ROANOKE, VA., NOV. 28 -- The Jefferson National Forest has become the nation's first forest to promote outdoor recreation actively instead of just waiting for people to ask for information, a forest service official said.

"I think this is sort of a leading edge in national policy. We're going to see the forest service more involved in marketing," said Charles Blankenship, a forest staff officer for recreation and wilderness.

The pilot project, started in October, initially will try to promote tourism in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, 115,000 acres of the Jefferson forest in southwestern Virginia, near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

The area contains 350 miles of trails and Virginia's highest peak, the 5,729-foot Mount Rogers, but campgrounds are not always full.

"If it's sitting there empty, it's costing a lot of money" with no one benefiting, Blankenship said.

In the past, the forest service has provided information only to people who ask for it. "They come find us, and that's rather awkward in many places," Blankenship said. "They have to go to a lot of trouble to get information on us."

Forest officials have dubbed the effort "Operation Cornerstone," because they think recreation should be a cornerstone of the national forest system.

The project's main goal is to get outdoor activities in the forest mentioned by private local groups that support tourism and offer information through toll-free numbers.

Such tourism groups have not said much about national forests in the past, Blankenship said.

Summer is the busy season, so the promotional efforts are scheduled to begin this spring, he said.

The forest service has been assured by marketing consultants that outdoor recreation can be publicized without running the risks of clogging the nation's wilderness areas.

"We were afraid if we created promotional-type effects, we would draw too many people to the wrong place," said Blankenship. "In other words, if we've got wilderness areas, we don't want to increase the use of limited areas."

The cost of the program is minimal since it is being handled by workers already in place, he noted.

"It's a selective type of marketing," Blankenship said. "We're using information as a management tool."