Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Week in Outdoor Policy - December 13th

MontanaTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Fed Land Grab Efforts Continue in Idaho…
Time to revisit everyone’s favorite public lands topic – the efforts of a slew of Western states to grab ownership or control of the Federal public lands within their borders. Last week in Idaho, the state legislative committee had another meeting, this one focused on public testimony. By most tallies it was a tie between those for it and those against. But the boosters, many of them from various tea party groups, had some jaw dropping arguments for state control – that rather than 50 second homes along one section of river, there should be 400, or that China will somehow repo our Federal lands. Statements like that aside, it is clear that many struggling counties in Idaho could benefit from improved public land management, even though state ownership is not the best way to get there.

...And Utah. And Montana.
Meanwhile, this week in Utah, the non-profit Southerland Institute’s Center for Self Government in the West released a legal analysis declaring the land grab totally constitutional, despite the opposite findings of the State’s own lawyers. The group’s URL is “endfedaddiction” and the shadowy, conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) seems to fund them, so you know they’re unbiased. This questionable finding followed another cautionary example of Utah making public lands decisions for financial gain alone, this time regarding water use for a proposed nuclear power plant. Speaking of unbiased (and ALEC), Utah Representative Ken Ivory was in Montana this week, spreading the good news about that state’s claim to Federal lands. His presentation came days after a public meeting where most came out to support Federal ownership. None of these skirmishes in ID, UT or MT advance the battle lines. Instead they show more and more how important it is for Federal public lands to stay in public hands.

New Conservation PAC Launched
It is a truth universally acknowledged that cash rules politics (see above). Given this regrettable reality, it is welcome news that former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and billionaire Louis Bacon (who incidentally just bought Taos) have teamed to up create the America’s Conservation PAC. As with other Political Action Committees, this one will funnel money into election campaigns, in this case for both Republican and Democratic candidates that are pro-conservation. Better news still is the appointment of Will Shafroth, a veteran of conservation in Colorado, as the director. Here’s to some political power for the rest of us.

Friday, December 6, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - December 6th

Ski TomTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Progress Towards Lifting National Park Boating Ban
As surprising as it may be, paddlers are banned from nearly all the rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Now, a bill to lift that ban is working its way through Congress. The bill to throw out the 60-year-old ban, introduced by Wyoming representative Cynthia Lummis and cosponsored by Utah representative Rob Bishop, was recently discussed in committee. Although paddlers welcome the chance to gain access to amazing whitewater that now has to be run illegally, many would admit that such a legislative fix is not ideal. The National Park Service had a chance to reconsider the ban last summer, but failed to do so. This bill would go over their heads and make the decision for them. Such management by legislation has its problems, but a situation as deeply entrenched and illogical as this warrants it. So long as the Park Service is given the authority it needs to make the change, including enacting limits on the amount of boating – which paddlers welcome – the great rivers of Yellowstone and Grand Teton can be justly, legally and sustainably enjoyed by paddlers.

Ski Area Rules Modernized
The ski resort industry is less about simple lift-accessed skiing than ever before. Due to factors far beyond their boundaries, like climate change, the economic recession and people’s changing interests, resorts are paying more and more attention to the unlikely subjects of uphill skiing and summer activities. The law governing ski areas – at least those that operate on public land leased from the Forest Service – was brought up to date in 2011, with the passage of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act. Now, the Forest Service has released their rules for how the law will be implemented. Broadly, these directives are good news for outdoor recreation. They support skinning uphill in bounds, allowing resorts the entirely reasonable option of charging for access, while “encouraging” free access too. The rules also state that approved facilities or activities themselves must “encourage” outdoor recreation and the enjoyment of nature. Some worry that the rules will usher in a plague upon our lands, with outbreaks of mountain coasters and other amusement park lesions. Indeed, the rules could be improved by clarifying some definitions to ensure that mountain biking, which is otherwise supported, is not lumped in with such ills. Overall, the rules are a welcome update for ski areas, which are ready-made places to get more people outdoors – accessing more trails and more skiing, both within and beyond the boundaries, all increasingly under their own power.

Friday, November 15, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - November 15th

Side CountryTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net. 

Sidecountry: What’s in a name?
It’s that time of year again, where both snow and headlines about backcountry skiers caught in avalanches begin to pile up. All this means renewed attention on the concept of “sidecountry” – the untracked, unpatrolled and un-avalanche-controlled terrain just outside resort boundaries, tempting all with its siren call. With ticket sales at resorts falling while backcountry gear sales soar, it is becoming more and more important to figure out just what to do with this adjacent backcountry – what is it called? And how do we manage the legions of skiers drawn to it? “Sidecountry” is a problematic term to many, suggesting slopes just outside resorts are somehow safer than the backcountry. Last year, the National Ski Areas Association proclaimed that “sidecountry” doesn’t actually exist. Powder Magazine pronounced it dead. This is all great, but perception can be reality. Evidence of skiers taking adjacent backcountry lightly abound. Just read the NY Time’s award winning multi media piece (and group dynamics case study) Snow Fall, about the avalanche at Washington’s Tunnel Creek. Even if skiers and ski areas settle on a new term, like “lift-accessed backcountry”, there are still other questions that need answers. Some access gates feature images of sculls and crossbones and bold letters reading YOU CAN DIE. While it seems the message couldn’t be clearer, what if it actually inspires some people? Are beacon check stations, which blink green when they recognize a transceiver, more effective? Hopefully the whole skiing community can find answers to these questions this season, allowing more and more properly educated and equipped skiers to experience the inspiring joy of the backcountry. 

Utah Motorized Plan Overturned
Last week, a Federal Judge overturned a controversial management plan for motorized use on 2 million acres of the Bureau of Land Management’s Richfield district in Utah. The court decided that the BLM did not adequately address the impacts ATVs can have on the environment and archeological sites, sending the agency back to the drawing board. The lawsuit against the plan, instituted in the final days of President George W Bush’s term, was brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Association and Earthjustice. Though these groups rightly claim a victory for the landscape, it is hard not to wonder how well this plan-sue-repeat approach is actually working. There are hopeful signs that many land management agencies are finding ways out of this often vicious, wasteful cycle. Top amongst these is the BLM’s landscape scale planning. Though touted as a breakthrough, the idea is basic – look at big chunks of land, including all the land agencies, and figure out the best places for recreation, permanent protection, energy extraction and, conceivably, motorized use.

