Someone posted this on a Facebook whitewater paddling group, and I thought folks here would be interested:
RRFW Riverwire – Speak Up Or Kiss Your Access Goodbye
December 1, 2021
You may have noticed access to your federal lands is becoming a lot harder. Trailhead parking is packed, river put-ins are overcrowded, and competition for scarce permits is fierce.
In August of this year, Grand Canyon National Park held a lottery for 12 do-it-yourself river trips to raft through the Grand Canyon. There were 965 lottery applications for these 12 permits.
The US Forest Service held the annual Four Rivers lottery for do-it-yourself permits to boat the Selway, Hells Canyon, the Middle Fork and Main Salmon last December. Over 56,000 lottery applications were submitted for under 700 family rafting opportunities.
The private tour companies that make up the outfitting and guiding industry have noticed this too. Some of them are trying to get out ahead of the general do-it-yourself public with special interest legislation to guarantee their access at the expense of yours.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a hearing tomorrow, Thursday, December 2, 2021. It will be possible to watch the hearing live starting at 10:00 AM Eastern Standard Time at the following website:
This hearing opens a two-week public comment period from December 2, 2021 to December 14, 2021. If you recreate on federal lands, your comments are much needed!
This hearing will cover two very similar pieces of legislation that would allow unlimited special use permits for private tour company outfitting and guiding and include areas that already have previously established allocations of use.
The first bill, S. 1229, introduced by New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, is called the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act. It seeks to change how long-term special recreation permits are issued on National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and National Wildlife Refuge lands.
The second bill, S. 1874, introduced by Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, is slyly called the Recreation not Red Tape Act and is geared to promote outdoor recreation businesses and tourism by expanding shoulder season guided tour recreation among other things.
Both bills do absolutely nothing to assure access for do-it-yourself recreational users. Once access ceilings are reached by the outfitted groups, there will be no access remaining for the do-it-yourself public. The bills both state “If additional use capacity is available, the Secretary may, at any time, assign the remaining use to 1 or more qualified recreation service providers.” To repeat: both bills reserve zero access for do-it-yourself visitors to federal lands.
One has to wonder what older established tour companies with known safety records and guaranteed allocations think about the huge increase in competition this legislation would unleash. It is unclear how they would compete without their protected markets with limited entry, agency established price fixing, and protection from new competitors. This legislation also has the potential to move their unused user days to “potential permitees.”
The bills dictate that the fees generated by commercial clients can only be used to process the permits and improvement of the operation of the special recreation permit system. This would be a critical loss of funding for toilets, pumping of said toilets, trail maintenance, equipment purchases, etc.
Language in both bills states “the Secretary concerned shall not conduct a needs assessment as a condition of issuing a special recreation permit for a public land unit under this Act.” This means the agency is forbidden to check if the permit is needed or warranted in the proposed area based on actual use, current events, do-it-yourself public demand, or agency needs.
These bills both require the federal land agencies to incorporate categorical exclusions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) designed to “reduce processing times or costs for the issuance or renewal of special recreation permits.” This bypasses the need to establish carrying capacities for special recreation permits.
Anything that diminishes the NEPA process diminishes the do-it-yourself public’s voice when it comes to reviewing the need for new commercial permits. In fact, the bills require that once an application is received, the permit will need to be issued within 60 days. Current regulations require agencies to consider the public interest served. This bill assumes the private tour company is the only interest to be served, and served at a discount! The bills state that applicants for these permits don’t have to pay for any of the service hours and resources they consume for the first 50 hours of agency time consumed.
These bills note that agencies may assign additional use capacity to an existing private tour company even if that assignment would exceed the amount of use already allocated to the company. This would allow private tour companies to ask for as many user days as they want.
Excluding National Park Service lands, both bills cap fees returned to the Government at “3 percent of the annual gross revenue of the recreation service.” Under current policy, the 3% is set as the minimum the agency may charge. Locking it in by statute is a bad plan and is equivalent to grazing fees and mineral lease fees that are locked in at ridiculously low prices.
Supporters of the legislation claim the bills are to help at-risk populations who require a guide to gain access to federal lands. Regardless, these bills allow a private tour company that received a permit based on serving underserved communities to decide only one year in to change over to cater to high-end clients.
For an announcement on the hearings, click hear:
The full text of the SOAR Act, S. 1229, is here:
The full text of the Recreation Not Red Tape Act, S. 1874, is here:
Comments must include the bill numbers (S. 1229 and S. 1874) as well as your name and address. You can email your comments directly to the Committee at
using the subject line:
December 2, 2021, Energy and Natural Resources Hearing Comments
But you only have two weeks to comment after December 2, 2021. That’s no later than Thursday, December 16, 2021.
What you might want to say:
Include that you recreate on federal lands without guided and outfitted services, that you are aware that federal land recreation is skyrocketing, and getting permits is harder and harder.
Mention you are aware of S. 1229 and S. 1874 and that you do not support these bills that give away your federal land access to for-profit companies.
Point out that S. 1229 and S. 1874 must include safeguards to protect do-it-yourself recreational access to federal lands free of the use of private tour companies.
State that outfitting and guiding on federal land should not have categorical exclusion protection from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and that the level of NEPA used should fit the nature and scale of the decision to be made.
Demand that these bills require a NEPA Needs Assessment for every new Special Use Permit and must consider resource protection, how many private tour companies will be allowed, how much use they will get, where will their use be, and what are the forecasts for expanding noncommercial use. State that removing this tool removes protections to federal lands and removes your voice from the management of your federal lands.
Mention that language in S. 1229 and S. 1874 must not assign additional use capacity to private tour companies. That’s your and your families access these bills are giving away.
Be polite but stand up for your access to your federal lands.
Special note: If you are so inclined, you should also email your Senators with your concerns about this legislation. You can find your Senators here:
You have a choice. Do nothing and give away your do-it-ourself access to federal lands, or you can comment about this giveaway. You can also tell your friends and please share this Riverwire far and wide!