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Backcountry permits are required for camping in many national parks.

A Reason for Regulation: The Science Behind Backcountry Permits

The outdoors is regrettably full of barriers to entry: far-away destinations, expensive equipment, learning barriers, and, frustratingly, permits. We’ve all run into the permit barrier, forced to waylay plans as we become tangled in red tape. As the popularity of outdoor recreation increases, so too does the impact on the forests, waterways, and peaks we choose to explore. Growing numbers of visitors lead to eroding trails, trampled vegetation, disturbed wildlife, polluted streams, and an ever-increasing list of degradations. And thus stems a reason for backcountry permits.

The outdoors is a welcoming place of escape. It is an escape from inhibitions, so it is frustrating when permits inhibit us from adventuring at will. Increasingly, the most popular places to camp, fish, hunt, backpack, paddle, and climb are being restricted to permitted users. Paddlers wait years for a coveted permit to paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, hikers line up for permits to scale Yosemite’s Half Dome monolith, and climbers sleeping on a portaledge in Zion must first obtain a permit. Hunters and anglers have long been subject to competitive lotteries for permits, tags, and licenses, particularly for out-of-state travelers.

Restricting the number of hunters and anglers seems intuitive, since harvest quotas are structured to maintain fish and wildlife populations which can only withstand so much loss. Permits to climb, paddle, and hike in remote areas aren’t so different. Despite our best efforts at Leave No Trace, visiting fragile ecosystems has an impact; we take something away on each visit. The woods, walls, and waters we seek, like wildlife populations, can only handle so much loss.

The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia has long been a favorite getaway for me. Few people seemed to know of the area’s glamour, yet that is changing. The past few years, I’ve noticed more crowded trails and parking lots. Vegetation is trampled as hikers skirt around mud puddles, and secluded campsites hold multiple parties at once. Once, in my own effort to dig the perfect cathole, I uncovered someone else’s refuse. On another trip, I arrived at my favorite trailhead to find “No Parking” signs and overnight parking permit requirements where there had historically been free parking. These are the prices we pay for overcrowding. Some are merely an inconvenience to us, but others inconvenience the ecosystem.

Alpine areas are especially sensitive to overuse, heightening the importance of permit restrictions.

Biologists speak of the carrying capacity of an ecosystem. A forest can only handle so many coyotes, and there’s only room for a certain number of bluebirds in a field. When wildlife populations are above or below that carrying capacity, nature has a way of balancing things out. Disease, competition for food, limited habitat, and predator/prey relationships tend to push populations back toward that magical number.

The lands we recreate on also have a carrying capacity. There are only a certain number of hikers a trail can handle before it becomes irreparably eroded, so many catholes before a campsite is fouled, and a limited number of alpine baths before a lake becomes polluted. Natural checks occur before wildlife populations damage an ecosystem, but there is no such check on human visitors before degradation occurs. It falls on humans to place those checks on ourselves.

Land managers, wildlife biologists, social scientists, botanists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and others collaborate to determine the maximum number of visitors an ecosystem can handle. Backcountry permits are then instituted to keep visitors at or below that number. These numbers are not arbitrary; there is more science than you could imagine behind them. This collaboration of experts weighs human impacts on wildlife, vegetation, soils, waterways, and trails to determine this number.

They consider the human experience and at what number of visitors an area feels overcrowded. How many people can a trail handle, or a river? What’s the maximum number of cars that can fit at a trailhead parking lot? Perhaps park managers and rangers can only deal with so many patrons per day. This number may stem from limited campsite availability or the ability of soils to bounce back from use. A thorough analysis of diverse impacts is completed before land managers make the difficult decision to institute or adjust permits.

Increasingly, backpackers on trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail are subject to permit requirements.

Be forewarned that more and more of our getaways will be subject to backcountry permits in the coming years. It is altogether a good thing that more people are finding refuge in the outdoors, for we all benefit from time outside. We each deserve the chance to see a mountain sunset and drink from an alpine spring. And support for our treasured places will only grow as their visitors do, which can only be good.