Friday, November 8, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - November 8th

Week Outdoor PolicyTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Ruminating on National Monuments
A combination of events, especially Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s speech, lead to a lot of talk about National Monuments this week. When Sec. Jewell basically told Congress, “If you don’t protect places, the President will,” she was referring to National Monuments, the only land protection tool that the President can use without Congress. Most of the recent discussion boils down to this: though National Monuments may be a shorter road to permanent protection, they are still complicated. Considering the long list of places in line for this designation, this bears keeping in mind. Take for example the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement that they are restarting talks about grazing cows in Escalate National Monument – a full 17 years after it was designated. Presidential proclamations that make Monuments are short, both in length and on details. It can take a very, very long time to work out how things will look on the ground. Along with the long timelines, there are a few other considerations. Designating too many Monuments (and opponents would point to Escalante as the poster child for overreach) could lead to a backlash that weakens the Antiquities Act that makes all of this possible. Also, along with the well-known Presidential route, Congress can designate Monuments too. These sorts of proposals should be allowed their shot at passing Congress, because they are particularly attuned to the views of those that care about the place. For any Monument, Presidential or Congressional, work must be done to get consensus from everyone, near and far, that has a stake in the landscape. National Monuments remain an excellent and especially handy tool, but like any, there is a right way and a wrong way to use it and it can become dull with overuse.

Dogged Pursuit of Federal Land Takeover
This week in Wyoming, a legislative task force decided to continue considering state ownership of Federal lands. This despite that state’s own Attorney General saying that Utah’s Federal land takeover law, like any effort in Wyoming, is unlikely to succeed because it rests on “weak foundations.” Undeterred, the task force plans to draft a bill to make a whole new committee and study the issue for not one, not two, but four more years. How they imagine the legal underpinnings of the land grab will change during that time, or how they will justify spending more taxpayer money looking at it, is unclear. Speaking of Utah, County Commissioners there argued again that the recent government shutdown makes the case for state ownership. They said that the “only solution is transferring lands to the state.” Presumably they mean the only solution, except for, you know, just keeping the government funded like normal. One of the strongest arguments to counter those for state takeover? As stated in a recent op-ed, Federal public lands are owned by all Americans (never by the states) and held in trust for future generations. And that’s not about to change.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Week in Outdoor Policy - November 1st

173659157Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Two Pro Public Land Op-eds
With the government shutdown old news already, many are trying to figure out what it all meant. Two recent and highly recommended opinion pieces draw the right conclusions: that the debacle of the shutdown showed us just how valuable public lands are, and how problematic state take over would be. In the first, Black Diamond’s dedicated CEO Peter Metcalf points out how much federal lands are worth, to rural economies, to small businesses like his, to Utahns and to all Americans that visit their public lands in that state. He points a finger directly at the hypocrisy of counties that criticize public lands at every turn – but declare a state of emergency when they are closed. In the second recent piece, the chairman of the Center for American Progress also highlights the economic impact of public lands, especially National Parks, the budget for which has been slashed 13% in the last three years, despite their value and increasing visitation. He also calls on Congress and the Administration to protect more lands, citing the alarming fact that the last Congress was the first Congress since WWII to permanently protect exactly ZERO acres of public land.

Idaho Federal Lands Committee Meets Again
On Monday, Idaho’s Federal Lands Interim Committee held its second meeting. The Committee is considering if and how the state should take over all Federal public land within its borders, as demanded by the Legislature. This meeting featured 8 hours of testimony from a huge range of interests, the summation of all of which could be, “Who thinks this is a good idea anyways?” With panels on Tribes, wildlife, grazing, conservation and timber, most were openly opposed to state ownership. One tribal representative made the point that if the Feds were going to give the land to anyone, it should be the Tribes. The grazing interests did support the idea – provided they did not have to pay higher fees to use the newly acquired state land (which would almost certainly happen) and that there was no competitive bidding (which doesn’t sound like capitalism). Hopefully the committee recognized that there are some serious questions about all this. For those that love the outdoors, the top questions are, how much public land will have to be sold when the state cannot match what the Federal government pays? And what will happen to some of the best places in Idaho, like the Sawtooths, the Middle Fork of the Salmon or even the Boise Foothills, when they are managed by the state, and therefore no longer public lands? 

Secretary Jewell Delivers a Challenge
Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell gave one of the first major speeches of her term on Thursday, talking about protected places and drilling. She showed that she understands what the outdoors mean to all of us and our economy, saying that public land “drives the economy and feeds the soul.” Crucially, she threw down something of a challenge: Congress should work to protect places, but if they won’t, the Administration will. All of this is an effort to restore some sort of balance between lands leased for energy development and lands permanently protected. Her speech is the latest example of hopeful momentum for consensus-based land protection bills, like that for Hermosa Creek in Colorado, and for National Monument designations, like the Boulder-White Clouds.

Friday, October 18, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - October 18th

Government Turns the Lights Back OnTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Government Turns the Lights Back On
This week’s news in one sentence: the government was off, but now it’s back on. National Parks, Wildlife Refuges and facilities on other federal lands reopened, and people rushed back in. The climbers in Yosemite that were told by megaphone earlier this week to “Stop recreating,” were allowed to happily continue their climbs. Amongst all the bad, there was some good news during the shutdown. Often overlooked state parks got a well-deserved boost in visitation, including Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, which boasts a great mountain bike loop. And just last weekend, the Department of Interior approved state funding to reopen some of the top parks in Utah, Colorado and Arizona. No doubt, if you were one of the lucky few that managed to launch on the Grand Canyon during that window, you are stoked.

But amongst the many more grievous impacts of the shutdown, one fall out was those that came out of the woodwork to claim that the whole thing makes the case for state ownership of public lands. Not so. These arguments fail to realize that as bad as the shutdown was, state ownership would be worse. To take but one example, forest service land remained public land and largely accessible (even if the bathrooms were locked). Under state ownership, much of this land would necessarily be sold to finance the management of what was left, eliminating access entirely. More land would be sold and gone under state management than was ever shut off by the shutdown. The more accurate conclusion to draw from the 16 days of shutdown? People care about our federal lands, so keep the government on and give our lands the funding they deserve. At the very least, don’t add insult to injury as some did this week, by dragging the National Park Service before a Congressional committee and berating them for doing their job.

Friday, October 4, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - October 4th

Government shutdownTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Shutdown and Shut Out
This week all attention turned to the government shutdown. The affects of the hiatus reach most every corner of our society and economy. Sure, if you are furloughed or are in a federally funded medical trial, you probably aren’t giving public lands a second thought. But politics aside, the shutdown’s affects on our public lands are serious. Right now, all 401 National Parks remain forcibly closed, costing nearby communities $228 million dollars and counting. National Wildlife Refuges are also closed, right on the cusp of hunting season, as are facilities, if not access, on other public lands. Western towns, international vacationers, Yosemite climbers and too many others to list are feeling the shutout. Amongst the worst hit are those that had been planning to launch on the Grand Canyon. After years of trying for a permit and making plans for the trip of a lifetime, rafters find themselves locked out. You would think the shutdown actually shut off the Colorado River. The whole situation is almost too ridiculous to believe. Meanwhile, a House Natural Resources subcommittee found (paid) time this week to discuss the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act. If passed, this bill would force the sale of 3.3 million acres of land, based on a study that is nearly 20 years out of date. How they can consider the forced sale of public lands, when the ongoing shutdown shows just how much these lands matter to all of us, is unclear. If any good can come of the shutdown, it would be the mobilization of people to vote in favor of our National Parks and public lands – cause you only know what you have when it’s gone.

