The bipartisan bill could improve the permitting process for backcountry outfitters.

Every year, Americans spend more on outdoor recreation than they do on pharmaceuticals and fuel, combined, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) reports. The outdoor recreation economy generates $887 billion in annual consumer spending, 7.6 million jobs, $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue—and it’s still growing. Recreation is a huge part of this country, but for a lot of people, there are still barriers to participate. Often, they turn to backcountry guides as their sole way of recreating. So why is it so hard for guides and their groups to access public lands? 

Two U.S. senators—Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)—are working on it. On Thursday, they introduced a bill that would expanding recreational access to public lands and streamline the permitting process for backcountry guides.

The Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act, in part, would allow agencies to issue a single permit for trips that cross agency boundaries—USDA Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—a process that is currently time-consuming and entangled in red tape.

Through the current process, agencies review the environmental impacts before issuing permits. Often, these reviews lengthen the process up to five years, a time period disproportionate to the permits requested—even if it's the Boy Scouts requesting a permit to go on a hike, have a picnic, and go home. 

“It’s out of step with the way groups are using the backcountry,” said Matt Wade, the advocacy and policy director for the  American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). “The impact [these groups] will have on the resource is so minimal it’s almost unmeasurable.”

Opponents have expressed concerns for potential environmental ramifications, raising the question over whether or not opening up such public lands will lead to overuse. But according to Wade, guided groups often make up only 1 percent of backcountry usage, and any increases in access afforded by the bill would still have to fall within pre-existing capacity limits. 

As the founder of Peak Mountain Guides, Wade is intimately familiar with the pitfalls of the system—which is why he is extremely hopeful for the future of SOAR.

“Diversity of support for this bill is remarkable,” he said. 

Along with the twelve original sponsors of the bill in the Senate, the SOAR Act has wide support from industry groups including America Outdoors Association, AMGA, National Outdoor Leadership School, OIA, and REI, to name a few. Two more Senators have signed onto the bill and support is mounting.

“From the smallest rural towns to the most densely populated cities, outdoor recreation makes America stronger," said Patricia Rojas-Ungar, OIA's vice president of government affairs. "The outdoor recreation economy is a vital economic sector with $887 billion in consumer spending and contributes 7.6 million good paying jobs. Senators Heinrich and Capito deserve a lot of credit for developing a bill that is both good for public lands and good for business.”

Congressional committees expect to meet this summer to discuss and vote on the bill.

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