U.S. House passes largest-ever outdoor recreation legislation bill

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The unanimous approval of the first-of-its-kind Expanding Public Lands Outdoor Recreation Experience Act — or Explore Act — in the U.S. House last week marks a big moment for the nation’s surging outdoor recreation industry. 

The legislation streamlines the permitting process for outfitters, directs land managers to identify and develop long-distance bike trails, offers grants for urban areas to expand parks and protects rock climbing in wilderness areas. 

“There’s really not a lot of disagreement when it comes to outdoor recreation,” U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas who co-sponsored the Explore Act, said in a news conference Wednesday. “This is a big deal. It affects all areas of the country.”

Passage of the industrywide package of outdoor recreation legislation supporting the nation’s $1.1 trillion outdoor recreation economy bodes well for the act’s companion bill — the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act — which awaits action in the U.S. Senate. 

“Maybe it can be an example of how we can work better together in Congress on other things,” Westerman said. 

The Explore Act includes Colorado U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse’s Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act — or SOAR Act — and the Biking on Long-Distance Trails Act — or BOLT Act.

The SOAR Act directs federal land managers to eliminate repetitive, costly and timely processes required of outfitters seeking guide permits to bring people into the outdoors. 

The “outdated and inefficient” systems for authorizing guides has not kept pace with growing demand for climbing and outdoor courses on public lands, said Matt Wade, the executive director of the 4,600-member American Mountain Guides Association, which trains skiing, climbing and backcountry guides. 

“There are many reports of guides being unable to get the permits they need because the agencies can’t complete the lengthy paperwork that is required for approval,” Wade said. “The Explore Act will bring these systems up to speed.”

The Explore Act also includes the Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act, or PARC Act. Sponsored by Neguse and Colorado’s U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, the legislation directs the Forest Service and Interior Department to create a uniform policy for all wilderness areas that allows climbers to use, place and maintain fixed anchors for climbing. 

The federal land agencies are in the middle of revamping climbing management policies in national parks and wilderness areas, with proposed directives that would require local land managers to review and approve anchors and bolts in areas that limit most human-made structures. 

The proposed management directives and bolting issue have irked climbers who fear new policies could end bolting in wilderness areas and possibly trigger the removal of anchors from tens of thousands of wilderness routes. Wilderness advocacy groups that have assailed the PARC Act for allowing more recreational impacts in wild areas argue that the new management policies do not go far enough and there should not be any process that allows permanent fixed anchors in wilderness. The management proposals from the Forest Service and National Park Service have harvested more than 9,000 comments from several thousand climbers and some wilderness advocates.

If the Senate passes the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act and President Joe Biden signs the legislation packages into law, Congress will be sending “a very strong message to the agencies that an interpretation of the Wilderness Act that prohibits wilderness anchors is not the intent of Congress and hopefully the agencies will follow that intent,” said Erik Murdock, the head of policy and government affairs for the Access Fund.

With both climbers and wilderness advocates troubled by the proposed changes to climbing management in wilderness, the passage of both the Explore Act and the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act “is an incredible opportunity,” Murdock said, for land managers to “listen to democratically elected officials and rethink how to manage climbing.”

“No organization supports the agency proposals,” Murdock said. “It is clear the agencies have missed the mark and the time is ripe for reevaluating this process and re-starting the planning process in a way that comes up with something workable.” 

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