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Balancing the outdoors: Should guides, groups get more access?

More organizations (both non- and for-profit) want to get their group outdoors, but is it in the wilderness' best interest?


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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 20 – 24. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

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The goals in the outdoor industry are diverse. Wilderness groups want more lonely landscapes. Gear makers want more buyers. Outfitters want more clients. Everyone wants to play outside and make a living. At Outdoor Retailer, there’s an opportunity to come together and debate these divergent missions, and this year, the issue of public land access is working its way to the top.

Promoting the land
At Summer Market 2014, about 40 outdoor leaders gathered to share their problems with securing permits for group outings on public land.

“We realized at that meeting that the public land management system has, generally speaking, slowly and surely developed a bias toward not helping people get out in organized groups on their own land,” said Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research.

Thus was born the Outdoor Access Working Group, a loosely knit collective of partners pushing a unified agenda into federal land management offices. The group’s stakeholders include REI, America Outdoors, the National Outdoor Leadership School, the Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education, the Outdoor Industry Alliance, the Wilderness Society and Outdoor Research. The group’s immediate goal is to right fundamental imbalances plaguing the permitting process across all federal land agencies.

The group’s outdoor voice in Washington D.C. hopes to elevate recreation alongside the well-organized extractive resources lobby that overshadows the notion of public lands as playgrounds. Most land agency policies were developed with a focus on resource extraction — timber, mining, oil and gas — and recreation has long fought for a seat at the land management table. Many recreation-based policies were crafted on the traditional perspective of the rugged individual backpacking through remote wildlands. But that perspective is changing.

“What we see in today’s world are young people in more diverse communities wanting to go out in groups. They want to go out into public lands for their first time with someone who knows more than them. Maybe it’s a Meetup group, or a church group, or a school group. The federal system does not know how to handle that,” Nordstrom said.

The access group is aiming to improve permitting by urging the development of centralized definitions and processes across all federal land agencies. Now, an educational group searching for a permit to backpack on public land faces an ordeal, with different land agencies using different systems for permit applications and review. The permitting process challenges small businesses, said Rebecca Bear, the outdoor programs manager for REI.

Nordstrom and Bear point to a YMCA climbing group in Bend, Ore. that travels to Squamish, British Columbia, for group trips because they can’t get a permit to climb at the local crags. They talk about the man with the paddling operation in the Northwest who was shut down when he added stand-up paddleboards to his fleet because he was only permitted for rental canoes and kayaks. They note how many of the best trained American guides often flee the country to find work because the permitting process is so restrictive.

“There is more capacity in the system for groups to operate and leave little to no impact and we want the system to be fixed up so it can work better,” Nordstrom said. “Guides are wanting to open a business to help people get out and learn more about their public lands, and the government is making it almost impossible for them.”

The group’s approach is two-fold. First is finding a way to partner with land management agencies to help support decision makers. Second is supporting legislative action that would allow land agencies to increase user fees under the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act, which received federal funding through September 2015 under the recently passed appropriations — or “Cromnibus” — bill.

“We’d like to adjust the language [of the act] so that more of the money that is collected actually gets sent to actual parks and recreational areas,” Bear said, noting how too much of the fees are consumed in the government’s bureaucratic morass. That fee money can support better permitting processes for guides, outfitters and groups, Bear said.

“Our specific focus is insuring that the people who want to get outside can have somebody who can help them; professionals who can manage the safety and the risk,” Bear said. “We are definitely not interested in impacting public use. This is about people choosing guides when they go outside. It’s not about guides having the right to be outside.”

Protecting the land
Calling for more recreation fees and allowing businesses greater access to pubic lands has its opposition. Several wilderness and conservation groups oppose the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which allows land agencies to charge fees for recreation. Fees have created commodities on public land and businesses vying for a piece of those fees, said Scott Silver, head of the 24-year-old Wild Wilderness group. The fee system has led to several groups lobbying legislators for special treatment, and the Outdoor Access Working Group is the latest in a long line of businesses calling for increased opportunities to make money on public land, Silver said.