Some Reform for Utah Trust Lands Administration
Recently, Utah’s agency that manages lands for revenue for schools found itself attacked by everyone from hunters and anglers to the Governor and Congressional delegation. At issue was the secret lease of a prime roadless area for oil and gas. The School and Institutional Lands Administration, SITLA, heeded the outcry and backed off the Book Cliffs deal. Now, they have announced the creation of an advisory committee to raise concerns beyond pure monetary gain. Though this reform is a step in the right direction, the SITLA board is not going willingly. They maintain that they cannot manage land for “specific interest groups or the public at large.” With an attitude like that, it seems unlikely the new advisory committee will find its recommendations heard, or that a decision like the Book Cliffs will be avoided in the future.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - September 27th

TetonsTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Bad Timber Bill Passes House
Last Friday, the House passed HR 1526, the so-called Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act – which, if finalized, would achieve neither. The main point of the bill is to require the Forest Service to designate “Forest Reserve Revenue Areas” where the amount of logging would drastically increase. The bill claims this would be sustainable, in some sense, because trees would be cut down at a slower rate than they can grow back. But it is hard to imagine sustainable harvests and healthy forests with a national minimum for logging and the ever present incentive to log more. Or, for that matter, with the bill’s other points, which override the Endangered Species Act and other longstanding checks on logging. As if that weren’t enough, the bill would also eliminate restrictions on recreation within the Revenue Areas – throwing out any hard won balance between motorized and non-motorized recreation. Though this bill is a pile through and through, the justification for it is clear. Western towns that used to rely on logging for county funding have had to rely on the Secure Rural Schools program for government cash handouts. With that program expiring soon, they are desperately looking for ways to keep schools open and roads maintained. The thing is, there has to be a better way than HR 1526’s outdated approach, which would hitch a town’s livelihood to unsustainable logging. Thankfully, the bill won’t pass the Senate and President Obama has vowed to veto it, should it come to that.

Grand Teton Visitor Center to Shutter for Winter
If you have been to Grant Teton National Park, you have probably been in the beautiful visitor center in the town of Moose, WY, with its steep roofs and huge windows framing the Grand. This week, the National Park service announced that the center would close for the winter, due to budget cuts. It’s hard to blame the agency, considering sequestration and the fact that more people visit the center in one day in July than in the whole month of November – with all those windows, it is awfully expensive to heat the place for just a couple of cold ski mountaineers. That said, in a tourist economy that could always use more “off” season visitors, this is unwelcome news. There is a certain indignity to have some people hinting that private fundraising, like that which got the roads plowed last spring, could keep the visitor center open. Have we sunk so low that America’s best idea has to have a bake sale to keep the lights on? Those that determine agency budgets, for the Park Service and others, need to seriously weigh the hefty benefits from National Parks and public land against the crumbs we seem willing to send them.

Friday, September 20, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - September 20th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

This Week in Outdoor Policy - September 20th

Unpopular Utah Oil Lease Put on Hold
Last month, Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration - SITLA, revealed that the Book Cliffs had been leased for oil and gas development. This backroom deal drew the ire of many, including hunters and anglers that love the place, as well as some unexpected characters like Governor Herbert and Representative Bishop. Now, thanks to their efforts, the decision has been put on hold. While this is something of a victory for the balance between development and protected places, the root problem remains – SITLA’s only goal is to maximize profits from the land it manages. With no consideration for any long term, sustainably profitable uses of the land (like hunting and fishing) and no way for people to voice their opinions, a decision like the Book Cliffs is sure to happen again. This realization has some calling for deeper reforms. A good place to start could be the diversity of the SITLA board. Right now, according to a supporter, this board is “made up of qualified businessmen and good-thinking men.” First, there is no reason the board should only include men, and second, what about an angler on the board? Or even an environmentalist? Overall, while this reversal is good news for the outdoors, it would be even better if everyone that opposed the Book Cliffs lease took a moment to think about all the other things – rolling back environmental safeguards, giving public land to the States – that ultimately lead to exactly the same sort of bad decisions.

Glimmer of Hope for Proposed Pebble Mine
Some limited good news from Alaska’s Pebble mine this week, with one of the two companies pursuing the project backing out. The Pebble mine is the site of a high stakes environmental battle, and no, they aren’t talking about mining pebbles. The deposit is mindboggling, containing billions of pounds of copper and molybdenum and millions of ounces of gold, all worth $48 billion. Problem is, the mine would be right at the headwaters of the world’s two most productive salmon rivers, on the shores of Bristol Bay. Those that want to save the rivers, the fish, and the local tribes that rely on them hope that the Environmental Protection Agency will use its well-established powers to pull the plug on the project. A report from the Agency earlier this year bodes well, but they are attacked at every step. The remaining half of the business interests vows that it will continue to pursue the mine, meaning this battle is far from over.

Federal Land, Federal Pot Rules
Lastly, in less related outdoor policy news, if you live in Washington or Colorado, remember: despite the recent legalization of pot, it is still illegal on Federal public land like national parks and forests. Even though the Obama administration has said they have higher priorities than those following State marijuana laws, Federal law still stands on Federal lands. This includes highways on Federal land bordering national parks. Though the rate of citations has not increased, the level of confusion certainly has.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - September 6th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Montana Also Opposes Fracking Regulations
Montana has now joined Alabama, Alaska and Oklahoma in opposing Bureau of Land Management rules for fracking. These states claim that they already have state regulations that cover it well enough. To some, though, this looks like exactly the sort of situation that calls for Federal regulations. It is, after all, Federal public land and currently, as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell put it, covered by an inconsistent patchwork of different rules. The states worry that Federal regulations will impede oil and gas development. That’s kind of the point – to a point. Better regulations will not stop fracking, just hit pause for a moment, long enough to give some consideration to the amount of water it takes, the types of chemicals it pumps into the ground, and the other, valuable ways the same land could be used. What’s really needed in the current oil and gas boom is more landscape level thinking, like the master leasing plans beginning explored in places like Moab, UT. By looking at the place as a whole, these plans can put energy development where it does the least harm, while protecting wild places and outdoor recreation. One way to tell the BLM might be on the the right track to compromise with the regulations? Everyone, on either side, hates it.

Mountain Goats Introduced, Despite Objections
Why, you might ask, would there be Rocky Mountain goats in the La Sals, the mountain range that forms the snowy backdrop to Moab, Utah? To hunt them, of course. This week, state wildlife officials introduced 20 of the non-native goats, despite opposition from many, including the Forest Service. Part of the concern is for rare plant species and fragile alpine ecosystems in and around a designated natural research area. The wildlife officials contend that the goats will be watched “very, very carefully.” It is unclear whether this will include 24-7 video surveillance to ensure they do not disturb a single leaf. It is also unclear why the state wildlife department, whose mission is primarily to increase hunting opportunities, has authority over the Forest Service, which actually manages the La Sals and is charged with balancing a much broader set of concerns. One thing that is clear, however, is the great track record of successful introductions of non-native species throughout history. Oh wait. What’s next, the reintroduction of wolves to control the goats once they get out of hand?

