AT ONE POLE OF THE PUBLIC LAND DEBATE are those who would like to shut down all access except for an enlightened few. At the other pole are those who want to sell it all off, or at least totally deregulate logging, drilling, mining, grazing, and development on those lands. We boonrockers are somewhere in the middle, favoring recreational access while also preserving the land.

Let me state my personal biases. I want greater access for those who don’t mistreat the land, who respect and cherish it, and who minimize their impact upon it. (Ah, if only there were a way to filter out the destructive people.) I believe more people will value public land if they have personal experience with it, but, selfishly, I don’t want them clogging up the places I want to enjoy.

As we know, outdoor recreation has been booming. RV manufacturers can’t keep up with demand. The most popular National Parks are now requiring reservations just to enter. Public and private campgrounds are booked full, seemingly until the end of time. Favorite trails have become as crowded as Manhattan sidewalks. What can be done? 

During the past few years, local and regional public land agencies have taken actions—temporary or permanent—they believe help maintain a balance of competing interests spread along the Shut-It-Down/Sell-It-All spectrum. 

Fixing What’s Broken

In the summer of 2020 Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act. Among other things, it allocated $6.5 billion to the Park Service to put a dent in nearly $12 billion worth of long-deferred maintenance and repair of “campgrounds, roads, bridges, visitor centers, parking lots, trails, water and electrical systems, and more.” My reaction was favorable. Sure, get existing infrastructure back in shape. If that’s what actually ends up happening.

Now there’s a new bill working its way through Congress: The Outdoor Recreation Act. Its claimed purpose is:

To improve recreation opportunities on, and facilitate greater access to, Federal public land, and for other purposes. 

Sounds good, right? More recreational access! Yay! But the bill is sponsored by Senator Joe “Big Coal’s Servant” Manchin, so I have to be suspicious of the “other purposes,” especially since there seems to be early bipartisan support. That usually means there’s something in there for everyone—perhaps even the Sell-It-All folks, or at least the How-Can-We-Make-a Buck-from-This-Land-That’s-Just-Sitting-There interests.

What’s in the Outdoor Recreation Act?

I’ve slogged through the bill S. 3266 (as it currently stands) and here’s my takeaway. “Improve recreation opportunities” means developing more facilities in more locations. Roads, trails, campgrounds, visitor centers, restrooms, stores, internet, and so on. 

It calls for the Departments of Agriculture (Forest Service) and Interior (Park Service and BLM) to conduct an Inventory and Assessment to “identify underutilized locations that are suitable for developing, expanding, or enhancing recreation use; and select additional high-value recreation resources at which to encourage recreation use:”

(1) IN GENERAL.—In developing or revising a land management plan, the Secretary concerned shall conduct, using public outreach, an inventory and assessment of recreation resources for the Federal land subject to the land management plan. 

(2) UNIQUE RECREATION VALUES.—An inventory and assessment conducted under paragraph (1) shall recognize any unique recreation values and uses of each landscape that make a landscape, or a portion of a landscape, desirable for a particular type of recreation opportunity; and points of concentrated use by recreationists.

Whether that’s good or bad depends on the political and business forces in play when decisions are being made. It might be a net positive thing, easing the burden on popular destinations by spreading “recreationists” into other areas. They’ve been trying this in Utah via media reminding vacationers there is more to see and do than the Big 5. It might mean those special places few know about and few visit simply have the dirt road maintained more often. But I suspect the idea is to turn those places into tourist attractions.

Reinforcing my suspicion that the latter is more likely, S. 3266 would also provide infrastructure improvements for communities adjacent to recreation areas so they could handle the influx of visitors. (And make more money.)

And pretty much confirming my worst fears, all this development will be done with private-public partnerships. The Number 1 Concern (actually, the only concern) of the private half of those partnerships is profitability. The larger the project to construct and operate, the more profit to be made. “Hey, if we’re spending all this money to put in paved roads, there should be more than just a pretty view at the end. There need to be as many ways to generate revenue as possible. Oh, and (the magic word that justifies all boondoggles) JOBS!

Furthermore, as with any bill, various special interests will insert amendments. The virgin bill already includes a few that seem oddly specific. One would eliminate some fees for guides and outfitters. There’s one that promotes shooting ranges. Another would expand the installation of permanent climbing anchors, like via ferrata step-and-cable systems. And there’s the plan to expand broadband internet to recreation sites and gateway towns that don’t have it because of geographic challenges, low population and economic distress. Like Senator Manchin’s West Virginia, for example.

So, yeah, this bill looks like a big plan to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot / with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.” And a shooting range, a zip line, and Jeep tours. Hey, but at lest there’s restrooms and internet.

Zion Narrows photo by Jerry Arizona. Follow his hiking adventures on his YouTube channel.