The new group uses rule:
Large group gatherings on National Forests have significant
adverse impacts on Forest resources, public health and safety,
and the agency's ability to allocate space in the face of
increasing constraints on the use of National Forest System
lands. These adverse impacts include the spread of disease,
pollution from inadequate site clean-up, soil compaction from
inadequate site restoration, damage to archaeological sites, and
traffic congestion. A permit system allows the agency to address
these problems more expeditiously, effectively, and equitably.
- Requires a permit for an activity on National Forest System
lands that involves a group of 75 or more people in order to
mitigate damage to resources and facilities in the National
- Provides a reasonable administrative system for controlling
or preventing adverse impacts on forest resources, addressing
concerns of public health and safety, and allocating space in the
National Forests among competing uses and activities, including
protection of habitat for endangered, threatened, or other plant
and animal species.
- Ensures that the authorization procedures for noncommercial
group uses comply with First Amendment requirements of freedom of
speech, assembly, and religion.
- Establishes a presumption in favor of granting a permit for
all noncommercial group uses.
- Treats all noncommercial group uses consistently and fairly.
- Establishes specific, content-neutral evaluation criteria
that apply to all applications for noncommercial group uses.
- The evaluation criteria regulate time, place, and manner for
noncommercial group uses and reflect specific management
concerns, such as mitigation of resource damage, compliance with
federal, state, and local law, compliance with forest land and
resource management plan direction, and considerations of public
health and safety.
One example of how the new group uses rule helps the agency and
the Public protect forest resources: The agency might deny an
application and offer another site or time if a noncommercial
group of 75 or more requested to camp in grizzly bear habitat
during early spring, when the grizzly bear, a species listed as
threatened and protected under the Endangered Species Act, comes
out of hibernation.
The government may enforce reasonable time, place, and manner
restrictions on First Amendment activities. Such restrictions are
constitutional when justified without regard to the content of
the regulated speech, when narrowly tailored to further a
significant governmental interest, and when they leave open ample
alternative channels for communication of information.
Questions And Answers For Noncommercial Group Uses
- Who has to get a permit under the rule ?
The rule requires a permit for noncommercial group uses of
National Forest System lands. Under the rule, a "group use" is an
activity that involves a group of 75 or more people, either as
participants or spectators. "Noncommercial" is any use or
activity where an entry or participation fee is not charged, and
the primary purpose is not the sale of a good or service.
Some examples of noncommercial group uses are weddings, church
services, endurance rides, regattas, camping trips, hikes,
orienteering, music festivals, rallies, graduations, and races.
In 1992, the Forest Service issued approximately 1800 permits for
noncommercial and commercial group uses involving 660,000 people.
- Why are permits required for noncommercial group uses ?
As a steward of the National Forests, the Forest Service has a
duty to minimize resource impacts on National Forest System
lands. Large group gatherings in the National Forests have
significant adverse impacts on Forest resources, public health
and safety, and the agency's ability to allocate space in the
face of increasing constraints on the use of National Forest
System land. These adverse impacts include:
- The spread of disease;
- Pollution from inadequate site clean-up;
- Soil compaction from inadequate site restoration;
- Damage to archaeological sites; and
- traffic congestion.
A permit system allows the agency to address these problems more
expeditiously, more effectively, and more equitably.
- Why do you define a group as 75 or more people -- why not 15
or 501 ?
The proposed rule suggested 25 people as the cutoff for a group
and specifically requested Public comment on the 25-person
threshold. The comments on the numerical threshold have been
carefully reviewed, as well as the Forest Service's experience
with all types of noncommercial group uses on National Forest
System lands, particularly with respect to resource impacts
associated with these uses. Based on this review, it was
determined that a 25-person threshold is too low and that 75
people is a more appropriate threshold for applicability of the
While any numerical threshold is arbitrary in that 25 people
could have more impact than 75, depending on the type of activity
and the characteristics of the site, a numerical threshold is the
fairest and most objective standard for applicability of the rule. In
addition, groups with 75 or more people tend to have a greater impact
on National Forest System Lands than smaller groups.