Fires Burn Right Through Actively Managed Forest
Throughout this summer’s debate about forest fires, there has been a common refrain: If forests were more actively managed, the fires would not be so bad. But recent fires in Idaho burned right through actively managed forests on both public and state land, calling this mantra into question. Active management means different things to different people, be it logging, thinning or prescribed burning. With climate change driving hotter, drier conditions, it appears there is a ‘new normal’ for forest fires, with some that burn with such intensity they can ignore whatever actively managed area stands in their path. Active management is still a valuable tool for fighting fires, but like any, it has limits.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - August 29th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Prime Land Secretly Leased for Oil and Gas in Utah
This week, news broke that 100,000 acres of the Book Cliffs, a hunting and fishing mecca south of Vernal, UT, had been leased for oil and gas development. This might sound like any old extractive energy lease, but there were many people that had been pushing hard to conserve the area, and they were quite surprised when the decision was made behind their backs. The issue is that the land is managed by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). Unlike Federal public land, which is managed for multiple uses and the overall public good, this land is managed to maximize its economic returns for Utah’s schools. So if the SITLA board strikes a huge, secret deal with an oil company, they’re just doing their job – tough cookies. This serves as a stark reminder of the difference between public land and state managed land, which is especially important given the efforts underway across the West – lead in large part by Utah – to transfer public land to state control. Federal management isn’t perfect, but this sort of back room deal would not have been possible on public land. Since the decision came out, hunting and fishing groups have cried foul and Utah’s governor asked the SITLA board to reconsider. Even Representative Rob Bishop, who is usually no great friend of land conservation but is in the middle of his own land management process for the region, mumbled that conserving the Book Cliffs is a “worthwhile endeavor.” What happens when you mix oil, gas, hunting, fishing, Rob Bishop, state management and school kids? Stay tuned.

Fingers Crossed for Yellowstone’s Winter Plan
After more than 15 years of back and forth, there might finally be a winter use plan for Yellowstone National Park. As the most recent of many attempts, the current plan signed last week is a good compromise, protecting the Park and balancing motorized and non-motorized use. Far from the dark days when there was so much exhaust in the air that Park Rangers wore respirators, wintertime in Yellowstone has improved significantly. Though no changes go into affect this season, the plan should do even more to protect wildlife, air quality and quiet places. Here’s hoping it sticks.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - August 23rd

160114445Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Forest Service Moves More Cash to Keep Fighting Fires - Again
This week, the Forest Service announced that its budget to fight wildfires is running on empty. With only $50 million on hand – enough for a couple days’ worth of firefighting – they are taking $600 million from other programs, including recreation. So far this fire season has been bad, with an area the size of Connecticut burned, but perhaps not as bad as originally feared. That is what makes this budget shuffle so worrying: no one can claim they didn’t see this coming. It is, as some said, an entirely expected disaster. And it’s not even the first time the expected has seemed surprising. Somehow Congress and others continue to shortchange funds for preventing wildfires and for dealing with especially bad fire years. For 6 of the last 11 years, the Forest Service has had to dip into other pots of money to keep firefighting funded. Here is some basic math. Increasing fire danger + less money for fire prevention = a big mess. Yes, fighting fires is a priority. But that is no excuse to repeatedly ransack other, already underfunded programs. Congress and the Obama administration need to do the math from the outset, and give firefighting, especially fire prevention, the money it needs to get through the year. 

Different Cruise, Same Problems
The Middle Fork of the Salmon river is one of the most pristine, accessible wilderness floats in the lower 48, running 100 road-less miles through Idaho. It is certainly not the sort of place you would expect an outbreak of norovirus, the nasty intestinal bug that occasionally makes the rounds on dirty, crowded cruise ships. But with 50 people sick after floating the Middle Fork in the last month, norovirus is the likely culprit. For a river that sees 800 people a week, it is remarkably well managed and unspoiled. That does not mean, however, that norovirus transmission is impossible, given the amount of people using the same water stations, campsites and toilets. The Forest Service is collecting samples to identify the exact cause, but rafters should definitely take extra time to wash their hands and treat their water. For next year, rest assured, even though sun and water won’t kill the bug, the Idaho winter will.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Week in Outdoor Policy - August 9th


Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Idaho Holds First Federal Land Grab Meeting
The front lines of the Sagebrush Rebellion were in Idaho this week, where the legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee held its first meeting. For the moment, Idaho is the most active of the eight western states that are looking to grab control of the Federal lands within their borders. The point of this committee is to study the idea of public land transfer, which is a little confusing, considering there is already a resolution that demands it. But no matter, the committee will spend the next year and a half holding hearings and making recommendations. This first hearing had presentations on the history of public lands in Idaho and featured a thorough treatise (with a blinding, wall-to-wall-text powerpoint) on the alleged constitutionality of the transfer. In reality, the hearing raised more questions than it answered. One good question might be: legal or not, would this really improve things? Sure, the current system of Federal control is not perfect, but it mostly works. 73% of Idaho voters think protecting public lands is one of the things the Feds do well. There is plenty room for experimentation and improvement, and a lot of the current collaborative efforts are leading the way. On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to believe state control would be no better. The biggest reason is money. Idaho cannot hope to match what the Federal government spends (already too little) to manage and maintain public land, meaning much of it would have to be sold. The committee should have plenty of time to wade through all the legalese and realize what a bad idea this is for the outdoors. 

Utah Leads the Way With New Outdoor Recreation Office
Last week’s Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake was something of the unofficial launch for Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. The first of its kind in the nation, this department in the Governor’s office is tasked with implementing a far ranging vision for recreation, which they came up with last winter. Whether or not this vision is even achievable, the mere creation of this office shows a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of outdoor recreation in Utah. Hopefully this office can meet its goals of coordinating with the outdoor industry and boosting outdoor recreation. From a state that too often leads the way on frightening public lands proposals, here is an example other states could actually follow.

Friday, July 26, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 26th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Proposed Budgets Gut Funding for Conservation, Recreation…

Funding for the outdoors took a beating this week. This time every year, Congress determines how much money goes where. On the House side, funding for public lands has to go through the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. This week, that subcommittee released a funding bill that cuts 19% from last year. That’s a lot. The Environmental Protection Agency takes a big hit, but for recreation and conservation, the blow to the Land and Water Conservation Fund – LWCF - hurts the most. For the first time in its 50-year history, LWCF got exactly nothing. Zilch. Nada. Here’s how LWCF works. It takes fees from offshore drilling in the Gulf and sends that money to the states for projects, like buying important pieces of public land or building mountain bike trails. Sounds simple enough, except every year Congress determines how much of a possible $900 million LWCF gets. Yes, that’s right, the subcommittee wants to give LWCF $0 of a possible $900 million. This means that not only would there be no money for new projects, but ongoing projects would also grind to a halt. Sure, our country faces a debt crisis. But zeroing out LWCF – a program that protects the outdoors, gets people outside and is NOT funded with taxpayer dollars – is ridiculous. Thankfully there are those standing up for LWCF, like Senator Udall of Colorado and President Obama, who asked for $600 million for LWCF in his version of the budget. With a few more steps before any of this is finalized, including a full committee hearing next week, there is still hope for LWCF. When you start at zero, any change is an improvement.

