A Reason for Regulation: The Science Behind Backcountry Permits
The outdoors is regrettably full of barriers to entry: far-away destinations, expensive equipment, learning barriers, and, frustratingly, permits. We’ve all run into the permit barrier, forced to waylay plans as we become tangled in red tape. As the popularity of outdoor recreation increases, so too does the impact on the forests, waterways, and peaks we choose to explore. Growing numbers of visitors lead to eroding trails, trampled vegetation, disturbed wildlife, polluted streams, and an ever-increasing list of degradations. And thus stems a reason for backcountry permits.
The outdoors is a welcoming place of escape. It is an escape from inhibitions, so it is frustrating when permits inhibit us from adventuring at will. Increasingly, the most popular places to camp, fish, hunt, backpack, paddle, and climb are being restricted to permitted users. Paddlers wait years for a coveted permit to paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, hikers line up for permits to scale Yosemite’s Half Dome monolith, and climbers sleeping on a portaledge in Zion must first obtain a permit. Hunters and anglers have long been subject to competitive lotteries for permits, tags, and licenses, particularly for out-of-state travelers.
Restricting the number of hunters and anglers seems intuitive, since harvest quotas are structured to maintain fish and wildlife populations which can only withstand so much loss. Permits to climb, paddle, and hike in remote areas aren’t so different. Despite our best efforts at Leave No Trace, visiting fragile ecosystems has an impact; we take something away on each visit. The woods, walls, and waters we seek, like wildlife populations, can only handle so much loss.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia has long been a favorite getaway for me. Few people seemed to know of the area’s glamour, yet that is changing. The past few years, I’ve noticed more crowded trails and parking lots. Vegetation is trampled as hikers skirt around mud puddles, and secluded campsites hold multiple parties at once. Once, in my own effort to dig the perfect cathole, I uncovered someone else’s refuse. On another trip, I arrived at my favorite trailhead to find “No Parking” signs and overnight parking permit requirements where there had historically been free parking. These are the prices we pay for overcrowding. Some are merely an inconvenience to us, but others inconvenience the ecosystem.
Alpine areas are especially sensitive to overuse, heightening the importance of permit restrictions.
Biologists speak of the carrying capacity of an ecosystem. A forest can only handle so many coyotes, and there’s only room for a certain number of bluebirds in a field. When wildlife populations are above or below that carrying capacity, nature has a way of balancing things out. Disease, competition for food, limited habitat, and predator/prey relationships tend to push populations back toward that magical number.
The lands we recreate on also have a carrying capacity. There are only a certain number of hikers a trail can handle before it becomes irreparably eroded, so many catholes before a campsite is fouled, and a limited number of alpine baths before a lake becomes polluted. Natural checks occur before wildlife populations damage an ecosystem, but there is no such check on human visitors before degradation occurs. It falls on humans to place those checks on ourselves.
Land managers, wildlife biologists, social scientists, botanists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and others collaborate to determine the maximum number of visitors an ecosystem can handle. Backcountry permits are then instituted to keep visitors at or below that number. These numbers are not arbitrary; there is more science than you could imagine behind them. This collaboration of experts weighs human impacts on wildlife, vegetation, soils, waterways, and trails to determine this number.
They consider the human experience and at what number of visitors an area feels overcrowded. How many people can a trail handle, or a river? What’s the maximum number of cars that can fit at a trailhead parking lot? Perhaps park managers and rangers can only deal with so many patrons per day. This number may stem from limited campsite availability or the ability of soils to bounce back from use. A thorough analysis of diverse impacts is completed before land managers make the difficult decision to institute or adjust permits.
Increasingly, backpackers on trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail are subject to permit requirements.
Be forewarned that more and more of our getaways will be subject to backcountry permits in the coming years. It is altogether a good thing that more people are finding refuge in the outdoors, for we all benefit from time outside. We each deserve the chance to see a mountain sunset and drink from an alpine spring. And support for our treasured places will only grow as their visitors do, which can only be good.
Most permits have a nominal fee associated with them, although some are free. Luckily, this fee is usually small enough that it doesn’t create a financial barrier for visitors. When there is a fee, rest assured that your money goes back to protecting the land— establishing campsites, improving trails, building latrines, and restoring damaged habitats. Keep in mind that the first rule of Leave No Trace is plan ahead and prepare. Do your research and be aware of any backcountry permit requirements before you leave and take the steps to secure any necessary permit.
But there will be a time when we don’t get the desired permit. Take each frustration in stride and remind yourself of the science behind that permit. It is there for a reason, with the good of the earth at stake. Be patient. Find another place or time to recreate. Don’t sidestep the permit or break the rules, because the temporary relief it brings is not worth irreversible damage to a place we love. We’re all bound to be frustrated, angered, bamboozled, cheated, fooled, screwed, and hurt by the red tape of permit requirements. When that happens, remember that the permit is there for the benefit of all—the plants, animals, soils, rocks, waters, visitors, and even you.
California’s spectacular High Sierra is restricted to visitors with backcountry permits.
A permit is designed to protect natural spaces from us because despite our best intentions, damage is inevitable. Backcountry permits, done well, should strike a balance between natural and human interactions. They should allow wildlife, vegetation, and ecosystems to flourish unimpeded, but they should also enhance our own experience in those places. After all, these wild spaces are not there solely for our use as hikers, climbers, paddlers, hunters, and anglers. They are there to protect all that is natural and wild, and we are drawn to those places because they are natural and wild. If permits are necessary to keep them that way, then so be it.
by: Will Babb