Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Environment and Society

Committee Chair(s)

Mark W. Brunson


Joanna Endter-Wada


Dale J. Blahna


As a product of the Progressive Reform movement of the early 20th century, the Forest Service was created to be a scientific, well-organized, ethical and efficient new form of government. In over a century of service, the agency retains many proud traits and traditions along such lines, but it has been noted as being technocratic and overly rigid in its emphasis on the biophysical sciences, analysis and administrative procedures, and lacking agility in the socio-political aspects of natural resource management. While the agency has endeavored to better integrate the social sciences and improve its policies toward meaningful public involvement, issues have become more complex, nuanced, and conflicting. When compounded with a number of legal, administrative, budgetary and organizational encumbrances, the agency has tremendous difficulty maneuvering in today’s vexing operating environment. Standardized procedures and traditional public involvement methods are proving inadequate for dealing with these complex and “wicked” problems.

Recreation management is an area of increasing complexity and the one we explore in this paper. The Forest Service has national goals for sustainable recreation management, but at the field level, where budgetary and workforce resources are often inadequate, the agency tends to fall back to a “default approach”: the repeated situation where managers allow or even encourage recreation use to occur in an area, but at some point the use and impacts become unacceptable, so managers then attempt to restrict use in the affected area. This pattern has unintended consequences and can worsen conditions in the broader sense, making sustainability goals difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In restricting use in high-use areas, managers may actually displace users, and their impacts, to other lesser-used areas. Ironically, the incremental impacts of new visitors to low-use areas tend to be substantial, whereas in areas where high-use is already established, visitors may not be as sensitive to existing impacts as managers tend to be, and the impacts of increasing visitation are negligible. Displacing use, on the other hand, creates new impacts and issues in new places, over and over again, exacerbating ecological and social problems over the broader landscape.

This paper explores Forest Service history and culture, changes in recreation management, the persistent “default approach”, and the promising policy shift toward sustainability and greater collaboration with stakeholders and communities. The paper suggests that sustainable recreation management will be difficult to achieve, however, given particular cultural attitudes, and the issues and encumbrances that beset the agency. The encumbrances include legal and administrative morass, inadequate budgets, and outmoded management actions, furthering the default approach, and moving the agency away from its sustainability goals, not toward them. Drawing on examples in travel planning from the Dixie National Forest, the paper concludes that additional change in agency culture is needed, requiring development and transfer of a new tacit knowledge, through a professional recreation community of practice, with an emphasis on collaborative processes and authentic public participation.