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U.S. senators reintroduce sweeping, bipartisan outdoor recreation bill

Man hanging on big slap of rock. Vista of mountain rocks behind him.
Justin Case (JustinCaseImages)
Rock climbing in Ten Sleep, Wyoming.

News brief:

A legislative package introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 16, called America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2023, would invest in recreational areas across the country. It would also updates policies related to outfitter permitting, camping fees and rock climbing, among other things.

Outdoor recreation created $862 billion in gross economic output in 2021, along with 4.5 million jobs. The impact of the economic sector is especially pronounced in the Mountain West, where there are hundreds of millions of acres of public lands.

Chris Perkins, senior director of the advocacy group Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, called the legislation “transformative” for rural economies.

“This bill, among many others, is going to really improve the recreation experience for recreationists like you and me, but also the businesses that support them, as well as the agencies that manage recreation,” Perkins said.

There is a long list of impacts that America’s Outdoor Recreation Act would have. It would fund more long-distance biking trails, target shooting ranges, parking lots and broadband connections in recreational areas. Additionally, it would direct federal agencies to improve visitor data collection, mapping of public lands, film and photography policies and online fee collection.

“More people are getting outdoors than before and relying on policy that was written, in many cases, decades ago – not prepared for the level of interest we see today,” Perkins said.

The legislation was introduced by Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and enjoys broad bipartisan support.

One of the provisions in the bill specifically has to do with protecting rock climbing routes in wilderness areas. That part is a big deal for the climbing and guiding community, which is becoming increasingly worried about access and safety following the decision by two Western national parks to ban fixed anchors in certain places.

Matt Wade, deputy director of the American Mountain Guides Association, said he understands the need for responsible management in wilderness areas, but thinks compromise is the best option before any bans are on the table.

“Fixed anchors are part of the climber safety system that is essential for them to be able to have this climbing experience, and to be able to come home in one piece,” he said.

Wade also lauded the bill’s call to update permitting systems for backcountry guides, which he called “outdated.”

America’s Outdoor Recreation Act was first introduced in 2022, but didn’t ultimately pass.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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