Outfitting and guiding are historical professions the world over. From expeditions and explorers to modern day vacationers, there have always been people capable and willing to share their knowledge, skill, and equipment with people needing their assistance. The Hudson’s Bay Company, Lewis and Clark, John Wesley Powell, Jedediah Smith, Sacajawea, John Muir, Jim Bridger the “Wagons West”, and famed mountain guides of the Alps were associated with early outfitters and guides. Teddy Roosevelt, an ardent supporter of public lands, frequently utilized outfitters and guides to show him the country.
On the public lands of the United States, and in particular the National Forests, outfitters and guides provide visitors seeking their assistance a quality experience as an extension of the agency’s mission. Outfitting and guiding provides a small fraction of the total visitor days experienced on the National Forests, but it is an important segment to the visitor, the agency, the resources, and the economy of the communities where outfitters are based.
The relationship between outfitters and the agencies has evolved over the last 65 years. During the early years, the outfitter permit was a 3 X 5 inch card listing the holder as an outfitter, frequently issued by the Fish and Game Department. No one knew much about the no trace concept and minimum impact ethic was the rare exception rather than the rule. The favored camping spots were at the attractions. Lakeshores, meadows, mountain peaks and passes, stream sides and trail side zones all received the use. Structures appeared as did caches, fences, corrals, water systems, toilets, large parties, large numbers of pack and saddle stock, and heavy tents and cookware were the rule.
But times and knowledge changed. The Wilderness Act passed in 1964. On all lands visitation continued to increase. The agencies and interest groups became more active in developing ways to use the backcountry with a light hand. Some outfitters have helped pioneer this new ethic, with lightweight equipment, fewer pack stock, smaller parties, and more hidden camp locations. Pack-it-in, Pack-it-out is now the rule, and those that have had difficulty adapting are out of business or working hard to comply.
Outfitters and the agencies, and the publics they both serve, should exist in a cooperative relationship. Working together they provide visitors and clients with that “once-in-a-lifetime” experience or often repeated National Forest visit.
The visitor should receive educational information, natural history and cultural resource interpretation, as well as specific minimum impact outdoor living skills. The environment should be highly different from their daily lives, inspiring, sometimes challenging, but safe and healthful for their abilities.
The need for outfitting and guiding should be determined by the agency, with full consideration to input from prospective clients, other agencies, other users, current outfitter viability, outfitter proposals, and developing trends in recreation activities.
The reasons to allow outfitting in an area are to assure that the public has reasonable access to National Forest opportunities, that the use resulting from it is of the highest quality, that the resources are protected, and that the client learns the unique attributes of the environment. If the client is not ecologically aware when they go in, they should know more when they come out. That learning can be facilitated by the outfitter guide.
Most clients want to know about the wild lands. It makes a difference in their lives. It increases the quality of living. For many visitors, who else will teach them? Not the agencies. The agencies cannot reach them all and certainly not on the one to one basis that the guides provide.
Because of the large land base, the Forest Service will generally focus on providing opportunities for an unconfined type of outdoor recreation, free of the urban influence. Examples of such opportunities might include hiking, boating, caving, mountaineering, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, cross country skiing, mountain biking, dog sledding, ATV riding, to name a few.
The recreating public continues to ask for a diversity of experiences, settings and opportunities on the National Forests. Many are capable of total self-sufficiency, but those selecting an outfitter want and need help. They can’t do it on their own, or want an introduction to such experiences to help them get started. They don’t have the skill and equipment to be successful in remote and challenging environments or they may wish to devote full time to a specific activity such as hunting, fishing, photography or study. But the public lands belong to them, just as much as they belong to the residents living at the mouths of the canyons. From their visits to the wild lands they get the same benefits as those living with the wild lands at their back door.
As areas of the public lands appear to reach maximum use levels, it is still important to retain some share for the outfitted public. These are “National” Forests and belong to a National constituency. And the National Forests will always be in need of strong and growing supporters who convey to Congress the continued value of these lands and the agency which recognizes their human benefits.
In summary, the past is the past. Agency administrators and outfitters should look forward to working toward a new era of cooperation and recognition of each others role. Working in partnership, guided by performance based operating plans and a mutual desire to learn from each other, the relationship should strengthen and become more trusting. An appropriate balance between the outfitted and non-outfitted use must always be found, based on the resource and social capability to sustain a certain level of total use. Allocation of use should recognize the value of both without denying the public who need and seek the assistance of an outfitter guide to realize the most from the few opportunities they have to experience the wild lands.