- By requiring permits for noncommercial group uses, is the
Forest Service infringing on the constitutional rights of freedom
of speech, assembly, and religion ?
No. The Supreme Court has held that the government may enforce
reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on First
Amendment activities, as long as the restrictions are justified
without regard to the content of the regulated speech, they are
narrowly tailored to further a significant government interest,
and they leave open ample alternative channels for communication
Permits are constitutional restrictions of time, place, and
manner where narrow, objective standards guide the licensing
authority. This rule ensures that authorization procedures for
noncommercial group uses comply with First Amendment requirements
of freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. The rule does not
single out expressive conduct or treat it differently from other
types of activity. The rule establishes a single category,
"noncommercial group uses," and applies the same evaluation
criteria to all applications for noncommercial group uses
regardless of whether they involve the expression of views. The
evaluation criteria are specific and content-neutral and regulate
the time, place, and manner for the proposed activities.
- Haven't you been requiring Permits for these activities in the
past? Why are you doing a revision ?
The agency's prior two versions of the regulation were struck
down by the courts.
The first version, promulgated in 1984, was struck down as
unconstitutional. That version established two separate
categories for noncommercial group events, one for activities
involving the expression of views (ca!led "special expression of
views (called "recreation events") Two courts held that this
version of the rule singled out expressive conduct and required
that it De treated differently from other activity. The courts
also held that the standards for evaluating applications for
expressive activities were unconstitutionally vague because they
vested too much discretion in the authorized officer.
The second version of the rule, published in 1989, was struck
down as an invalid interim rule. The court held that the agency
had failed to show good cause for adopting the interim rule
without notice and comment.
- How is this rule different from the earlier versions ?
This rule does not single out expressive conduct or treat it
differently from other types of activity. The evaluation criteria
in this rule do not give an authorized officer discretion to deny
an application based on the content of speech. Specifically, this
- Establishes a single category called "noncommercial group
- Restricts the content of an application for noncommercial
group uses to information concerning time, place, and manner.
- Applies the same evaluation criteria to all applications
for noncommercial group uses, regardless of whether they
involve the expression of views.
- Establishes specific, content-neutral evaluation criteria.
- Provides that applications for noncommercial group uses
will be granted or denied within a short, specific
- Provides that if an application is denied and an
alternative time, place, or manner will allow the applicant
to meet all the evaluation criteria, the authorized officer
will offer that alternative.
- Requires an authorized officer to explain in writing the
reason for denial of an application for a noncommercial
- Provides that a denial of an application for a
noncommercial group use is immediately subject to judicial
- How does the rule work ?
Under the rule, anyone seeking to conduct a noncommercial group
activity on National Forest System lands would have to apply for
and receive a permit. The rule creates a presumption in favor of
granting a permit for noncommercial group uses. An application
has to be granted if eight evaluation criteria are net. These
criteria are narrow and unrelated to the content of speech. They
merely regulate the time, place, and manner for noncommercial
group uses. These features of the rule are necessary to ensure
compliance with First Amendment requirements of freedom of
speech, assembly, and religion.
- What are the eight evaluation criteria ?
Authorized officers have to grant an application for a
noncommercial group use if they determine that:
- Authorization of the proposed activity is not
prohibited by the rules at 36 C.F.R. Part 261, Subpart A, by an
order issued under the regulations at 36 C.F.R. Part 261, Subpart
B, or by federal, state, or local law unrelated to the content of
the expressive activity;
- Authorization of the proposed activity is
consistent or can be made consistent with standards and
guidelines in the applicable forest land and resource management plan
required under the National Forest Management Act and 36 C.F.R. Part
- The proposed activity does not materially impact
the characteristics or functions of the environmentally sensitive
resources or lands identified in Forest Service Handbook 1909.15,
- The proposed activity will not delay, halt, or
prevent administrative use of an area by the Forest Service or
other scheduled or existing uses or activities on National Forest
- The proposed activity does not violate state and
local public health laws and regulations as applied to the
proposed site. Issues addressed by state and local public health
laws and regulations as applied to the proposed site include but
are not limited to:
(a) The sufficiency of sanitation facilities;
(b) The sufficiency of waste-disposal facilities;
(c) The availability of sufficient potable drinking water;
(d) The risk of disease from the physical characteristics of the
proposed site or natural conditions associated with the proposed
(e) The risk of contamination of the water supply.