…And Trails Too.

But wait, there’s more. While LWCF stands to be zeroed out by the House, the Recreation Trails Program faces a similar threat in the Senate. This program, RTP for short, uses money from a gas tax to build and maintain trails for mountain bikers and others. Now one Senator wants to use an amendment to the Senate’s transportation funding bill to take this money…and spend it on bridges. (Actually, it’s a bit worse than that, because he wants to take a whole pot of money, which goes to RTP as well as on-road bike lanes and the like.) No one is arguing that bridges should be left to crumble. But RTP funding really isn’t enough money to make a dent in our country’s infrastructure problem. Eliminating it, on the other hand, will have a huge affect on multi-use trail construction and maintenance. Like with LWCF, this is not a done deal. Taken together, these threats to LWCF and RTP are bad news for the outdoors  - not so much because they will certainly happen, but because funding for the outdoors seems to look to some politicians like a juicy target, ripe for the taking.

Friday, July 19, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 19th

IMG_0030Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Good Public Land News out of...Utah?
The words “good news for the outdoors” and “Utah lawmakers” aren’t normally found together. But this week is an exception. Utah’s elected officials changed course on two of their worst public land proposals. First, Federal legislation for the SkiLink gondola proposal was pronounced dead. The problems with Ski Link could fill a book, but here’s the short story. Talisker, a Canadian company, wanted to build a gondola through an undeveloped slice of public land in the Wasatch (see photo) to connect two ski areas: Canyons in Park City and Solitude in Big Cottonwood. City and county officials opposed the idea and the Forest Service didn’t want to give up the land. So Utah’s congressional delegation joined Talisker to push for a Federal law to force the sale of 30 acres of public land. If built, Ski Link would impact a prime bit of entry-level backcountry skiing, an IMBA Epic mountain bike trail, the watershed for Salt Lake City, and much else – all based on faulty claims of it providing an economic boost and a “transportation solution.” Thankfully, backers in the state and in DC backed down. In the second bit of good news, the Utah legislature repealed HB 155, which would have made it illegal for Federal land managers to enforce State laws, like speed limits and gun regulations, on Federal lands. Proponents claimed citizens were being harassed, but they couldn't point to any actual evidence. For this and other reasons, a federal judge shot the law down and the Utah legislature retracted it. The timely deaths of both the SkiLink legislation and the anti-Federal land manager legislation are a rare bit of good news for Utah’s public lands. Hopefully the irony of these two now-dead proposals – one trying to use Federal power over local power and the other trying to use State power over Federal power – is not lost on anyone.

Support Grows for Boulder-White Cloud National Monument
In Idaho, there continues to be rumblings of a National Monument proposal for the Boulder-White Clouds. These two mountain ranges, between Sun Valley and Stanley, are home to amazing backcountry skiing, mountain biking and backpacking but don’t enjoy the protection and funding they deserve. A longstanding Wilderness proposal would protect the land but bar bikes from the burly, beautiful backcountry trails. This week, the Idaho Statesman issued an editorial, citing the opposition of the Sawtooth Society, and urging caution when ditching the Wilderness legislation in favor of the Presidentially-decreed National Monument proclamation. While this is reasonable, there is growing consensus that the Wilderness legislation is stuck and growing support for the National Monument route. The Wood River Bike Coalition, a chapter of IMBA, threw its support behind the idea. This is a big deal. For the first time in the long history of attempts to protect the Boulder-White Clouds, there is now a way to protect both the place AND the sustainable ways to enjoy it, which is supported by a diverse and growing list of groups. Though much work remains to be done, a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument may have a fighting chance.

Friday, July 12, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 12th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Hot and Loaded: Fires in the West
With last week’s tragic loss of 19 firefighters, wildfires consumed much of the news this week. The basic facts are these. With a changing climate, the West is hotter and drier. How bad is it? This interactive map relates temperatures, snow packs and fires and shows that some states, like Idaho, have seen the number of large wildfires per year quadruple. The forests themselves have suffered from disease and insects and are overloaded from a century of overzealous fire suppression. Add in a large and growing number of dispersed houses in fire prone areas – 1 million of which were built in California, Washington and Oregon since 1990 – and we have a particularly flammable and dangerous mix. Much of the discussion has focused on whether firefighting policy increasingly risks lives for the sake of houses. Some have called for wildfire insurance, not unlike flood insurance, for risky homes. The impulse to address policies for zoning, firefighting and insurance after a wake up call like Yarnell Hill is a good one. But there is always the risk of opportunists twisting tragedy for their own ends. Senators and Congressmen from the top environment committees also weighed in this week. On the Senate side, they reasonably objected to the nearly 50% reduction in wildfire prevention budgets. On the House side, the committee held a hearing Thursday, mostly about logging. This is where things get tricky. Considering the deadly fire in Arizona was on state and private land and was seemingly not the result of inadequate thinning, logging on Federal public land is beside the point. These deaths should not look like dollar signs to the logging industry.

Threats and Our Responsibility to Public Lands
Recently, the National Wildlife Federation released a comprehensive report called Valuing our Public Lands. In it, they look at both definitions of value – as a noun meaning the economic value and as a verb meaning to value, cherish and treasure these places. The report covers all the economic impacts of public lands; from the outdoor recreation economy to the harder to measure, but equally important fact that protected lands draw valuable business and people to cities that could use the boost. The report also covers all the recent and ongoing threats our public lands face: attempts to transfer all Federal land in 7 states, Congressional attacks on longstanding public land protections, and so on. Here’s the kicker. Polls show that a majority of people value our land and oppose these threats. Yet many of our elected officials are the source of the threats. The only explanation for this gap is that we don’t actually know how our representatives feel about public land. That means we need to get educated, and get heard.

Friday, July 5, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 5th

OutdoorPolicy75Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

 Forest Management Scandal and Wildfire Tragedy in Arizona

Timber management on public lands doesn’t normally involve scandal that sounds more like Chicago politics. But recently an excellent investigative piece revealed serious evidence of corruption in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. This project, 4FRI for short, is the largest of its kind in the nation, aimed at thinning 2.4 million acres of national forest land north of Flagstaff, Arizona. The plan is for a private company to do the work and profit from selling the wood. The valid hope is to reduce the amount of burnable fuel in the forests – a legacy of a century of misguided fire suppression – and reduce extreme fires like the one that killed 19 firefighters on state and private land in AZ this week. While the goals are commendable, the problem is with the company the Forest Service picked. Turns out that Pioneer Forest Products, which won the contract, made some ridiculous, scientifically unproven claims in their proposal: running logging trucks on wood biofuel, turning pine into mahogany and magically lightening wood panels. Maybe worst of all, one of the top people at Pioneer is an ex-Forest Supervisor. The damning allegations go on, but the point is, not a single tree has been cut in the year since the contract was awarded. Vegetation management matters, as absurd a euphemism for logging as it may be (couldn’t the vegetation “manage” itself just fine before?). The way we deal with our forests as they actually are -  getting warmer, full of fuel and littered with trophy homes - mattered to the 19 that died. It will also matter to the thousands more that will risk their lives to fight fires all summer long. For their sake, the Forest Service ought to take responsibility for the 4FRI and work to set a much better example for forest management.