Most permits have a nominal fee associated with them, although some are free. Luckily, this fee is usually small enough that it doesn’t create a financial barrier for visitors. When there is a fee, rest assured that your money goes back to protecting the land— establishing campsites, improving trails, building latrines, and restoring damaged habitats. Keep in mind that the first rule of Leave No Trace is plan ahead and prepare. Do your research and be aware of any backcountry permit requirements before you leave and take the steps to secure any necessary permit.

But there will be a time when we don’t get the desired permit. Take each frustration in stride and remind yourself of the science behind that permit. It is there for a reason, with the good of the earth at stake. Be patient. Find another place or time to recreate. Don’t sidestep the permit or break the rules, because the temporary relief it brings is not worth irreversible damage to a place we love. We’re all bound to be frustrated, angered, bamboozled, cheated, fooled, screwed, and hurt by the red tape of permit requirements. When that happens, remember that the permit is there for the benefit of all—the plants, animals, soils, rocks, waters, visitors, and even you.

California’s spectacular High Sierra is restricted to visitors with backcountry permits.

A permit is designed to protect natural spaces from us because despite our best intentions, damage is inevitable. Backcountry permits, done well, should strike a balance between natural and human interactions. They should allow wildlife, vegetation, and ecosystems to flourish unimpeded, but they should also enhance our own experience in those places. After all, these wild spaces are not there solely for our use as hikers, climbers, paddlers, hunters, and anglers. They are there to protect all that is natural and wild, and we are drawn to those places because they are natural and wild. If permits are necessary to keep them that way, then so be it.


by: Will Babb

A Glimpse into Cincinnati’s Fossil History

By: Olivia Eads

Have you ever noticed the frequency of shells and other organisms fossilized in limestone around the Cincinnati area? They’re everywhere—used as the framework in buildings, exposed on cliff faces, and in back yards—but where did they come from? In order to dive into this topic further we must take a trip back, deep into time.

Roughly 490 million years ago, Cincinnati was a completely different ecosystem in a very different geographical location. In geologic time, it was considered the Ordovician Period, a very dynamic period in biodiversity of organisms, glaciation, active and passive tectonic margins, and solar system cyclicity. During this period Cincinnati was located just south of the equator experiencing a shallow marine habitat and tropical weather conditions, a very similar ecosystem to that of coral reefs in the equatorial zones today. The extent of this bionetwork stretched through regions of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, all considered part of the Cincinnatian Arch. The depths of water ranged, depending on geography, and were determined using context clues such as: fossilized organisms associated with living ancestors, rock types, and features present. The clues indicated an intertidal (above water at low tide, covered at high tide) to subtidal (submerged except during full/ new moon events) zones in Cincinnati.


An Ordovician world

When identifying lifestyles of the organisms that dwelled upon this area there are a few things to remember. Fossilization is a very intricate process and favors hard bodied organisms. Not all creatures or parts of their bodies are preserved. The Ordovician began, following the Cambrian explosion, a rapid burst of biodiversity in flora and fauna. It was a very dynamic time in both landscape evolution and species biodiversity. There are many things still unknown about the livelihood and behaviors of these organisms. A majority of that knowledge stems from what is already known about living fossils or the modern example of these ancestral species. Now to the fossil9fossils!









Bryozoans are considered ‘moss- like’ invertebrates. They typically grew in colonies attached to hard surfaces, but could also establish individually. Brackish and coastal waters are favored by these organisms due to the decreased salinity. Lophophores, tiny tentacle like structures, were used during feeding by popping out to collect tiny, suspended sediments, then bring them back to the mouth for digestion. The monticules or bumps along the surface of their bodies are suggested to be an escape current produced by the action of lophophores while feeding. The framework of these colonies created a large habitat for all types of aquatic life. Many of the fossils preserved are in pieces due to the ocean’s mechanical weathering on the skeletons.


