The SOAR Act Needs Your Voice This Week

On Thursday, December 2nd, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a a hearing on nine recreation bills. The hearing included the SOAR Act and the recently introduced Manchin/Barrasso Outdoor Recreation Act. You can watch a recording of the hearing on the Committee’s website.

It will be very helpful for the Committee to receive letters in support of SOAR and other bills in the hearing. Given the likelihood that these bills will be compiled into the first ever recreation package, the value of your voice this week cannot be understated. Please consider sending a short letter of support for the SOAR Act and any other bills you wish to endorse.

The Committee will be accepting letters until December 11, 2021. 

To make this easy, COA put together a basic template (.docx) you can use. The areas highlighted in yellow should be personalized as much as possible. Individual stories and experiences are most impactful. That said, you are welcome to use the preformatted content if you prefer.

If you wish, you can also review a copy of the COA’s full testimony (PDF). Please use any aspect of the COA testimony in your own comments if you wish. Thank you for your continued support of this longstanding effort to improve access for facilitated outdoor recreation on public lands.

Template SOAR Act Support Letter (.docx)

COA Testimoney (PDF)

Send letters to Ms. Darla Ripchensky: darla_ripchensky@energy.senate.gov 

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COA Submits Written Testimony to the House on the 2021 SOAR Act

This week, the Coalition for Outdoor Access (COA) submitted written testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee in support of the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act. Congressman Neguse from Colorado introduced the bill, which outdoor organizations and businesses praise for its proposed improvements to the recreational permitting process on public lands and waters.

Read COA’s written testimony (PDF)

Watch the legislative hearing (YouTube)

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USFS COVID Recreation Guidance

The US Forest Service has published guidance for use of forest service land and recreation operations during COVID-19 times. The guidance suggests permit holders take into account the varying degrees of stay-at-home orders depending on which state you operate in, and local public health guidelines. It is best practice to check in with your local public land management agency when working on procedures for reopening. As the stages of reopening unfold, the forest service has put a framework in place for local agencies to follow:

  • Mitigation and Monitoring of Current Conditions
  • Preparation and Planning for Reopening
  • Implementing Decisions for Reopening
  • Monitor and Adapt to Whatever Comes Next

When creating your reopening plans for guiding on Forest Service lands, it would be beneficial to use this framework. It is the agencies intention to support permit holders as best as possible to resume operations, in order to do this collaboration is essential. Working with your local office will be crucial to ensure your permit is still active; you are able to follow local and State laws while providing services and consistent messaging is utilized when talking about what is open. One final note from this guidance suggests local offices, when possible, consider offering extended operating seasons and amending operating plans at the request of the permittee.


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Calling All Outfitters and Guides Operating on Forest Service Land!

Do you guide and work on US Forest Service trails? Have you felt the impact of the USFS trail maintenance backlog while out with clients?

Well now there’s a pilot program to address that issue, through the Outfitter & Guide Trail Stewardship Pilot Program. This program is one requirement from the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, a bipartisan effort signed into law by congress in 2016.

The Forest Service manages the largest trail system in the country, a whopping 159,000 miles! These trails offer a vast array of opportunities to recreate, to connect with public lands, and foster healthy communities. As they say, it takes a village, which is the case for the massive amounts of land managed by the Forest Service which is why the Outfitter & Guide Stewardship Pilot Program was introduced. The Outfitter & Guide Trail Stewardship Pilot Program encourages partnership between local outfitters and guides and U.S. Forest Service officials to reduce fees incurred by outfitters and guides by offsetting permit fees through mutually agreed upon work and standards. We are stoked to hear about this awesome program that encourages collaboration and teamwork to take care of the trails we love and enjoy.

National Forests selected for the pilot program are:

  • Bitterroot National Forest
  • Kootenai National Forest
  • Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests
  • Bighorn National Forests(Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland
  • San Juan National Forest
  • Shoshone National Forest
  • Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests
  • Gila National Forest
  • Salmon-Challis National Forest
  • Gifford Pinchot National Forest
  • Siuslaw National Forest
  • Umpqua National Forest
  • Wallowa-Whitman National Forest
  • Willamette National Forest
  • National Forests of Mississippi
  • Ouachita National Forest
  • Mark Twain National Forest
  • Wayne National Forest
  • Tongass National Forest
If you operate in any of these National Forests reach out to your Regional Office for more information.

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Senate Committee Hearing on the SOAR Act

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing on the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act (SOAR Act), S. 1665; the Recreation Not Red Tape Act (RnR), S. 1967; and the Ski Area Fee Retention Act, S. 1723 on October 31, 2019.

