Picturesque peaks, wildflower-studded meadows and canopies of golden leaves make the San Francisco Peaks area a prime location for a growing number of couples looking for a place to wed.

In 2017 alone, the Forest Service's Flagstaff Ranger District has issued 15 noncommercial permits for weddings and received many more inquiries that didn’t follow through, said Kevin Lehto, recreation specialist on the district.

Now, the Forest Service is considering a new system to simplify and improve permitting for wedding planners organizing nuptials on the forest. It’s a user group the district hasn’t addressed with a special process before.

The agency is now taking public comments as part of its environmental analysis of the proposal, which would treat wedding planners like other outfitters and guides on the forest with a long-term permit and operating plan.

As it stands now, wedding planners have to apply for commercial permits for each individual event, kicking off a mini-environmental analysis process each time, Lehto said. Under the new system, Forest Service resource specialists assess and pre-approve certain areas for wedding events based on potential impacts to things like wildlife, vegetation and other people recreating on the forest, Lehto said. Based on their advice, a wedding planner operating plan will include those areas as well as applicable visitor caps, timing restrictions and requirements on things like music levels.

Wedding planners who apply for the outfitting and guiding services permit will have those defined parameters to work with and will only have to briefly touch base with Forest Service staff for each event they plan, Lehto said. They will be required to pay an annual fee based on their adjusted gross income.

The new proposal would be a benefit for environmental planners on the national forest too because they can take a more holistic view of the type and extent of potential impacts they are analyzing instead of the current, piecemeal approach, said Jessica Richardson, National Environmental Policy Coordinator at the Flagstaff Ranger District. That will mean more in-depth analysis and a better way of mitigating environmental impacts, Richardson said.

For Lehto, the large-scale analysis has provided an array of places where he can already tell individual permit applicants that a wedding will most likely be allowed.

“I can suggest these areas and feel comfortable that it's going to be OK,” Lehto said.

Dana Micklos, a local wedding planner, was one of those who has organized events in the national forest and was approaching the forest multiple times a year for the appropriate permit. From those conversations, the Forest Service started to consider whether wedding planners should be in a different category than one-time permit applicants, leading to the current proposal, Richardson and Lehto said.

The proposal won’t affect individuals who apply for a free single use, non-commercial permit for their wedding event. Those permits apply to wedding events where private businesses aren’t providing services like catering and tent setup on the site. In all other cases, the event is required to get a one-time use commercial permit, which many people don't realize, Lehto said.

Richardson said people planning for their big day to take place on the national forest also tend not to realize the planning required to get a permit for their wedding.

“There is a misconception that if you do it in the forest and the great outdoors that kind of pre-planning isn't needed,” Richardson said. “But you almost need the same planning for a forest wedding (as more traditional weddings). (The Forest Service) is on a different timeline than a business that is designed to handle events.”

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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