These are another fossil that are typically found in pieces. The fragmented parts of the stem resemble small to large buttons or, if there are multiple larger ones stuck together, a roll of mints. A more common name for this animal is a sea lily. Their body cavities are divided into three main sections. The column or stem which consists of disc shaped endoskeleton stacked upon each other that are held together with ligaments. The calyx sits on top of the stem and holds the body cavity. Then there are the feathery arms that protrude out of the calyx. They collect suspended sediments in the water and bring it towards the mouth for digestion. Due to the soft and fragile nature of the arms, they are not typically preserved in the fossil record. The size of these organisms can range up to a few meters in length and typically attach to hard substrate with a holdfast; however, some modern species have been observed moving independently across the sea floor. The independent movement was more than likely an adaptation to the evolution of predators and probably not present in Ordovician sea crinoids.












Brachiopods are the most abundant shell fossil found in the Cincinnati area. They are divided into two main categories: articulated and inarticulated (based on the presence or absence of hinge teeth and sockets.) Both shells are symmetrical across the mid line, but the top and bottom shell are not equal in size. They have a pedicle or fleshy stalk that helps them attach to the sea floor or burrow down into sediments. As a filter feeder, they open and close their shell with currents allowing water and sediment to pass through. Using their lophophore, sediment is caught for consumption.




Bivalves include shelled organisms such as: clams, oysters, mussels and scallops. They were not very abundant during the Ordovician probably due their niche being previously occupied by brachiopods. The shells are symmetrical across the hinge line, and some have growth lines that can be observed. Some bivalve species permanently cement themselves to hard substrate, while others use their muscular tongue or foot to burrow down into the sediment. A siphon is then used for filter feeding to suck water into the shell cavity for subsistence.

fossil5Rugose Corals

Commonly known as horn corals, these organisms typically lived in a colony at the bottom of the ocean floor. As a colony, they created large reef like structures. However, some lived in solidarity. These microcarnivores had small tentacles that were used to catch prey and are bilaterally symmetrical.







Otherwise known as SNAILS! These mollusks eat anything and everything (herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, and scavenger.) During the Ordovician these creatures were marine dwelling and used a muscular foot to transport themselves around. The shell located on their back is for protection against predation and to house organs. Typically, their shells are the only thing preserved in fossils and they vary greatly in size and shape. All shells follow the same general spiral pattern. As time progressed snails were able to adapt to marine, aquatic, and terrestrial landscapes.




Trilobites are a very diverse group of organisms with over 20,000 different species with very different modes of life. Although now extinct their reign in the ocean lasted around three billion years, wide spread reaching every continent. Trilobites were some of the first organisms to have complex eye structures. Their body can be divided into three main segments: the cephalon (head), thorax (body), and pygidium (tail). Thanks to incredibly preserved fossils (such as the Burgess Shale), trilobites are shown to have soft appendages such as jointed legs and antennae. As they grew their exoskeleton did not grow with them. Instead they molted a chitinous skeleton (similar to a lobster’s) which is mainly preserved. In order to escape predation, they could roll up into a ball so that their exoskeleton was only exposed or burrow down into sediments. Different species took on very different modes of life.




Nautiloids are cephalopods (in the same family as octopuses and squids) with many tentacles and straight shells. The shell has many chambers and a siphuncle in order to control buoyancy while swimming in their marine ecosystem. As they grow their shell secretes more material growing with them. They were the fearsome predator of the sea.


There are many more fossilized organisms and features in Cincinnati’s strata, but that dives a little too deep for the topics being discussed today. These organisms cover the basics of what are copious in Cincinnati’s fossiliferous limestone. There are quite a few fossilized features that represent storm events and the abundance and amount of weathering can give insight into environments where those fossils were deposited! Alas, those shall be saved for another day. This should be a good start in the exploration to Cincinnati’s geologic history. Hopefully, in the near future, some of you can join me in person on upcoming RRT sponsored hikes! We can discuss these features and fossils more in depth while learning identification techniques in the field! Until next time.


Stanley, Steven M. Earth System History. S.l.: W.H.Freeman & Co, 2014. Print.