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AOA Members Testify at House Hearing on Impediments to Recreation on Public Lands
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The processes necessary to plan and authorize outdoor recreation services on public lands was a hot topic at a two hour hearing yesterday in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. The hearing was conducted by Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT). AOA members testifying included Aaron Bannon from NOLS, Brian Merrill from Western River Expeditions, Sutton Bacon from Nantahala Outdoor Center, along with David Brown, AOA’s Executive Director, and Grant Simonds from Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. Rick Lindsey, Prime Insurance, in Salt Lake and other outfitter witnesses also testified.


Access is already contracting in some backcountry settings due to impassable trails. Planning and regulatory processes are creating logjams to the authorization of new uses.

AOA’s Executive Director David Brown testified that several issues have to be addressed to avoid a contraction in recreation access especially for the outfitted public. He told the subcommittee that agency processes for authorizing permits have become more complex and expensive in part because of lawsuits. He cited cost recovery for extensive NEPA, need assessments and other analyses as a potential threat to the industry and explained why those costs cannot be passed on to outfitters with relatively low profit margins. He urged the committee to help the agencies streamline their processes by adopting categorical exclusions and programmatic environmental assessments.


He also urged the committee to take up reauthorization of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), which is the authority for Forest Service, BLM and Refuge permits. FLREA expires in 2014. He asked the committee to consider better accountability to promote effective use of fee revenues.


Brian Merrill expressed concern to the committee about the new BLM National Landscape Conservation System and its apparent lack of support for recreation. While agency manuals require a science plan for each NLCS unit, the NLCS does not require or promote planning for permitted recreation services. He suggested that any new BLM designation, which by law automatically becomes part of the NLCS, have recreation as a purpose and authorize outfitted recreation opportunities. He said a new "backcountry designation” which promotes outdoor recreation, should be considered as an alternative to wilderness.


Rick Lindsey from Prime Insurance provided the committee with examples of high liability insurance limits in National Parks as a threat to outfitted services. He challenged NPS to provide examples of awards that justified high limits.


NOLS Public Policy Director Aaron Bannon expressed concerns about group size limits in wilderness constraining commercial outfitters. He said, "Group size limitations are a persistent threat. Land managers struggle to balance the dual mandates of the Wilderness Act, those of preserving naturalness while retaining opportunities for visitors.” He elaborated by saying that agency managers often find the easiest way to manage visitation is through constraining commercial outfitter providers. NOLS ceased operating in Canyonlands National Park after the party size there was reduced to seven persons.


Sutton Bacon identified cost recovery as another barrier to development of recreation opportunities on public lands and private sector involvement in the expansion of recreation opportunities. Grant Simonds also testified that cost recovery was a threat to outfitter operations and a barrier to permit issuance. He also pointed to the degradation of trails in the Frank Church Wilderness as the reason the state of Idaho declared the wilderness there a "disaster area”. He called for fee credits to outfitters who open up trails for public use and other strategies to open up impassable trails.


A robust round of questioning accompanied each panel throughout the two-hour hearing in one of the most extensive hearings ever devoted to outfitter issues.

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