as our uses have gotten harder, the consumptive or at least disruptive nature of our recreation has increased. Anyone who has been passed on the road by a four-wheeled vehicle covered in mud knows what I mean. That mud came from someone’s woodlot or from a town road or right-of-way that benefits us all.
To be sure, not all four-wheeling leaves evidence behind, but land managers who have always said that recreation can easily be integrated with other resource considerations like timber and wildlife management, water quality protection, and soil maintenance, are beginning to question this old chestnut.
Pressures are similar on private and public lands, but they can be magnified on private lands, especially since there are few benefits for the private landowners and many headaches.
On unposted land in New Hampshire, access is allowed without permission, at least for non-hunting and non-motorized vehicular use. This traditional right of access is threatened by harder uses of private property. And the immediate problems caused by the noise, pollution, trash, and erosion could prove to have further implications. Forest conservationists have worked hard to document that undeveloped forests are worthy of special tax consideration, because they benefit the community and require few services. But when faced with misuse, owners rightly turn to local police or state conservation officers. Is the day so far off when high-profile enforcement cases change the public’s perception of the financial benefit of open space?
As nuisances increase, so will posting. A large increase in posted private land may erode public support for current use tax programs. Though people may not be fully aware that much of their recreation is given to them free of charge by the private landowner, they will surely notice if that privilege is taken away.
I hope for a return to simpler, less-intrusive means of forest recreation, and I want people to play nice. These are not, perhaps, realistic goals. I don’t see clear solutions to these dilemmas, but here are a few ideas.
Embrace the recreationist. Providing forests for others to use recreationally may not be a motivation for most landowners, but doing so may yield a psychic benefit. Few of us feel good about the policing role, and even well-behaved visitors are transformed into trespassers on posted land. Allowing others to visit may be as good for the landowner’s soul as it is for the visitor’s. It also is a chance to enlist the grateful visitors in channeling the activities of other users.
Refocus the message. Information and advertisements geared to the average Joe tend to focus on where to go, what to do, what equipment to use, how to stay safe, and how to have a better time. Seldom do they encourage people to recreate ethically, showing respect for the land and the landowner.
When trying to change someone’s bad behavior, it helps to know if they don’t know better or if they just don’t care. For those who don’t care, stressing the long arm of the law and following through on aggressive enforcement may be the only way.
Those who don’t know better can learn, and I take every opportunity to tell people that 80 percent of New Hampshire’s productive forestland is privately owned and we owe it to these landowners to visit and use their land with care. The most effective messages landowners deliver are when meeting someone recreating on their land. It is hard (though not unheard of) for the visitor to argue with their gracious host.
Go for a walk. My siblings and I had great fun with my dad, who taught us all to love a walk in the woods. No motorized means of mobility for me, not in the woods at least. Childhood experiences are hard to shake – those lessons learned early are learned well. What lessons are we teaching our youth today about outdoor fun? This might be simplistic, and it won’t yield benefits for many years, but go for a walk and take a kid. Make a habit of it.
Karen Bennett has worked for UNH Cooperative Extension since 1979. She is extension forestry specialist and professor of forest resources at the University of New Hampshire.