- The proposed activity will not pose a substantial danger
to public safety. Considerations of public safety do not include
concerns about possible reaction to the users' identity or
beliefs from non-members of the group applying for a permit and
are limited to the following:
(a) The potential for physical injury to other forest users
from the proposed activity
(b) The potential for physical injury to users from the
Physical characteristics of the proposed site or natural
conditions associated with the proposed site;
(c) The potential for physical injury to users from scheduled
(d) The adequacy of ingress and egress in case of an emergency
- The proposed activity does not involve military or
paramilitary training or exercises by Private organizations or
individuals, unless such training or exercises are federally
- A person or persons 21 years of age or older have been
designated to sign and do sign a permit on behalf of the
- Will the Forest Service be able to deny a permit for
noncommercial group uses under the rule ?
Yes, but the new rule establishes a presumption in favor of
granting a permit for noncommercial group uses. Under the rule,
applications must be granted or denied in a short, specific
timeframe. Applications must be submitted at least 72 hours in
advance of a proposed activity and must be evaluated by the
Forest Service within 48 hours of receipt. Otherwise they are
deemed granted. A permit can be denied only if it does not meet
the eight evaluation criteria.
Equally importantly, an authorized officer has to explain to the
applicant in writing the reasons for the denial. There has to be
an adequate factual basis for the denial, and a record has to be
developed to support the reasons for the denial. If an
application is denied and an alternative time, place, or manner
will allow the applicant to meet all the evaluation criteria, the
authorized officer will offer that alternative.
- Will applicants for a noncommercial group use have to sign a
Yes, applicants for any noncommercial group use have to designate
at least one person 21 years of age or older to sign a permit and
that person or persons have to sign the permit. This feature is
essential for effective permit administration. The agency must
have someone to contact on behalf of the group.
In addition, the signature gives the permit legal effect. A
person who signs a permit for a noncommercial group use acts as
an agent for the group and subjects the group to the terms and
conditions of the permit. A person who signs a permit does not,
however, assume personal responsibility for the group's actions.
- Will a significant amount of time be necessary to comply with
the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in
processing applications for noncommercial group uses under this
No. Under the rule, permits for noncommercial group uses are
categorically excluded in the absence of extraordinary
circumstances (Forest Service Handbook 1909.15, Chapter 30) from
documentation in an environmental assessment or an environmental
impact statement. Consideration of extraordinary circumstances is
incorporated in the rule as an evaluation criterion. Thus, the
processing of applications for noncommercial group uses can be
expedited to comply with constitutional requirements for a short,
specific timeframe for processing permit applications for
- By allowing authorized officers to assess specific public
health and safety criteria before issuing a permit, is the Forest
Service ensuring the health and safety of group participants and
other forest visitors ?
No. Rather than ensuring public health and safety, the rule
merely allows an authorized officer to deny a permit based on
specific considerations of public health and safety associated
with the proposed activity. These criteria must be narrow in
order to comply with First Amendment requirements.
The Forest Service cannot guarantee Public health and safety.
However, with the assistance of state and local officials, the
agency can and does address health and safety concerns affecting
groups and other forest visitors.
- Does the rule require that applicants for noncommercial group
uses obtain bonding or insurance ?
No. Noncommercial group uses involve or potentially involve First
Amendment activities. Requiring bonding or insurance as a
Precondition to the issuance of a permit for expressive conduct
could be construed as an undue burden on the exercise of First
Amendment rights. In other words, requiring an applicant to
obtain bonding or insurance before a permit is issued could be
seen as putting a price tag on speech in violation of the United
- Are noncommercial group uses subject to Title VI of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 ?
No. Generally, Title VI would not apply to noncommercial group
use of National Forest System lands. There is no "federal
financial assistance" as defined under implementing regulations
because the use is casual and transient. In addition, Title VI
only applies when federal funding is given to a non-federal
entity, which in turn provides financial assistance to the
ultimate beneficiary. Title VI does not apply to noncommercial
group uses because the permit holder is the ultimate beneficiary
of the Permit.
