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Lucky #12: Group Size Limits in Wilderness Standards

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Anderson Crossing, 2021. Photo by Randy Aarestad.

Maybe it's just me, but when a colleague that has been working in the industry longer than I have tells me a piece of information, I often accept it as fact. After all, they have a lot more experience than I do, so I find myself simply not questioning their expertise. The other day, a potential partner expressed interest in working with us on some recreational outings. I mentioned to her that we limit our gatherings on public lands to 12 people and cited “wilderness standards”. She asked for a source so that she could read more about it, and I was puzzled when it wasn’t the quick and easy Google search that I thought it would be.

I asked my colleagues here at Friends of the Owyhee about it, and they mentioned that there wasn’t a hard and fast rule about it in the Owyhee—this was simply what they had gleaned from their adventures on public lands and doing the massive amount of reading about land conservation that they do. So, I set out to answer my own question (with help from my wise colleagues, of course). It seemed like something that you, dear reader, may be interested in as well. Where does this number 12 come from, and why should we respect it? I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions just yet, but join me on this adventure and we’ll (hopefully) find out together.

Before we delve into this story, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what we mean by “wilderness”. Our pals at Merriam-Webster define wilderness to be (1) “a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings” or (2) “an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community”. I would wager that this commonly known definition of wilderness describes the Owyhee perfectly, wouldn't you?

That said, when we say “wilderness standards”, we’re referring to Wilderness (with a capital W). Wilderness areas are protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964, in part thanks to our friend Aldo Leopold who, in 1924, advocated for the protection of 500,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, effectively creating the first Wilderness area. The Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. In order for a natural space to be designated Wilderness, there is also a whole legislative process that has to happen.

The Wilderness Act does provide guidelines for federal land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management to follow when creating management plans for wilderness areas, primarily to preserve wilderness character. I’m not an expert on the Wilderness Act, but from what I can tell, the Wilderness Act doesn’t really specify something as detailed as group size limits in wilderness areas. PSA: If you are an expert on the Wilderness Act, help a would-be policy nerd out and share your knowledge.

So, we’re operating under the assumption that the group size limit of 12 did in fact not descend from the wilderness regulation heavens. Let’s see if we can find where this number came from, and why we should respect a group size limit at all. Onward with our adventure!

What do wilderness areas set their group size as?

One of my favorite things to collect when I travel to natural spaces is the brochure. I’m not sure if it’s just for the information (I’m a Type A, so you can imagine how much I love organization and rules) or if I like the aesthetic that they use. (They’re just so rustic and woodsy. Right? Just me?) While we don’t have one of these for the Owyhee, check out the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Stanislaus National Forest brochures, courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service. They do provide a lot of rules, but both of them cite a maximum group size of 12 in wilderness areas. The Stanislaus National Forest brochure even states, “Voluntary reduction of group size when traveling in wilderness areas is always encouraged as a hedge against resource damage.”

This is the first explanation I saw about the group size limit. While 12 is still presumed to be an arbitrary number, I think we could all agree that 30 or 50 or 100 people all trampling through a wilderness area at once sounds like it would be damaging—people may be obligated to go off-trail because of the traffic, or they may be lulled into the idea that it’s okay to leave a bit of trash because hey, there are loads of people, right? It could have been anyone! That’s a surefire way to disrupt part of the ecosystem, which we know thanks to our beloved leave no trace principles.

Speaking of leaving no trace, there is a whole organization dedicated to this idea: Leave No Trace (aptly named, no?). Though it’s a few years old, they created a brochure for group use principles (yes, another brochure for my collection!). You may have the idea that “leave no trace” specifically refers to packing out your garbage. That’s a huge part of it, but it’s not the whole story. As discussed in a previous blog post, leaving no trace is leaving the landscape as close as possible to how you found it (although you’re always welcome to pack out more trash if you find it). That includes leaving wildlife alone, not picking wildflowers, and yes, leaving the super cool arrowhead you found. One way to help manage this is to keep your group size small. Leave No Trace’s brochure recommends a group size limit of 10 and splitting into smaller groups to travel and camp if you are more than 10 people.