 Less Agency Funding Means Less Volunteer Help

Can you be so poor that you can’t accept free help? If you are the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service, the answer is yes. The recreation budgets for these agencies – that’s the cash that keeps trails open and toilet paper in the bathrooms – have been shrinking for years. Sequestration’s budget cuts, coming late in the fiscal year, certainly made things worse. More and more, these agencies are looking to volunteers to do trail work and other necessary things they can’t afford to do on their own. The issue comes when the agency doesn’t have the resources to accept even unpaid volunteers. Free labor still needs direction and supervision, and without this, volunteers go unused. Losing agency staff means losing not just their time, but also all the volunteer hours they made possible. Shrinking agency budgets are bad news for volunteering and bad news for the outdoors.

Friday, June 21, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - June 21st

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Mountain Biking Approved on New Section of the Continental Divide Trail
Great, unexpected news for Colorado mountain bikers this week. Last winter, word came out that the Forest Service was going to reroute a section of the Continental Divide Trail in southern Colorado. This should have been good news, except that bikes were going to be outlawed from the new singletrack and forced to use the old (read: lame) route on dirt roads. Mountain bikers, lead by IMBA, spoke up and the Forest Service changed course, deciding to allow bikes on the new section. The agency gave two very encouraging reasons why they made this call. First, they issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (say “FONSI”), a wonky technical document that used solid science to show that bikes have a limited impact on trails. Second, they acknowledged that the National Trails Act – which governs this trail and others like it – calls for maximizing both outdoor recreation potential and chances for volunteer help. Allowing mountain biking does both by adding a low impact way to get outside and pulling in the legions of mountain bikers willing to do trail work. While the clearance for 31 miles of new rideable singletrack is great news, the really exciting thing is that this decision could be the key that unlocks more riding in more places in the future. 

State Representative Aims for Speed Record on the Idaho Centennial Trail
The Idaho Centennial Trial runs 950 miles from Nevada to Canada, right through the middle of the state and some of the wildest backcountry areas in the lower 48: the Sawtooths, the Frank Church, the Selway-Bitterroot, and the Selkirks. This August, Idaho state representative Mat Erpelding plans to set the speed record for hiking the length of the trail. It’s not every state rep that can take on a trip this big – one with so much wild country, not to mention so much trudging through hot, flat fields of sagebrush. Besides the experience, the purpose of the trip is to support a non-profit called the Redside Foundation. This organization plays a unique roll in Idaho, by providing training and physical and mental health services for commercial guides. All in all, good news for the outdoors in Idaho, with an elected official that gets it supporting an organization that helps guides help people get outside.

Good Land Protection Bills Pass Committee and Senate
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee has been busy lately. This week, they passed a slew of bills out of committee, with bipartisan support. These included the North Fork Watershed Protection Act for Montana and the San Juan Mountain Wilderness Act for Colorado. Both of these are good news for those that love the outdoors (including mountain bikers). These bills still face a floor vote in the Senate and then the House, but hey, land protection bills are making it further through the process than they have in a long time. In fact, late Wednesday night, the Senate actually passed a few bills, including one to designate new Wilderness and new Wild and Scenic rivers in Washington state. Maybe there is hope for successful land protection this Congress after all.

New Equal Ground Campaign Launched
One last note. This week, the Center for American Progress and other organizations launched a new campaign and released a new poll to go with it. The main finding of the poll was that 65% of Westerners support protecting the outdoors for future generations, while only 30% support oil and gas drilling on public lands. This finding supports their new “Equal Ground” campaign, aimed at balancing the amount of land protected with the amount of land opened up to energy development. Fact is, President Obama has designated 2.5 times more acres for drilling than for permanent protection. Improving that ratio by doing a better job balancing protection and development doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.

Friday, June 14, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - June 14th

PackraftTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Paddlers Plead for Access in National Parks
Did you know that paddling is not allowed on the rivers in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks? You would be right to think this sounds a little ridiculous, considering you can land planes, drive RVs and ride snowmachines in parts of the Parks. Even though all that’s allowed, boating is forbidden on all Park rivers except one section of the Snake and the Lewis River Channel. This week, the American Packrafting Association asked the Park Service to rethink the ban and give boaters access. Though unique, the ban is not new. It all started in Yellowstone in the 50s, in an effort to protect the fishing. Since then, the prohibitive policy has been blindly passed down, with minimal and flawed studies of the justification for it. The Park Service has a tough job balancing access for people and protection for stream environments. Boaters acknowledge this, and there are processes already in place to monitor and limit impacts. But to double down on a policy with little to no factual basis makes it seem like the agency is just saying “No” because it is easier that doing their due diligence. It is especially hard to understand their stance when they claim that boating has a greater impact that off trail hiking. If you’ve ever seen a packraft, they weigh about 10 pounds and deflate to fit in a backpack – hardy a weapon for mass river destruction. What’s called for is a real, scientific assessment of the impacts of boating. With many of these rivers recently designated Wild and Scenic, now is the time to reconsider the boating ban.


Forest Service Approves New Mountain Bike Trails in Sun Valley
Also this week, some better outdoor policy news. The Forest Service in Sun Valley, Idaho approved the construction of 11 miles of new mountain bike trails. The new singletrack will connect with existing trails, all within the Sun Valley ski area boundary. The trails will be designed as flow trails, with all the buttery smooth rolls and berms that make them a tasty part of a balanced singletrack diet. But perhaps more significant than the addition of new trails is the Forest Service’s thinking behind it. In the announcement about the decision, the District Ranger said that “concentrating new “flow” trail construction within an existing ski area makes both economic and environmental sense.” Now that’s the right attitude. While over on Mt. Hood some are suing the Forest Service over new trail construction at the ski area, it’s good news to see the agency make the right call, for the right reasons.

Friday, June 7, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - June 7th

Tom Fishing
Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

States Still Trying to Stick It to the Feds…
The land-grab battle between Western states and the Federal government continues. Right now there are five states trying to gain control of the Federal lands within their borders: Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Montana and Idaho. All have passed proposals of some sort or another, all of which are bad news bears. Now these states might even band together to present a unified front. If any land were transferred to the states, it is clear what would happen, according to the leading multi-state rabble-rouser: land would either be sold or the rate of destructive energy development would increase. Even assuming no land changes hands, there are still plenty of dangers in the meantime. Most of these states are currently spending or actively setting aside taxpayer dollars to study or eventually defend these harebrained ideas. Maybe worse, these proposals are so out there that they can make other, still crazy ideas seem halfway sane. Oh, let’s say the states don’t want actual ownership, just control of the land management? Still crazy. In that case, in Idaho for example, the land would be managed by the Department of Lands and therefore explicitly NOT public lands. The reasons go on, but the fact is: these efforts are aimed at stealing public land that belongs to all of us.