Witnesses included:
Aaron Bannon, Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Coordinator at NOLS
Lee Davis, Executive Director Outdoor Economy Initiative at Oregon State University
Brendan McGuire, Vice President Public Affairs at Vail Resorts
Chris French, Deputy Chief, National Forest System
Nikki Haskett, Acting Assistant Director for National Conservation Lands, Bureau of Land Management

Strong Support

Strong support was expressed for the SOAR Act throughout the hearing. Several notable moments are described below.

Senator Manchin (D-WV) asked the witnesses what happens when a permit expires due to a business or organization ceasing their operations. Aaron Bannon responded with an example of a permit held by Outward Bound (OB) in Red Lodge, MT that expired when OB stopped operating in the area. The permit was decommissioned by the Forest Service and the previously authorized service days were not redistributed to other interested parties. Senator Manchin expressed concern that this practice is limiting access to public lands.

Senator Daines (R-MT) described that Montana contains a patchwork of lands managed by different agencies. He indicated there is a strong need for a multijurisdictional permitting authority to enable outfitters and guides to cross easily from one agency jurisdiction to another without requiring a multitude of different permits. He asked Nikki Haskett, BLM, if a single permit makes sense for the government to save money and help people get outside. Ms. Haskett responded by stating the BLM supports the provisions in the SOAR Act that would allow multijurisdictional permitting.

Senator Heinrich asked Lee Davis, Oregon State, and Aaron Bannon, NOLS, if they could describe the cost recovery procedures used by the federal land management agencies. Both indicated the procedures for cost recovery are complicated and can result in very high costs for small businesses and organizations. Mr. Davis shared a story from his time as Executive Director at The Mazamas, an outdoor club in Oregon. He explained that The Mazamas were asked to provide a $14,000.00 cost recovery down payment to the Forest Service before permit processing could occur. As a result, the permit processing stalled. Senator Heinrich lamented the fact that complex cost recovery procedures and high costs are creating a significant barrier to entry for small outdoor organizations and businesses who are trying to serve the public.

Package of Recreation Bills

At the end of the hearing, Senator Murkowski, Committee Chair, indicated the Committee would be working in the coming weeks to put together a package of recreation bills as a vehicle for moving these legislative initiatives forward.

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House Subcommittee Hearing on the SOAR Act

On Sept. 19, 2019, the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR Act), H.R. 3879, and the Recreation Not Red Tape Act, H.R. 3458, were the subject of a legislative hearing in the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. Six witnesses provided testimony on the bills. A brief recap of each witness’s testimony follows below.

Leah Baker, Acting Assistant Director for Resources and Planning at the Bureau of Land Management, confirmed that the BLM’s goals aligned with that of the two proposed acts. She pointed out that the BLM had recently acquired thousands of acres in New Mexico and Montana in an effort to improve access to the wilderness in those areas and she noted the large number of outfitter-guide permits currently managed by the BLM. She went on to describe several provisions in the SOAR Act that would help the BLM simplify the permit process to improve access to public lands and she noted several areas in which the BLM would like to work with committee staff to ensure the bill achieves the intended outcomes.

Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, shared his personal connection to the outdoors, demonstrated by thirty years working for the Forest Service, and his passion for facilitating connections between Americans and forest lands. He affirmed that the U.S. Forest Service supports the goals of the two acts, namely, improving recreational access to national forest lands by refining and streamlining the special use permitting process. Like Ms. Baker, he noted a few areas in which the agency would like to discuss the details of the bill with committee staff to ensure its intent is achieved.

Matt Wade, Advocacy and Policy Director for the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), explained his organization’s proximity to public lands, stating that AMGA had trained over 13,000 mountain guides who rely on public lands to execute their work, in addition to providing highly popular training courses for veterans to prepare them for a career in the mountain guiding industry. He commented that the agencies’ antiquated and inefficient administrative systems have stunted the growth and quality of AMGA’s scope and depth of work. He further clarified that SOAR improves access to existing capacity already deemed fit for outfitting and guiding usage, instead of making changes to capacity determinations or user group allocations.

Robin Chiles, Director of Admissions and Outreach of YMCA of Greater Seattle BOLD & GOLD Programs, stated that 800 guided youth are able to explore the outdoors of the Pacific Northwest through BOLD & GOLD Programs. One of her students, twelve-year-old Peter, exuded a newfound commitment to a healthier lifestyle and an increased sense of self confidence after partaking in a trip. Ms. Chiles indicated that the complex and excessively time-consuming nature of the permitting process has crippled YMCA’s ability to meet a growing demand for more trips, which she says transform lives, inspire career paths, and increase awareness of environmental stewardship.

Matt Baker-White, Acting Director of Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, illustrated the importance of his 93 year old wilderness education nonprofit by sharing a story of a particular middle schooler who saw stars for his first time on a New Mexico cultural expedition, having never gone outside after dark due to a lack of safety in his residential area. Mr. Baker-White indicated that the passage of the acts would redirect their employee time from unnecessarily long and repetitive permit applications to more extensive programming for the youth they serve.

