U.S. House passes Westerman-led recreation bill, needs Senate approval

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed an outdoor recreation package addressing recreational access on public lands and improvements to related infrastructure.

The chamber considered the Expanding Public Lands Outdoor Recreation Experiences Act by voice vote, meaning members did not record their individual votes and instead gave vocal support or opposition to the legislation. Republican Rep. Michael Cloud of Texas presided over the matter and did not hear any opposition to prevent passage. No members requested a roll call vote.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., introduced the legislation in November with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and a bipartisan group of House colleagues. Westerman and Grijalva serve as the respective chairman and ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which first considered the package.

“It’s great that this passed on suspension,” Westerman, of Hot Springs, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette following Tuesday’s vote. “It tells you that there was a lot of work because it’s a fairly comprehensive bill that affects all of the country. To be able to get bipartisan support and have bipartisan ideas throughout the bill was a big deal.”

The EXPLORE Act is a combination of multiple proposals addressing outdoor recreation, including bills directed at incentivizing the creation of long-distance bike trails, promoting infrastructure improvements, fostering private-public partnerships for renovating campsites and constructing housing near public lands, and assessing accessibility to facilities such as camp shelters and shooting ranges.

The package would additionally streamline the permitting process and related costs for parties interested in providing recreational services.

“This bill is a significant bipartisan effort to advance and foster our outdoor recreation activities nationwide,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., said on the House floor.

The EXPLORE Act includes a Westerman-led bill affecting overnight camping in the Ouachita National Forest. Camping has been prohibited in the forest’s Albert Pike Recreation Area following the June 2010 fatal floods in this area.

If the EXPLORE Act becomes law, the federal Department of Agriculture would be required to identify 54 areas suitable for overnight camping with plans for opening at least 27 campsites and related facilities within two years of the bill’s enactment. The future campsites would have to be outside of spaces prone to “100-year” floods, or areas with a 1% chance of flooding in a given year.

“If we close down everything because of injury or death, the Grand Canyon would be closed off. Our outdoors are there for us to access,” Westerman said. “I think you can use common sense and reason to where you still can enjoy outdoor recreation and be as safe as possible, but you can’t remove all of the risks.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — the House committee’s counterpart in Congress’ upper chamber — has considered multiple bills addressing similar issues as the EXPLORE Act during this Congress. The America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, for instance, calls on federal agencies to identify opportunities for long-distance bike trails and improve infrastructure at developed recreation sites.

The Senate committee advanced the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act last July, but the full Senate has yet to consider the measure.

Despite the partisan divide on Capitol Hill, Westerman expressed optimism regarding the Senate passing the EXPLORE Act, noting there have been talks with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee leaders concerning the best path for passing the House’s measure.

“We’re still talking with them about if they’re going to make tweaks to the bill in the Senate and send it back to us,” he said. “Or if they can accept what we’ve got and send it to President [Joe] Biden’s desk.”

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