…And Utah is Trying Especially Hard
As if all this about state ownership of federal lands weren’t enough, Utah is leading the charge on some new fronts. Unsatisfied with just unconstitutionally demanding federal lands, officials there are badgering federal land managers and picking fights over ownership of non-existent roads. State lawmakers are challenging the ability of BLM and Forest Service employees to enforce speeding and gun laws. Meanwhile, some counties are trying to assert themselves over the Feds by suing for ownership of “roads,” also known as indecipherable dirt tracks, despite what the county residents actually want. Whether or not any of these multiple attacks to federal ownership and authority succeed, they show a coordinated, determined effort to degrade our public land legacy – bad news for the outdoors.

Talk of National Monument For Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds
Few remaining places are so deserving of protection as the Boulder and White Cloud mountains between Stanley and Sun Valley, Idaho. Now, there is talk of a national monument designation that could give them the protection they deserve, while keeping the access we want. Part of the region has enjoyed some protection for the last forty years as the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. But other parts still aren’t protected enough, despite Congressman Simpson’s decade-long push for Wilderness for the Boulder-White Clouds. There are a couple of attractive things about the national monument route. It could be highly protective, but still allow access for mountain bikes on elite trails. It could mean more funding for tail maintenance and more support for the local economy. And, a biggie, it could be created by the President alone, without having to break through the stonewall of Congress. Though still in the early stages, a window for compromise is now open. But it won’t stay that way for long. There isn’t much time to reach an agreement and designate a monument before President Obama leaves office, and this isn’t the only potential monument vying for his attention.

Friday, May 24, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy

131724030Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Sierra Club Sues Over Mountain Bike Park
Late last week, the Sierra Club and three other environmental organizations sued the Forest Service to put the brakes on the Timberline mountain bike park on Mount Hood, Oregon. They argue that the construction of 17 miles of singletrack under the lifts would send erosion into creeks, disturb wildlife and affect hikers. A longer list of groups already appealed the Forest Service’s go ahead for the park, but when that was denied, many of those groups decided not to push things further by taking the agency to court. The Sierra Club in particular says they can support mountain biking, just not here. That rings a bit hollow. Sure, flow trails, features and even mountain bikes are not appropriate everywhere, but under ski lifts? Anyone that has visited a ski area in the summer knows that these places are far from pristine – access roads, snowmaking lines and the occasional dropped glove already litter the slopes. With climate change pinching the winter season, mountain bike parks are a great way for ski areas to stay open longer, make the most of facilities that would just sit there otherwise, and get more people outside. Trail building has come a long ways, and they can be built to protect the environment and multiple uses. The Sierra Club might take a moment to think, would John Muir have mountain biked had it been invented around the time he founded the Club? Heck yes. Probably a rigid steel singlespeed.

Another Challenge But Also Some Hope for Forest Service Fees
Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of debate about Forest Service fees. Basically, it boils down to this. The Forest Service, under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, can charge for amenities but not for admission. Hikers are suing to eliminate fees in California, and in Oregon fee money is rather ridiculously spent getting fee money. Now, the spotty record continues, with fees facing another similar challenge in Montana. At the Lake Como recreation area, a local attorney wants the Forest Service to stop charging $5 just to park. But just as one more fee is challenged, fees in Colorado show hopeful signs of better implementation. At the Maroon Bells, the agency is actually asking drivers where they plan to park – and letting those headed to an undeveloped area get in for free. Small steps like this will go a long way towards making fees tolerable, without going to extreme measures like posting cops at the bathrooms to see if you paid to use the pit toilet. This whole debate will really come to a head next year, when the act allowing fees comes up for renewal before Congress. Hopefully everyone can get some clarity – land managers and recreating visitors alike.

Forest Service Doubles Down on Demands to States
A quick note on another issue in the news lately. Remember how the Forest Service is demanding back some of the money it already gave western states? Turns out they are also asking for “penalties, interest and administrative costs” on top of that. So not only do they want some Secure Rural School funds back, they also want the States to pay for part of the administrative costs – costs that probably resulted from demanding the money itself. Now that’s bold. Amongst all the spreading impacts of sequestration’s cuts, this issue is the hardest to justify. With the stakes raised, a real showdown is brewing between Western lawmakers and the Forest Service.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy

Yosemite with Tom FlynnTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Climbing Bolts Cleared in Wilderness
After some bad news for Idaho climbers last week, climbers everywhere enjoyed good news this week. Settling a 20-year dispute, the National Park Service decided that fixed anchors are allowed in their Wilderness areas. First, some background. Wilderness, with a capital W, is the most protected public land we’ve got. Some of the best places on earth are protected forever thanks to Congressional action under the Wilderness Act of 1964. But these places are also some of the most restrictive; mountain bikes, for example, are not allowed anywhere in Wilderness. And bikes aren’t the only things. Wilderness also forbids permanent installations of any kind. It is under this logic that there has been a long history of debate about whether or not fixed anchors (bolts and slings for protection and rappelling) are allowed. A large part of this debate was settled this week, at least for the Wilderness areas managed by the Park Service, which include the little-known climbing destinations of Zion and Yosemite. The agency determined that fixed anchors do not violate Wilderness, and even allowed “programmatic authorizations” – agency speak for bolts approved by zone instead of bolt-by-bolt. Some will still argue that bolts violate the Wilderness Act’s ban on permanent installations, but if used sparingly, bolts won’t degrade the Wilderness and will make more and safer climbing possible. All in all great news for climbers, and vindication for decades of hard work by the Access Fund and others.

More Fires, Less Money
So far it has been a slow start to the wildfire season, but the signs of a dangerous drought are as obvious as the dust rising off the mountain bike trails. This week, Sally Jewell and Tom Vilsack, Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, visited the National Interagency Fire Center to bear some bad news and offer a bit of a pep talk. While the Pacific coast and interior northwest is facing another bad fire season, the Forest Service will have 500 fewer peopleand 50 fewer engines to fight it. This is all thanks to sequestration’s budget cuts, of course. One of the cruel ironies of the cuts? The budget to prevent fires is hit especially hard, leaving the agencies reacting to fires rather than proactively preventing them. None of this is good news for enjoying the outdoors. Not only is it hard to ride your bike through a forest fire, but if there isn’t enough money to fight fires, agencies often take money from other programs like recreation, leaving trails unmaintained or un-built. The West may be in for a tough summer.

Friday, May 10, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy with Tom Flynn


Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. For questions, comments and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Complete Climbing Ban Proposed at Castle Rocks, ID
This week, Idaho climbers got some bad news. The Bureau of Land Management is proposing a complete, permanent ban on climbing at Castle Rocks, a popular crag near the City of Rocks that has had its access issues in the past. Thing is, Castle Rocks is also sacred ground for two tribes, and the BLM says that any climbing would destroy the archeological and cultural resources (though hiking and hunting, apparently, don’t). The Access Fund and local climbers had been working the BLM on a climbing management plan that would both allow climbing and protect the cultural resources. But now, they want a complete ban. This is exactly the kneejerk outdoor policy that we all fear. It is no coincidence that sacred ground and great places to play outside often overlap. Places like these inspire deep, even spiritual relationships. There has to be a way for climbing and cultural resources to coexist. The final decision will depend on what the BLM hears from climbers, so head over to the Access Fund to learn how you can help.