So the size limit inherently helps us reduce our impact on wild areas because:

  • There are simply fewer boots on the ground, and we are more capable of following recommendations like staying on the trail

  • It’s easier to manage—and hold accountable—a smaller group.

Let’s take a look at what other wilderness areas have to say about group size. The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management manage the 20+ wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada, and they allow groups of no more than 15 people, although that limit may vary depending on the location. Fortunately for us, they provide their reasoning behind limiting the number of people.

Groups Have A Larger Impact On The Wilderness And Wildlife

Trail Impacts: Hiking in larger groups compounds our footprints. One person crossing a meadow might not do much, but a dozen people in a line will establish a trail.

Campsite Impacts: When we camp in large groups, we risk trampling the soil/plants. We may end up creating a trail to reach the river from camp, building a larger fire, or going to the bathroom in one general area.

Scaring Wildlife: Larger groups make more noise and are likely to scare off wildlife. This disturbs the natural habits of animals and (from a selfish perspective) means we won’t get to see these animals in their natural setting.

Groups Have A Larger Impact On Other Visitors

We go into wilderness partly to escape the intrusions of other people. Crossing paths with a large group of noisy hikers can detract from the wilderness we came to enjoy.

I’ll buy that! Those sound like very good reasons to keep our group sizes small. Okay, now what about ways to get around those rules, like hiking in two groups and camping together at night? Or what about hiking together and then staying a mile apart at night?

They must have heard every workaround in the book because they address these very questions. When we consider this group size rule and the impacts it’s meant to mitigate, looking for a way around the rule is simply not the point. The article goes on to say something that I think perfectly sums up why we should respect this rule: “As with other wilderness regulations, weaseling around the rule ends up hurting the wilderness place we came to enjoy.”

Now, what about the number 12?

While it was significantly more challenging to find a resource that went into the reasoning behind the number 12, I did read a scientific paper from USDA Forest Service Proceedings titled “Wilderness Party Size Regulations: Implications for Management and a Decisionmaking Framework” (Monz et al. 2000). It’s no wonder I had a hard time finding information on this number; early on in the paper, the authors state that there “have been very few empirical studies of the influence of group size on either the areal extent or intensity of ecological impact.” Due to the numerous uncontrollable factors in wilderness situations, these studies are inherently difficult to conduct, rendering it nearly impossible to establish a threshold that’s based in science.

The authors go on to analyze the factors that are considered when various land management agencies establish a group size limit. They then propose that this particular management aspect would benefit from a decision-making framework. That means that management agencies agree upon a set of parameters and priorities for a landscape that should be considered when setting a party size limit. Then, once those parameters and priorities are considered in a systematic way, management agencies are more likely to arrive at a logical decision. It’s not a calculator, so it won’t spit out a specific number like 12, but it will allow for some degree of standardization in this process. Keep in mind this paper is from 2000—22 years ago now—so some framework such as this may or may have not been implemented in the years since publication.

Monz et al. provide a great conclusion to their study: “While further research on the ecological and visitor experience implications of groups size remains important, careful and explicit decisions about how best to compromise between the costs and benefits of group size limits are critical to the process of setting a defensible group size.”

Now, you may interpret this differently, but to me, this says: “we should definitely continue studying the ecological and social effects that group size has, but there is no one right answer, and management entities should just do their best when determining a group size.”

There we have it! The 12-person party limit seems to be a relatively educated guess on how we can enjoy the wilderness but still have relatively minimal impact on it.

The takeaway

Group size limits are not implemented to squash the fun or have a rule for the sake of having a rule. It truly works to preserve the wild characteristics that we love so much about the outdoors: seeing wildlife, enjoying the quiet, and reveling in the untouched beauty of nature. While the Owyhee is not all designated as Wilderness, we hope that someday it might be (in fact, we’re actively working toward just that in the Oregon Owyhee, and some has already been done in Idaho). Following wilderness standards as best we citizens can will help keep the Owyhee wild and rugged for future generations.

Additional resources that may interest you

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