BACKGROUND: The key to getting people to spend time outside and eventually care for our public lands and waters is to provide them with a facilitated or guided experience. Thousands of organizations and businesses do just that: they offer safe, enjoyable, educational experiences while getting youth, families and others out rock climbing, white water rafting, backcountry camping and more. They also help people develop an appreciation for wild places, and to care for our nation’s forests, deserts and waterways.
THE PROBLEM: Yet it can be challenging for our members and others to obtain outfitter-guide permits, especially for our national forests. We’ve heard from climbing guides, regional mountain club members and those who work for non-profits that teach climbing that the permitting system is overly complicated and can be a barrier to accessing our public lands.
While the US Forest Service (USFS) values facilitated recreation opportunities, it operates under an outdated recreation permitting system that makes it difficult for them to process the permits outfitter and guides need. With different fees, deadlines, and operating plan requirements for different agencies, the current permitting system has discouraged existing businesses from expanding and has created roadblocks for the creation of new businesses, limiting the outdoor recreation economy.
As members of the Coalition for Outdoor Access, the AAC is working closely with our partners on legislative fixes in Congress and agency efforts to streamline and simplify the permitting process.
Introduced October 2018, The Public Land Recreational Opportunities Improvement Act (PLROIA) is a big step in attempting to fix the recreation permitting system. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)'s bipartisan legislation improves the permitting systems to help more Americans gain access to the outdoors through facilitated recreation experiences. This legislation was developed and advocated for by the Coalition for Outdoor Access.
The Recreation Not Red Tape Act (RNR) is a bill that aims to simplify and streamline the permitting process, among other things. Under the permitting section, the bill would encourage or require the USFS and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to:
Adopt a uniform and consistent permitting process for outfitters and guides, including standard forms, deadlines, and informational materials to expedite the permitting process.
Create an online permit application system to reduce burdensome paperwork and increase efficiency.
Issue one permit for trips that cross jurisdictional boundaries.
Require a “reasonable timeframe” for processing permits.
US Forest Service
In June 2016 then Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell issued a letter outlining new guidance on special use permitting expressing a commitment to a moving away from overregulation and towards an attitude of “yes.” The guidance includes directives that the USFS:
Better accommodate educational organizations, school groups and youth groups that seek access.
Create an online permit application system.
Quickly process activities that have nominal effects on the land, resources, or programs.
Establish a consistent approach to the tools used in the permit decision making process—needs assessments, capacity studies, and NEPA analyses—and conduct them only when necessary.
Develop more meaningful relationships with the public to better understand their needs.
Reconsider permitting moratoriums where appropriate.
Better public engagement and a streamlined permitting system will enable more people to enjoy our national forests through a facilitated experience. Although the Chief’s Guidance is an important development, we have seen many forests struggle with implementation.
We will continue to support the advancement of the Guidance so that guides and non-profits have access to the permits they need to teach climbers how to safely and responsibly enjoy our public lands.
Banner Photo: AAC Member Drew Smith