Forest Service Wants Its Money Back
Every year, the Forest Service sends millions of dollars to counties across the West. These payments help with roads and schools in places that used to rely on timber sales. Now, the Forest Service wants its money back – $17.9 million of it. Their reason? Sequestration, of course. It comes down to a question of timing. The payments were made in 2013, but were for the previous year. The Agency thinks sequestration applies, so they want cash back. States say bull sh*t, you already paid us. Now, there’s no doubt these payments matter. When you drill down to the individual counties that get money, a couple hundred thousand can make a huge difference – paving a decrepit road or paying county employees. Also, these payments serve to protect the outdoors, in way. Without them, the pressure to log, mine or otherwise develop public lands would be even greater. There are already too many that argue that logging should increase – or federal lands be transferred to state control – for the sake of schools and roads in rural counties. Don’t expect a resolution to this tricky issue anytime real soon.

Fees Going to Protect…Fees?
In light of last week’s news about fees to visit national forests, one of this week’s headlines is a real head scratcher. Many feel that paying just to visit Forest Service land is double taxation. Regulations and courts have long upheld that fees may only be charged if there are additional amenities, like bathrooms. Yet this week, the Forest Service in Oregon, by their own admission, revealed that fees are going to…wait for it…fee collection. Here is the kicker from their statement: fees should be used for improvements, “instead of spending the fees to address theft and vandalism of fee tubes.” The Siuslaw National Forest is responding by eliminating many of the steel tubes you are supposed to drop your money in (rather than ramming with your pickup) and making people pay online or at ranger stations. Ways to tell your fee is ineffective? When you have to spend the fee money to get the fee money. They probably have a hole they can fill by digging another hole too.

Friday, May 3, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy with Tom Flynn (Week of April 28)

Tom Adventure PassTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. For questions, comments and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Pay to Play? Hikers Sue Over Forest Service Fees
One of the best things about most outdoor recreation is that it is free. No cover charge. No “convenience fee.” Of course there is the cost of gas and gear, and we all do pay taxes that maintain our public lands. But what if you had to pay, just to hike? If you live in Southern California, you know just how this feels. For the last 16 years, national forests there have charged visitors for an Adventure Pass. Now, hikers are suing the Forest Service to get rid of it. They claim, amongst other things, that the fees are like getting taxed twice. The debate over fees has raged for years, with the epicenter at Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Last year, a court ruled that those fees were unlawful, unless you were using the bathrooms, picnic tables, or other things that need upkeep. The Forest Service thinks that decision applied only to Mt. Lemmon – the suing hikers think it applies anywhere the court has jurisdiction, including California. No matter what the ruling is on the latest lawsuit, the debate about fees will not be over. Agencies like the Forest Service are chronically underfunded and overworked. More and more people want to play outside, and the trails, boat ramps and campgrounds that make it possible cost money. The best way to fix this is more money for the agencies, not fees for users, because fact is, there are no free hikes.

Forest Service Keeps Its Shield
Two weeks ago, news broke that the Forest Service was going to get to keep their logo. To which most people – including many Forest Service employees—said, “Wait, we were going to lose our logo?” What follows is the tale of a stunning bureaucratic goat rodeo. The Forest Service is part of the US Department of Agriculture. Years ago, USDA began an initiative called “One Brand” aiming to replace all department logos, including the iconic Forest Service tree and shield, with the Microsoft-paint USDA logo. Perhaps best of all, this transition would be overseen by the newly created Brands, Events, Exhibits and Editorial Review Department, or BEEERD for short. Thankfully, hell hath no fury like an insulted retiree, and the National Association of Forest Service Retirees rose to defend the familiar logo. USDA and BEEERD were defeated, the Forest Service was granted an exemption from the logo change, and thousands of historical signs and badges will remain unchanged.

Friday, April 19, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy with Tom Flynn

IMG_0026Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. For questions, comments and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Antiquities Act in the Crosshairs
What do Jackson Hole, Wrangell-St. Elias, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Fort Ord (home of this weeks Sea Otter Classic) all have in common? These amazing places to ski, climb and race mountain bikes were designated National Monuments. Despite how important National Monuments are for conservation and recreation, there are efforts to limit the Antiquities Act that makes it all possible. On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources committee took a look at a string of bills from Utah, Idaho and Nevada lawmakers that proposed various ways to hamstring the President’s ability to designate National Monuments, either by requiring Congressional approval or other restrictions. Some pointed to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, another world-class place to play outside, the mere mention of which could start a bar fight with some Utahns that see it as a prime example of Antiquities Act abuse. Fact is, with so little in the way of land protection passing these days, the Act is a key way for iconic places to get the protection they deserve – and its been successfully used by Presidents of both parties for a hundred years. The House committee hasn’t voted on any of these proposals yet, but they could soon.

Rumblings of a Big Public Lands Bill for Utah
Also this week, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, who chairs the committee looking at Antiquities Act limitations, spoke about his effort to break through the logjam and cobble together a public lands bill for the state. Given some of Bishop’s prior thinking on public lands, there is cause for concern. He was, after all, the one that last congress proposed a bill that would have thrown out all environmental regulations within 100 miles of the Southern and Northern US borders, in the name of border security. What had him so concerned about the Canadians we can’t be sure, but he is certainly no friend of environmental safeguards. That said, some of those that look out for wilderness in Utah are cautiously optimistic about this new effort. Discussion is always good, and going the route of a stand-alone bill – rather than a tacked-on amendment with minimal consensus – seems positive.

Some Unexpected Ski Areas Resist “Uphilling”
Last week, the state of the ski industry was in the news. This week there were more headlines about another important part of skiing today – uphill access inbounds at ski areas. More and more people looking for a workout or some quiet skiing in the pre-dawn or evening are skinning by the lifts at ski resorts. If anywhere would embrace this trend, you’d think it would be Boulder, CO and the nearby ski area of Eldora. But Eldora is bucking the national tend and firmly resisting uphill traffic. Granted, there are some tricky things about uphill access, like how to make sure skinning skiers are covered by insurance (usually done by way of a pass) and not run over by groomers or snomos (ouch). Also, most Western ski areas are on public land, so it seems like there should be reasonable access to them, within the terms of the resort’s lease. Some resorts, like Crested Butte, have it all figured out. They offer season and day passes for uphill access along designated routes. And they are making money at it – not only on coffee sales in the lodge but also on passes, with 700 uphill season passes sold at $100 a pop. Uphill skiers use snow making and grooming, so most are just fine paying to play. By outlawing uphill access, Eldora is not only shutting off human powered recreation, they are also leaving money on the table. If they actually think the Nordic trails are a substitute, they just don’t get it.