Indefinitely Wild

The SOAR Act Could Be Great for the Outdoors

The bipartisan Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act promises a better permitting process

Backpackers in Glacier National Park. (NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

A bipartisan bill introduced to the Senate last week promises to bring substantial regulatory relief to an industry—and it's not oil and gas. No, the industry that’s going to benefit this time is outdoor recreation, specifically all the guides and outfitters operating on public land. 

Introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act (SOAR) promises to do the following:

  • Improve the process for issuing recreation permits by directing the federal-land-management agencies to eliminate duplicative processes, reduce costs, shorten processing times and simplify environmental review; 
  • Increase flexibility for outfitters, guides and other outdoor leaders by allowing them to engage in activities that are substantially similar to the activity specified in their permit;
  • Make more recreation opportunities available by directing the agencies to offer more short-term permits and create a program for sharing unused permit service days between permit holders; 
  • Increase system transparency by directing agencies to notify the public when new recreation permits are available and requiring the agencies to provide timely responses to permit applicants; 
  • Simplify the permitting process for trips involving more than one land management agency by authorizing the agencies to issue a single joint permit covering the lands of multiple agencies; 
  • Reduce permit fees and cost recovery expenses for small businesses and organizations by excluding certain revenue from permit fee calculations and establishing a simple 50-hour cost recovery fee exemption for permit processing; 
  • Provide new protections for U.S. Forest Service permit holders by recognizing seasonal demand fluctuations and waiving permit use reviews in extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the permit holder (wildfire, etc.); 
  • Help control liability insurance costs for permit holders by allowing them to use liability release forms with their clients; 
  • Reduce barriers to access for state universities, city recreation departments, and school districts by waiving the permit indemnification requirement for entities that are prohibited from providing indemnification under state law.  

Coming so soon after the successful passage of the Dingell Act and the introduction of the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act in the House of Representatives, SOAR is both a boon for the outdoor recreation industry and a further sign that its nascent political efforts are bearing fruit. And it sounds like the people running guiding businesses are excited. 

“Outdated regulations in the permitting system have made it time consuming, unpredictable, and in many cases-impossible-for outdoor organizations and businesses to provide outdoor experiences for the public on public lands,” said Alex Kosseff, executive director at the American Mountain Guides Association, in a statement. “The Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act removes old roadblocks to facilitated outdoor recreation and enables more Americans to get outside and enjoy public lands.”

“The outdoor provider community has consistently struggled with the complexity of the federal recreational permit system," stated Rebecca Bear, director of REI's Outdoor Programs and Experiences. “Streamlining the application process will help outdoor organizations more rapidly get people outside and promote an outdoor life.”

Should the bill pass, how will you, the average outdoor enthusiast, benefit? It should lead to more affordable and wider access to guiding services, but perhaps the most important benefactor will be future backpackers, mountain climbers, anglers, and hunters. Youth organizations like the YMCA, Boy Scouts, and even schools will either be able to access guide services for the first time or do so with less expense and red tape. 

“Easing the currently complicated and restrictive process will enable youth-serving organizations like the Y to share nature’s wonders with many more kids and families and instill in our youth a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors,” said Kevin Washington, the president and CEO of YMCA, in a statement.  

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