Friday, April 11, 2014

Overselling the National Forest - Bad News for Teachers of Plein Air Painting & Photography

Painting at the Mescal Trailhead in the Red Rock Ranger District
of the Coconino Forest

Last week, I was informed by an enforcement officer of the US Forest Service's Red Rock Ranger District here in Sedona that I can't take my painting workshops onto Forest land without a permit.  Because I charge a fee for my workshops, I am considered a commercial operation and fall under the "outfitter and guide" category, and this means I need a permit or else suffer a $500 fine.

I've been teaching workshops on Forest land here for some time.  I've taken my groups to some high-profile trailheads and have seen plenty of forest rangers - I've even acknowledged their presence and said hello to them - but no one ever told me that I needed a permit.

Before I go deeper into this, I want all my past and future students to know they shouldn't worry.  There is plenty of excellent painting in the Sedona area that isn't on Forest land.

I was taken aback by the news.  As many of my readers know, I take pride in leading very small groups, no more than four at a time.  This is by design, since I want to minimize the impact on the environment.  What's more, we are respectful of the environment.  I make sure we pick up our trash, don't harm vegetation and, as they say, "leave nothing but footprints." As a landscape painter and environmentalist, it's in my nature to want to see the landscape kept beautiful for succeeding generations.  Heck, I even donate my work to raise money for conservation causes.  (I also make sure all my students purchase the "Red Rock Pass" so they can legally be on USFS land; I myself purchase an annual "America the Beautiful" National Park and Recreational Lands pass.)

There's a big difference between my low-impact workshops and the other commercial operations.  If you've hiked the trails in and around Sedona, you can't help but notice the fleets of Pink Jeeps and ATVs grinding through the Forest, along with a plethora of Magical Mystery Tours, hot air balloons and large groups of bicyclists (who, by the way, rarely yield to hikers like they're supposed to.)

Okay, fine, I get that, I thought.  I'll get a permit.  So imagine my surprise when I found out that I can't even apply for one!  The Red Rock Ranger District has stopped taking applications for them because they have, in effect, oversold the permits.

The enforcement officer who cited me said I should contact Jeff Gilmore, the Recreation Special Uses supervisor for the District, regarding a permit.  Here is Mr Gilmore's response:

...A permit is required whenever a good or service is provided on the National Forest for a fee. On the Red Rock Ranger District, new permits for outfitting and guiding are only available when solicited by the Forest Service through a prospectus. This is due to the high level of competitive interest in acquiring this type of permit in the Sedona area combined with the high level of recreation use already occurring, and analysis indicating that we are at or approaching available capacity for recreation use in the core area around Sedona.
We have identified a need for additional permits to provide for hiking, interpretive, and educational services. This category would include the services you have been providing. Unfortunately, I do not have a time line for when a prospectus might be issued for these activities. This is due to a staffing shortfall and competing priorities with other District and Forest level projects. We are maintaining an interested parties list so we will know whom to notify when there is an opportunity to apply for a permit.
So, you need a permit - but you can't get one.

I looked deeper into this, and it turns out that in 2010 the Red Rock Ranger District approved a few dozen long-term permits - for a period of 10 years!  This effectively closes out any competition from other operators until 2020.  Why such a long term?

To give you an idea of the size of some of these operators, Red Rock Western Jeep Tours, a Jeep outfitter similar to Pink Jeep, was authorized for 10,055 trips, each with multiple passengers.  It's unclear from the USFS document whether this number is an annual number or an amount to be distributed over the 10-year period of the permit, but either way, it's a very large number.  My average number of students over each winter has been about 30.  That's right - just 30.

Mr Gilmore says he has no idea when a prospectus will be issued for enterprises such as mine, but I read somewhere that 2016 was the date.  Since the 10-year permits expire in 2020, I'm guessing that 2016 is actually the date they will start a reassessment of permit practices, with the anticipation of having the assessment complete by 2020, so really no prospectus would be available until then.

By 2020, I hope to not be leading workshops but collecting Social Security instead.

My point is, there's no room for the small, low-impact operator, like painting and photography teachers, whose focus is education.  Instead, the Forest has been allocated - or should we say "sold"? - to large, high-impact operators, many of which are out-of-state, who see the Forest more as an opportunity to make money than anything else.  The Red Rock Ranger District should never have permitted so many long-term permits that they can't issue a permit to an operation like mine.

Or maybe I'm just so small that I'm not worth the paperwork.

It's a real shame that the Red Rock Ranger District has chosen to support these operators.  Rather than support the photographers and painters who not only show you the beauty of the landscape but also teach you to love and respect it, it has given it to operators just out to make a buck.

But as I said, don't despair.  I'm already building my list of really great places to paint that don't involve the Forest.

(Painter and teacher Carol Douglas has written about her own experiences on public lands on her blog.)

Below, I have added several plein air paintings I made while on Forest land in some of my favorite spots.

No comments: