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.