David Brown, Senior Consultant for the America Outdoors Association, expressed the significant need to reauthorize and improve the authority to issue outfitting guide permits for the represented agencies, which sunsets the first of October 2020. He noted that the members of AOA, composed of outfitters and guides operating on federal lands and water, are burdened by the permitting processes that exceed the capacity of the permitting agencies and stifle access to public lands. Mr. Brown concluded by outlining the three primary results should the two acts pass: improved access to public lands while maintaining environmental protection; improved permitting systems that reduce administrative costs; and simplified permit fee calculation and cost recovery reform.

The Coalition for Outdoor Access (COA) also submitted written testimony for the hearing. The testimony states that the complexities of the permitting process are limiting public access and preventing a broad range of outdoor leaders and local businesses from providing people with outdoor experiences on public lands — hence legislation is needed to direct federal land management agencies to review their permitting processes and identify areas for simplification and improvement. In its testimony, COA specified that an overall goal with this legislation is a carefully calibrated simplification of the permitting processes that ensures the agencies retain the discretion they need to craft the most effective solutions for the unique attributes of the landscapes they are charged with stewarding.

With this latest hearing in the books, the bi-partisan legislation outlined in the SOAR Act is one step closer to moving through committee and into law.


Article courtesy of Backbone Media

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Brief History of the SOAR Act

By Paul Sanford, The Wilderness Society

The Coalition for Outdoor Access’ highest policy priority is passage of the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act, or SOAR Act [S. 1665 and H.R. 3879]. The SOAR Act would improve the operation of the special recreation permitting system so that outfitters, guides and other outdoor leaders can help more people experience the outdoors.

The SOAR Act is the product of more than five years of collaboration between a broad community of stakeholders and Members of Congress. This article will briefly review the history of this legislation.

Early Days

Several members of the Coalition for Outdoor Access Steering Committee were working together to improve the outfitter-guide permitting system before the formation of the coalition. The Mountaineers, the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education and the Wilderness Society developed their first policy proposal in the Spring of 2014 and met with Members of Congress to explore the possibility of introducing legislation to increase access.

Formation of the Coalition

In the summer of 2014, it became apparent that a more inclusive coalition would be needed to improve the operation of the outfitter-guide permitting system. This led to the formation of the Outdoor Access Working Group, which later became the Coalition for Outdoor Access. The Working Group held its first meetings in September 2014.

This more inclusive coalition began working with Senator Martin Heinrich in 2015 to develop legislation that would improve the permitting system. The Coalition also continued its work with the federal agencies throughout this period, advocating for administrative changes that would improve access. The Outdoor Access Working Group changed its name to the Coalition for Outdoor Access in 2017.

The Guides and Outfitters Act

In 2017, America Outdoors Association, the trade association for outfitters and guides, put forward another bill called the Guides and Outfitters Act or GO Act. The GO Act contained language that would improve the permitting system. However, the bill favored for-profit outfitter-guides over other outdoor leaders. Consequently, the Coalition for Outdoor Access did not support the bill as it was introduced. The GO Act passed the House of Representatives in 2017 but did not move forward in the Senate.

The Public Lands Recreational Opportunities Improvement Act

With COA’s assistance, Senator Heinrich completed work on his bill in the Spring of 2018 and began efforts to recruit a Republican co-sponsor for the bill. He successfully recruited Senator Shelley Moore Capito and introduced the Public Lands Recreational Opportunities Improvement Act (PLROIA) in the Senate in September 2018. Unfortunately, with very little time left in the legislative session, Senator Heinrich and COA recognized that it would be difficult to move the bill before the end of the Congressional session in December 2018.

Bill Merger

As a result of the introduction of PLROIA, there were two competing permitting bills introduced in the 2017-18 legislative session. PLROIA and the GO Act had some similarities, but also had some key differences. Because of these differences, support for the two bills was fragmented in a way that reduced the likelihood that either bill would pass.

In an effort to get all stakeholders pushing in the same direction, America Outdoors Association and the Coalition for Outdoor Access decided to develop a combined bill that would meet the needs of all stakeholders. The bill merger process began in the Fall of 2018 and continued into Winter 2019 with the support of the lead sponsors, Senators Heinrich and Capito.

The SOAR Act

The SOAR Act is the result of the merger of the GO Act and PLROIA. Senators Heinrich and Capito introduced the SOAR Act in the Senate on May 23, 2019 with twelve additional original co-sponsors. Representatives Deb Haalandand John Curtis introduced identical companion legislation in the House of Representatives on July 23, 2019 with eight additional original co-sponsors.

