Interest in outdoor recreation has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic—and it doesn’t seem to be waning. A study by Pennsylvania State University shows that almost half of U.S. adults recreate outdoors on a monthly basis and nearly 20 percent of them started in the last 2 years.
Lawmakers are taking note. In November 2021, Senators Joe Manchin and John Barrasso introduced the Outdoor Recreation Act, a bill aimed at increasing and improving outdoor recreation opportunities while supporting rural communities.
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How would the proposed act impact camping and recreation on public lands? Let’s take a look.
In an effort to modernize campgrounds on public lands, the Outdoor Recreation Act includes a directive for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to implement a public-private partnership pilot program.
This pilot program requires that a certain number of management units within the National Forest System and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) enter into agreements with a private entity for management, maintenance, and capital improvements of campgrounds on public lands.
In addition, the act proposes that the Forest Service enters into an agreement with the Rural Utilities Service to install broadband internet at recreation sites, with a priority on areas that don’t have broadband access due to geographic challenges, have a low number of permanent residents, or are economically distressed.
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“The Outdoor Recreation Act’s pilot program to modernize federal campgrounds is an outstanding example of smart public-private partnering which will benefit outdoor recreationists for years to come,” said Marily Reese, the executive director of the National Forest Recreation Association, in a statement. “It will also promote inclusion of more diverse user groups in our outdoor spaces, including those with disabilities and those from underserved communities and a variety of cultures, through improved facilities and designs.”
Support Recreation Gateway Communities
The Outdoor Recreation Act also aims to support communities that surround public land, especially communities that are located in rural areas and that lack the infrastructure to efficiently manage and benefit from tourism and recreation-based visitors.
Provisions include financial and technical assistance to gateway communities adjacent to recreation destinations. This assistance would support infrastructure designed to accommodate and manage visitors, as well as partnerships to fund innovative recreation projects. The act also directs the Forest Service to track visitor trends at its recreation sites and expand shoulder seasons on public lands, especially when that expansion could increase revenues for local businesses.
“The bill’s gateway community assistance for outdoor recreation businesses and campgrounds, responsibly extending shoulder seasons, and bringing much needed broadband to front country campgrounds is a priority for the $114 billion American-made RV industry and will be critical to continuing to attract the next generation of park stewards and outdoor recreation enthusiasts,” said Craig Kirby, president and CEO of the RV Industry Association, in a statement.
Increase Recreation Opportunities on Public Lands
The Outdoor Recreation Act also looks to increase recreation opportunities on public lands. This includes requiring the Forest Service and BLM to consider current and future recreational opportunities when creating or updating land management plans and taking measures to encourage recreation, where feasible.
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In addition, the act directs agencies to clear up climbing regulations in designated Wilderness Areas, increase the number of target shooting ranges on Forest Service and BLM land, and prioritize finalizing public road and trail maps.
“It is clear that increasing and improving opportunities for recreation is in the best interest of our country,” says Erik Murdock, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Access Fund. “Sustainable recreation, from rock climbing areas to bike trails, is not only good for the economy, but also the health and wellness of the American public.”
The act received support from a number of organizations, including the Access Fund, American Whitewater, Outdoor Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, REI, RV Industry Association, Vista Outdoors, and Winter Wildlands Alliance.
To date, the Outdoor Recreation Act has been read to the Senate and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which held hearings in December. To follow the bill’s next steps, subscribe to notifications via Congress.gov.