- Are Native American large group gatherings subject to the
Yes. A permit will be required for all noncommercial groups of 75
or more, Including groups of 75 or more Native Americans who seek
to engage in traditional ceremonies and activities on the
National Forests. The rule ensures that authorization Procedures
for noncommercial group uses, including religious gatherings,
comply with First Amendment requirements of freedom of speech,
assembly, and religion.
- Why does the Forest Service prohibit issuance of large group
permits for paramilitary maneuvers in national forests ?
As noted in the preamble to the rule, regardless of their size,
organizations or individuals cannot get a permit to conduct
military or paramilitary activities on National Forest System
lands, unless those activities are federally funded.
- Will the Forest Service allow groups of less than 75 persons
to use National Forest System lands for paramilitary exercises,
maneuvers, or training ?
No. For 25 years the Forest Service has not allowed non-federally
funded military or paramilitary activities on National Forest
System lands because this type of use is often potentially
damaging to forest resources and may endanger other users of
National Forest System lands. The new rule Incorporates this
longstanding agency policy and gives it the force and effect
of administrative law.
- How does the Forest Service define the term "paramilitary" ?
According to the dictionary, "military" means "of, relating to,
or typical of soldiers or the armed forces", "performed or
supported by the armed forces", or "of or relating to war."
"Paramilitary" means "of, pertaining to, or designating forces
organized after a military pattern, especially as a potential
auxiliary military force."
- Isn't this Prohibition on paramilitary maneuvers part of a
Federal effort to shut down militia groups ?
Absolutely not. The Forest Service has had this Policy for over
- Why is paint ball shooting allowed on national forests ?
When Paint guns are being used to capture a flag or home base,
the activity is considered recreational in nature and is
compatible with other recreational uses. The paint does have to
be biodegradable. Paint ball shooting may be prohibited by
order in certain areas and may require a permit in areas where it
- When is the use of ordnance permissible on the national
Ordnance is permissible when its use is in compliance with state
and federal regulations. The Forest Service establishes and
manages shooting ranges for public use, usually near major
population centers. In some locations and circumstances, the
Forest Service regulates or restricts the discharge of firearms,
usually for safety reasons, such as at campgrounds, Parking
areas, and trailheads, or during search and rescue operating and
- Under what authorities do you allow federally funded military
or paramilitary activities on National Forest System lands ?
The use of National Forest System lands for federally funded
military training activities is within the statutory authority of
the Organic Act of June 4, 1897. Federal lands provide a variety
of geographic and topographic settings for training activities
conducted by the Department of Defense and are regarded as a
necessary resource for maintaining a strong national defense.
In 1988, the Department of Defense and the Department of
Agriculture developed a Master Agreement to provide for planning,
scheduling, and conducting authorized military activities on
National Forest System lands.
- What are the differences between the Forest Service and the
National Park Service (NPS) permit systems for noncommercial
group uses ?
NPS, like the Forest Service, requires permits for noncommercial
group uses. NPS has two permitting systems, one for the National
Capital Region and one for the rest of the units in the National
Park System. The former applies to specific sites and is more
narrow in scope than the latter. The Forest Service rule applies
to the entire National Forest System.
- Are large group gatherings an appropriate use of National
Yes, they are an appropriate use, but it is important to minimize
impacts on the environment and to ensure the health and safety of
all forest visitors.
The rule accommodates these concerns by authorizing noncommercial
group uses subject to constitutional time, place, and manner
- How does the Forest Service currently handle gatherings of
large groups ?
- The Forest Service works with sponsors of the group to ensure
adequate protection of the environment and to address health and
safety concerns affecting group members and other forest
- For particularly large groups, assembles an
incident command team consisting of resource managers and
representatives from law enforcement, safety and health, and
public relations staff groups.
- Keeps the public informed.