The House Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing on the SOAR Act on September 19, 2019. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held its own legislative hearing on October 31, 2019.

Broad Support

The combination of the two bills achieved the desired result. The SOAR Act is supported by more than 90 organizations from across the recreation spectrum. Supporting organizations include:

Aerie Backcountry Medicine
Alaska Alpine Adventures
Alaska Guide Collective
Alpenglow Expeditions
America Outdoors Association
America Walks
American Alpine Club
American Alpine Institute
American Fly Fishing Trade Association
American Hiking Society
American Horse Council
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
American Mountain Guides Association
American Sportfishing Association
Angler’s Covey
Appalachian Mountain Guides
Archery Trade Association
Association for Experiential Education
Association of Marina Industries
Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education
Avid4 Adventure
Big City Mountaineers
Chicks Climbing and Skiing
Choose Outdoors
Colorado Mountain School
Colorado River Outfitters Association
Colorado Wilderness Corporate and Teams
Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides
Dude Ranchers Association
Estes Park Rock Climbing
Exum Mountain Guides
Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association
Holiday River Expeditions
Idaho Mountain Guides
Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association
International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association
Kent Mountain Adventure Center
Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce
Los Alamos Mountaineers
Mazamas
Middle Fork Outfitters Association
Moab Desert Adventures
Montana Alpine Guides
Montana Mountaineering Association
Montana Outfitters and Guides Association
Montana Wilderness School
Mountain Skills Rock Guides
Nantahala Outdoor Center
National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds
National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Outdoor Leadership School
National Shooting Sports Foundation
New Mexico Council of Guides and Outfitters
New Mexico Wild
New River Mountain Guides
No Barriers USA
North Carolina Outward Bound School
Open Lands Consulting LLC
Oregon Outfitters and Guides Association
Outdoor Alliance
Outdoor Industry Association
Outdoor Recreation Roundtable
Outdoor Research
Outward Bound USA
Red River Adventures
Red Rock Climbing Guides
REI
Rising Tide Associates
RV Dealers Association
RV Industry Association
Sawtooth Mountain Guides
San Luis Valley Great Outdoors
Santa Fe Climbing Center
Seneca Rocks Climbing School
Sierra Mountain Center
Sierra Mountain Guides
Sierra Mountaineering International
Siskiyou Outdoor Recreation Alliance
Specialty Equipment Market Association
Suntoucher Mountain Guides
The Mountaineers
The Mountain Guides
The Wilderness Society
Transforming Youth Outdoors
Utah Guides and Outfitters Association
Vetta Mountain Guides
Washington Trails Association
West Virginia Professional River Outfitters
Western River Expeditions
Western Spirit Cycling
Wilderness Education Association
Worldwide Outfitters and Guides Association
Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association
YMCA of Greater Seattle
YMCA of Los Angeles

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History of the Coalition For Outdoor Access

Difficulties in obtaining outfitter-guide permits on National Forests have restricted many outdoor organizations from taking people outside. As as result, fewer people are able to learn, appreciate, and experience America’s National Forests. Often times, the difficulties arise from complex and inconsistent permitting procedures.

CURRENT ISSUES IN THE OUTFITTER-GUIDE PERMITTING SYSTEM

There are numerous issues that are preventing people from experiencing National Forests with the assistance of an outfitter, guide, non-profit organization, university outdoor program, youth-serving group, veteran’s outdoor program, or outdoor camp.

Issues include:

  • Forests are not issuing new outfitter-guide permits due to an inability to complete the necessary paperwork.
  • Land managers and permit holders have to spend significant time on cumbersome application procedures and reporting requirements.
  • Permit holders are often unable to introduce new uses to adapt to changing needs and demands.
  • Permit seekers encounter difficulties learning about permit availability and how to apply.

THE COALITION FOR OUTDOOR ACCESS

To address these issues, a wide spectrum of outdoor organizations came together in August 2014 to form the Outdoor Access Working Group, now the Coalition for Outdoor Access (COA). The group includes small and large nonprofits, outfitters, guide services, universities, advocacy groups, and representatives of the outdoor industry.

The Coalition for Outdoor Access Steering Committee is made up of the following organizations:

  • Association of Outdoor Recreation & Education (AORE)
  • The Wilderness Society
  • The Mountaineers
  • Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI)
  • American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA)
  • YMCA BOLD & GOLD
  • Angler’s Covey
  • Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)

You can learn more about the Coalition for Outdoor Access’s platform and goals, as well as a more detailed background of this issue in this blog post by The Mountaineers.

You can read COA’s official stance and perspectives on these issue in this White Paper on Access.

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MISSION

The mission of the Coalition for Outdoor Access (COA) is to increase access to public lands for guided outdoor recreation and education activities.