The summer before last, I took a four-day hike through the backcountry of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Washington Cascades. I'm accustomed to rugged terrain and steep slopes, so I was impressed when, after miles of travel off the trail, I heard the voices of teenagers wafting toward me.
I met the intrepid boys and expected them to be a group from NOLS, the high-priced and famously hardcore National Outdoor Leadership School based in Lander, Wyo. Instead, I found a dozen teenagers, many of whom had never hiked or camped a night in their lives.
They were part of the BOLD Mountain School, a nonprofit program of Seattle's Metrocenter YMCA. BOLD, which stands for Boys Outdoors Leadership Development, immerses urban kids, especially disadvantaged ones, in the challenges of big wilderness. The program is not just a matter of summer fun; it changes lives, instilling confidence and hope in young people who suffer severe deficits of both.
Experiences like this are blessings widely shared among young Westerners from well-off families. The memories of my own youthful hikes are part of the reason I have devoted my adult life to building a Northwest that protects our wonderful public lands. In fact, outdoor experiences like these are so reliably transformative that the young people who attend the region's exclusive private schools and colleges go on wilderness trips almost as parts of the curriculum.
For the children of many poor and working-class urban Americans, though, experiencing the outdoors is a rare and exceptional gift.
BOLD is just one of dozens of nonprofits that expose the less fortunate to their natural birthright. As BOLD works for Puget Sound-area young people, so Big City Mountaineers does for Oregon's and Peak 7 Adventures helps out Spokane's. These and many other outdoors programs across the West provide their services at no cost to public treasuries, relying instead on contributions and modest participant fees to deliver young men and women to wild and beautiful places.
I thought little more about my chance encounter in the mountains until recently, when I learned that the BOLD Mountain School had been banned from the Northwest's national forest wilderness areas. The National Outdoor Leadership School, private schools and college outing programs remain welcome. They may, in John Muir's words, "climb the mountains and get their good tidings." But poor and working-class kids are forbidden entry because the YMCA does not have a guide-outfitter permit to lead such trips. Schools don't need a permit; nor do volunteer-led groups, and NOLS got its permit years ago.
BOLD cannot obtain the permit the Forest Service says it needs because the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest no longer issues them. Neither do any of the 30-odd other Northwest national forests, ranging from the Siskiyou in southern Oregon to Idaho's Nez Perce and Alaska's giant Tongass. In fact, no national forest today will offer outdoor-program permits.
It would be easy to rail against the Forest Service, but doing so misses the point. Starved for funding from Congress and with diminished staff to support its mission, the agency is following its Byzantine rules and regulations as best it can. Rangers' hands, staffers insist, are tied.
Under Forest Service rules such as the 2008 Guide and Outfitter Regulations, the YMCA or any other group that pays its trip leaders from fees collected in part from participants must be licensed as a commercial guiding service. To issue a guiding license, Forest Service specialists would have to run a gantlet of procedural steps, including environmental and socio-economic assessments—steps for which the Forest Service has no funding, which explains why the rangers are not issuing new permits.
To untie this regulatory tangle, the Forest Service could amend its Guide and Outfitter Regulations to exempt nonprofit youth-service organizations. Or it could simply photocopy the National Park Service's rules and adopt them. Unlike National Forest rules, National Park rules do not require licensed guides for paid trip leaders.
Some people say keeping large groups out of our national forests saves wildlife and the land from the harm that such large groups inevitably inflict. This argument contains an element of truth because people are always an intrusion into wild places. But that hardly justifies allowing some groups onto our public lands while excluding others, particularly when the others are poor, working-class teenagers from cities. If anyone deserves a trip to the glorious high country of the West, it's the young participants in BOLD Mountaineers.
Alan Durning is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is executive director of Sightline Institute, the Northwest's sustainability think tank, based in Seattle, Wash.