- Tries to direct traffic and to minimize the
environmental impacts associated with parking large numbers of
- Tries to reduce displacement of wildlife, to
ensure provision of adequate sanitation, and to maintain stream
- Tries to enforce laws and to assist state and
local law enforcement officials if criminal violations occur.
- What is the cost to the government to administer
noncommercial group uses ?
The Forest Service estimates that it costs 5700,000 per year to
administer group uses. This figure does not include law
- Why is the government pay for administrative costs
associated with group uses ?
The Federal government, along with state and local agencies, bear
these costs because they are obligated to protect the National
Forest environment and are concerned about the health and safety
of forest visitors. In addition, shifting law enforcement costs
to applicants for noncommercial group events, which involve or
potentially involve expressive conduct, could be construed as an
undue burden on the exercise of First Amendment rights.
- How do local communities feel about large groups gathering on
nearby National Forests ?
The reaction in local communities is mixed. On one hand, large
groups can present small communities with traffic and law
enforcement problems. On the other hand, members of large groups
often purchase goods and services, such as gas and groceries,
providing a boost to the local economy. The Forest Service
continues to play a strong role in working with local communities
when affected by a sudden influx of national forest visitors.
- Who are the Rainbow Family ?
The Rainbow Family is one of many groups that use National Forest
System lands. They are a loosely knit association of persons who
organize gatherings in the national forests to celebrate life,
worship, express ideas and values, and associate with others who share
their beliefs. The largest of these meetings is the Rainbow Family
Summer Gathering, which is held annually and has attracted as many as
20,000 people from across the nation and around the world.
- Does the rule single out the Rainbow Family ?
The rule does not single out any particular group. Approximately
1800 groups received permits to conduct non-expressive activities
on National Forest System lands in 1992. Because of the court
rulings, the agency has been unable to regulate activities
involving the expression of views. The proposed rule is needed to
treat all groups consistently and fairly.
- Does the Rainbow Family gather only on National Forests ?
Since their inception in 1971, the largest Rainbow Family
gatherings have been on National Forest System lands.
- many comments were received on the proposed rule ?
There were 603 timely comments received on the proposed rule. All
those issues were analyzed and addressed in the preamble of the
- When can the public obtain a copy of the rule ?
The text of the rule will be available upon publication in the
Federal Register. A copy of the rule may also be obtained by
contacting Sharon Prell at (202) 205-1414.
- do you expect the final rule to go into effect ?
- Why doesn't the final rule require a permit for distribution
of noncommercial printed materials ?
The proposed rule would have required a permit for noncommercial
distribution of printed materials. Based on the comments received
on resource impacts and on a careful review of resource impacts
associated with noncommercial distribution of printed material,
it was determined that these impacts are not significant enough
to warrant regulation at this time. Therefore, the final rule
does not require a permit for noncommercial distribution of
Noncommercial Group Use Regulations -- F A C T S
Groups of 75 or more people need a permit to gather on
national forest lands. Formerly groups of only 25 or more people
needed a permit. The regulations apply only to noncommercial
- A noncommercial activity is one in which the primary purpose is
not the sale of a good or service, and where no entry or
participation fee is charged.
- The new regulations protect the rights of free speech,
assembly, and religious exercise on the national forests for
every individual and group.
The regulations presume that a permit will be issued for the
site requested, unless; (1) resource damage caused by the
activity cannot be mitigated; (2) the activity will not comply
with all federal, state, or local laws; (3) it cannot comply with
the applicable forest plan; (4) it poses a threat to public
health and safety. If the site is unsuitable or not available,
another will be offered if it is available.
- With a permit no fee will be charged and no bond or insurance
will be required.
- Requiring permits allows the Forest Service to protect forest
resources and improvements, address concerns about public health
and safety, and avoid conflicting uses from occurring.
- Paramilitary training by private organizations is prohibited
because this type of use may significantly endanger other forest
users or damage forest resources. This has been long-standing
Forest Service policy that is not being changed with these
- The Forest Service's prior two versions of the regulations
governing noncommercial group uses were struck down by the
courts. The first singled out expressive conduct from other other
activities, which was unconstitutional. The second was invalid
because it was adopted without notice and comment.