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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington wildlife agency proposes 10-year recreation plan in response to boom in outdoor use

Freek Borlee hikes near Leavenworth, Wash., on May 28, 2019, while visiting the United States from The Netherlands.  (Pete Zimowsky)

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has drafted a recreation plan for the million or so acres the department manages in response to a decadeslong increase in use.

While the plan is still being developed, it could change how and where Washingtonians are allowed to recreate.

“WDFW for a long time has been most associated with dispersed recreation, hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing,” said Joel Sisolak, a section manager for lands planning and recreation. “But more and more of the recreation use that we’ve been seeing on the lands we manage are other forms of recreation. Hiking, biking, equestrian use, drone flying. I think there was even a story of someone who had a jet pack on a hang glider.”

This growth in “nontraditional use” has taxed an agency tasked with preserving, protecting and perpetuating “fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.” It has also lead to conflict between user groups and, in some cases, environmental degradation.

“Enthusiasm for outdoor recreation reached new peaks during the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing in the years to come,” WDFW Director Kelly Susewind said in a statement. “This is wonderful, but also poses a challenge. Outdoor recreation impacts the natural systems it relies upon and must be carefully planned and managed to avoid irreversible damage. Good science and good sense must be employed to protect sensitive species and habitat where people visit and experience Washington’s public lands.”

WDFW has published a 10-year draft recreation strategy and has held one public meeting, with another upcoming. The agency is also collecting written public comments through 5 p.m. on Feb. 28. The draft, Sisolak emphasized, is not set in stone. What’s more, any changes proposed in the recreation plan must go through another, separate administrative process that also includes public comment.

Still, he said, “This strategy is kind of the first comprehensive effort to address those uses while maintaining our commitment to our traditional users.”

One of the more significant changes proposed in the 56-page draft would close all undesignated roads and trails to public use, unless designated open. It would also make the use of undesignated roads or trails illegal, except for “permitted dispersed uses.” At the same time, WDFW has proposed closing all WDFW-managed lands to camping, unless designated open to camping. All WDFW managed lands are currently open to camping, unless designated closed.

“That would be a pretty big shift,” Sisolak said.

Those two proposals have received some blowback, including during a presentation on Feb. 10. Carol Corbin, an avid dispersed camper from Spokane, is particularly worried about the camping rule proposal.

“This would represent a HUGE change, particularly for hunters and anglers,” she said in an email. “The change would mean that dispersed camping is prohibited unless posted otherwise. For those of us who rely on dispersed camping because of the nature of our activities, or those who simply aren’t able to reserve campsites with the current madhouse that is camping reservations, this would be a huge blow!”

Some of those comments have prompted changes in language, Sisolak said. In particular, hunters pointed out that asking them to stay only on designated roads or trails would be impossible.

“The point that’s been made particularly by the hunting community is a good point,” Sisolak said. “You can’t just walk on roads and trails if you’re hunting.”

Instead, Sisolak and other WDFW staff may change the language to reflect more dispersed uses of trails and roads.

“We are thinking we will do walk -in only on nondesignated routes,” he said. “People will be able to travel in on roads or trails, and then as long as they are on foot they can do their thing whether it’s hunting or wildlife viewing.”

As for the camping piece, he said the intention was not to limit camping to developed campsites. He pointed out that camping is already closed in a number of WDFW-managed wildlife areas.

“This move wouldn’t actually affect most people,” he said. “I don’t think it would close any more camping that is currently closed.”

The draft also includes the following proposed changes:

  • Dog training/presence rule: “Unregulated dog presence can pose a threat to wildlife and habitat. WDFW’s rules, regulations, and annual hunting pamphlet address the presence of dogs, training, and hunting with dogs on wildlife areas. These dispersed rules are incompletely documented, unclear, and difficult to understand for department staff and the public. WDFW will propose a rule change to clarify regulations of dog training and presence on WDFW-managed lands (outside of hunting with dogs).”
  • Streambank easement rule changes: “WDFW will propose rules regulating public use of streambank easements on private lands consistent with the department’s legal rights, including limiting use to sport fishing and pedestrian travel and specifying open/closed status.”
  • Drones: Prohibiting drone use, except with a permit.

The Washington chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers supports the recreation planning process, particularly its goal of welcoming nontraditional outdoor recreation users. BHA, however, has some concerns.

“The language about expanding outdoor recreation goals on WDFW land can lead to bad outcomes if not explicitly clear,” said Dan Wilson, the Washington chapter secretary for BHA. “The concern would be an organized kayaking trip traipsing right through a waterfowl blind setup during duck season and is completely unaware of it until they start hearing shotguns – no one wins in that scenario. The same goes for a large group of mountain bikers riding through the Methow WDFW lands on opening day for mule deer or party boats crowding boat launches during short salmon seasons.

“Protecting, and in some cases prioritizing, hunting and angling on WDFW lands at certain times benefits everyone and the department’s management objectives as well.”

WDFW Commissioner Kim Thorburn, from Spokane, expressed support for the process.

“There has been a national conversation by fish and wildlife departments about how to be more relevant and how to respond to communities beyond our traditional communities,” she said. “This effort is that.”

Sisolak said WDFW is not abandoning its traditional constituents, namely hunters and anglers. Instead, he said the agency is looking to engage and regulate other users.

“Hunters and anglers have for a long time lived with pretty high regulations of their sports. But a lot of the other activities are mostly unregulated,” he said. “I hope hunters and anglers will look at this as a way to bring better management to other users besides just hunting a fishing.”