Outside Business Journal

Op-Ed: The need for a public lands streamlined permit process

Members of the Outdoor Access Working Group Dan Nordstrom and Rebecca Bear argue a public lands streamlined permit process would benefit the groups who need it most

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In the outdoor industry, we know that time outside changes lives. It improves health. It inspires people to protect our natural world. And of course, the more time people spend outside taking in our natural wonders or just exercising, the healthier our industry becomes.

For an increasing number of Americans, getting outside and into nature on their own is not always an option. In today’s society, it’s often the case that a person’s first experience outdoors will be facilitated by someone with expertise to show them where to go, what to wear, how to be safe and how to leave no trace as they experience the land.

Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research
(Photo: Dan Nordstrom)

For decades, though, our public land managers saw group access to the outdoors as a threat to the protection of our public lands. In many ways it might have been, but the introduction and adoption of Leave No Trace ethics and the professionalization of outdoor education and guiding have since significantly changed the way people lead groups outdoors.

Today thousands of organizations take Americans outdoors on public land and teach them safe, low-impact techniques. Yet their ability to offer these experiences has been constrained by outdated federal policies that can be downright absurd.

In Seattle, for example, YMCA programs that focus on developing young, diverse outdoor leaders have been unable to get permits to conduct programs on National Forest Service land. They have been forced to go to Canada. Stories like this exist around the country.

The Outdoor Access Working Group (OAWG) came together two years ago to engage with land management agencies to modernize and reform group permitting policies.

Beginning with meetings in Washington, D.C. just 18 months ago, leadership within the Forest Service started the ball rolling, sharing our goal of getting more Americans outdoors. They took a big step forward in June.

(Photo: Rebecca Bear)

“Today people come to know and value places on national forests and grasslands through personal outdoor experiences,” says Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “By modernizing and streamlining our permit processes, we are strengthening our ties to all Americans and their connection to the land.”

We should applaud the administration for its commitment. In particular, Forest Service leaders Leslie Weldon and Joe Meade and USDA leader Meryl Harrell have shown that government can be responsive and innovative. In addition, Christy Goldfuss, acting director of the White House Council for Environmental Quality, ensured that the agencies had support.

While the Forest Service has made great progress, it’s just the beginning of a cultural change within the federal public land agencies—a change that we as private sector partners need to support, encourage and celebrate. There is much work left to do. It’s our responsibility to press for ongoing support of public lands. Access to the outdoors will not increase, be protected, or continue without all of us.

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