“Every one of these groups is a supporter of the idea of pay-to-play but every one of these groups is getting a little bit frightened that they are being asked to pay too much and they are being regulated too heavily with these permits so they have created these panoply of coalitions,” Silver said. “They all need public lands to carry on their business. This is yet another example of pay-to-play industrial recreation. It’s an industry effort to reconfigure nature into something more commercial.”

Follow that path, Silver said, and backpackers soon will find their favorite backcountry campsites booked for weeks by organized groups. Climbing walls will be crowded with classes. National park visitors will have Wi-Fi connections so they can purchase additional things like access to a particular area, he said. And corporations will control everything.

“Recreation is no longer about an individual going out into the public land and enjoying themselves,” Silver said. “It’s not about relaxation. It’s about weekend warriorism and group parties and conquering nature and corporations selling something. And these groups that support this new form of recreation realize that access is the key to their business.”

Finding the right balance
Bob Radcliffe, the manager of the National Park Service’s outdoor recreation program, has been watching the evolution of the outdoor industry for more than 30 years. “For such a long time it was one type of activity versus another. Commercial versus non-profit versus private access,” Radcliffe said. “The outdoor industry is getting better at speaking with a more cohesive voice.”

Radcliffe is attending Outdoor Retailer to meet with the Outdoor Foundation and potential corporate sponsors who can help the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation, or FICOR, which he chairs, get more kids outside, especially kids from underserved urban centers.

It’s all about fairness, Radcliffe said. The park service has spent years developing the equitable lottery system for river trips down the Grand Canyon that can serve as a model moving forward, he said. Still, he admits, it can be extremely complex when getting the park service’s 400 properties, the BLM’s 154 field offices and the Forest Service’s more than 600 ranger districts on the same page.

“You may have one expectation of a certain kind of level of social interaction for a particular area that’s different on a Tuesday versus a Saturday,” Radcliffe said. “Should agencies accept that and develop allocations that allow for that level of flexibility?”

Management gets harder every day, especially as recreational users push for more diverse options. Is a stand-up paddleboard or a packraft different than a kayak? Should electric bikes be allowed on trails with regular bikes? Can snow bikes share trails with cross country skiers? And what about the rope-swinging thrillseekers or the cliff-leaping wingsuit fliers? Each agency has a different perspective when gauging the appropriateness of an activity.

“Every day we hear of more challenges. It changes every day. There’s always something new. There is no one size fits all here,” he said. “But having some consistency, like the definition of an educational outing and a commercial outing and a private outing is a first step. Equity in access is really important but it is about improving access and increasing opportunities.”

Getting the conversation going
Jessica Wahl also knows the federal government’s frustrating embrace of recreation. In her four years in the Interior Department, she saw leaders devoted to recreation but struggling to find a clear path.

“The desire was there, but when you have dozens of different specific issues and concerns coming at you every day and a declining budget and wildfires to fight it’s hard to find the time to say, ‘Oh, let’s sit down with 40 different stakeholder groups with 40 different agendas,’” Wahl said. “So there was very little action.”

Now the recreational policy manager for the Outdoor Industry Association, Wahl expects the unified voice will earn better reception in Washington D.C. But it’s not just a clear agenda that will find traction among Washington’s bureaucrats. The Outdoor Access Working Group’s practical requests will appeal to agency leaders who are struggling to stay on task with a dwindling budget, Wahl said.

“We want to help land managers do their jobs. We are asking for more permits where they probably are already available. We are suggesting improvements in the processes,” Wahl said.

There is a sense of urgency. With an administrative shift certain in two years, the outdoor industry is hitting Washington hard in coming months.

“We need to take advantage of the people we have in there now,” Wahl said. “We are definitely feeling a crunch.”

Nordstrom and Bear said the urgency is not just about changing administrations. Environmental causes are losing footing in the country’s political landscape. That’s because fewer people are finding ways to enjoy their public lands. The next generation is not shouldering environmental advocacy for public lands, threatening the ability of land management agencies to secure funding for those lands.

“This can help these guys with their funding crisis. It can create more jobs. It can get kids outside and help stop the country’s health crisis,” Nordstrom said. “Generally the land agencies recognize the importance of the recreation economy on their work and they want to figure out ways they can support the recreation economy. We are helping them do that.”

–Jason Blevins