BOISE – In the Treasure Valley and across Idaho, housing developments are springing up, home and rental prices are rising and the population is growing faster than ever.
But the congestion isn’t just confined to the cities. Urban growth is trickling out to Idaho’s wild places. From the Ridge to Rivers trail system in Boise’s backyard to Idaho’s national forests and state parks and campgrounds, there are more people in Idaho’s outdoors.
Though the outdoor recreation industry is a boon to the state’s economy, some land managers worry the increased traffic could put a strain on resources and the environment.
For many, the easiest spots to get outdoors are the Ridge to Rivers trails in Boise’s Foothills. The dozens of trails span more than 200 miles.
Executive director David Gordon said it’s difficult to get an accurate read on how many people use the trails simply because there are so many access points and only a few full-time Ridge to Rivers employees. But using data from a 2016 trail planning survey, Gordon said the agency estimates there are “well over a million visitor days” on the trails in a year.
“What we’re seeing is increased use all the time,” Gordon said in an interview. “Especially on a year like this that’s so mild, (use) has pushed into the shoulder seasons.”
That means summertime, which is traditionally a high-use season, has remained popular while the trails also see more users in the spring, fall and winter. Gordon said there are a few concerns that come with the increased usage, including increased potential for “negative interactions” between users, conflicts with wildlife that winter in the Foothills and damage to the environment.
“A lot of new people really don’t understand how to recreate responsibly in a semi-wild area,” Gordon said, adding that Ridge to Rivers has a “Happy Trails” program that addresses etiquette.
In recent years, Foothills trails have been hit hard by users hiking and biking in mud and soft soil, creating ruts and widening paths despite Ridge to Rivers’ efforts to limit damage.
“You can’t go and fix that as a trail gets chewed up,” Gordon said. “What’s going to happen for the rest of us is we have a different trail system.”
Gordon is already looking to the future of Ridge to Rivers.
“You want people to go outside and recreate in natural areas,” he said. “At the same time, there’s that concern with tremendous use, how do you manage for that?”
Gordon said the agency could eventually consider single-use trails or more limitations for off-leash dogs, but its options are limited.
“We have a limited ability to grow our system,” he said. “There’s a lot of private land out there in the Foothills. … We will get some additional miles, but it’s not infinite.”
Idaho Parks and Rec backs off marketing as visits increase
Data from the last five available years shows visits to Idaho State Parks and Recreation sites are also on the rise. From 2014 to 2018, the number of annual visits increased by more than 860,000 to 6,184,462 visits.
The influx is putting strain on the department, according to director David Langhorst.
“We’ve had roughly the same number of employees since 2008 … but a 60% increase in visits,” Langhorst said in an interview.
Last month, Langhorst told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that there are “capacity issues” at state campgrounds.
“When people go to make reservations, you can’t reserve a site more than nine months in advance,” he said during the Feb. 7 committee hearing. “So at some of our popular parks like Priest Lake, Ponderosa, I get letters from people who say they’ve been trying to get in for 15 years or more and haven’t been able to get a campsite during the high season.”
The same issues apply at day-use sites and parks, Langhorst said, citing Bear Lake’s North Beach in southeast Idaho. The park has a 600-car capacity, but has become crowded, he said.
“Imagine a ranger in this business saying to someone – mom and dad with the kids in the back and they just drove an hour or two – ‘Sorry, we don’t have room for you,’ ” Langhorst said. “So that’s the kind of thing we’re facing with this growth.”
Parks and Rec is even scaling back its marketing efforts, Langhorst told JFAC.
“When you’re selling your inventory out, it doesn’t make sense to try to get more people to come.”
Visits increase in Idaho national forests
“What we’ve been seeing is a steady increase since we’ve been pulling out of the recession,” Steve Frost, recreation program manager for the Sawtooth National Forest, said in a phone interview. “The group size seems like it’s getting bigger, too.”
Venetia Gempler, spokeswoman for the Boise National Forest, said in an email that campgrounds are reserved six months out.
“Field-going employees’ observations indicated that there was a jump in visitation last summer, more campground fees collected, restrooms needing pumped more often,” Gempler said.
Like Ridge to Rivers director Gordon, Frost said he’s seeing the summer busy season extend into off-seasons. He thinks some of the visitors are likely newcomers to Idaho.
“It seems like we’re seeing more first-time visitors,” Frost said, “but that’s just an assumption of mine, that people move here and want to … participate in outdoor activities.”
Idaho bucking national downturn in outdoor activity
“We don’t see evidence of (people spending) fewer hours outside,” Langhorst, the Parks and Rec director, told the Statesman.
The Bureau of Land Management recorded 6.1 million recreational visits to its Idaho properties in 2019, up from 5.7 million in 2016.
The Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, prepared by Idaho State Parks and Rec for 2018-2022, showed increases in RV and UTV registrations and steady boat and snowmobile registrations through 2016, the most recent year available when the report was written. The document also shows officials anticipated continued growth in outdoor recreation participation.
“As Idaho’s urban areas continue to grow, the demand for urban outdoor recreation opportunities will increase …” the report said. “Additionally, public lands and open space adjacent to these urban areas will continue to see increased pressure on the existing facilities and resources, challenging land managers to balance opportunities with the preservation of natural resources.”
Population growth, tourism and a healthy economy each contribute to the upswings in Idaho outdoor recreation. But Sawtooth recreation manager Frost said it also just makes sense in Idaho.
“To me, being outdoors defines us as Idahoans,” he said. “It sounds like a cliche, but it’s a great place to recharge your batteries, connect with nature and be with your family.”
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