Though the pandemic has limited people’s ability to congregate in enclosed spaces for months, it has not stopped outdoor enthusiasts or those with cabin fever from getting outside. As the nation begins to reckon with prolonged changes in how people can enjoy their time safely, Congress is considering ways to simplify the permitting process for outfitters and guides to make it easier for more people to enjoy public lands.
Tom Knopick, the co-owner of Duranglers Flies & Supplies, said the pandemic has injected a lot of uncertainty into his business, especially for his guides.
“It creates many challenges, and every day when you wake up, it’s new challenges you have to deal with,” Knopick said.
In addition to selling fishing gear, the shop also provides guides and advice about where customers can go to fish. But as COVID-19 lockdown procedures vary from state to state, and even among localities, that job becomes more difficult.
“A week ago, New Mexico closed their state parks to new residents, and so we had to adapt to that,” Knopick said.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing Thursday to shed light on those contradictions and find solutions to help businesses during the pandemic. The outdoor recreation industry is the second-most affected by the pandemic after food and accommodation industries, said Jess Turner, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.
The roundtable, which represents outdoor recreation trade associations, published a survey of 23,000 businesses and found that 88% have laid off or furloughed workers.
Turner said one of the issues complicating business is differences in local reopening policies. During the hearing, she encouraged communication among local leaders so businesses are not caught unaware.
One measure being considered to support outfitters is the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act, or the SOAR Act. The SOAR Act would allow outfitters, guides and other groups who want to do recreation activities on public lands to apply for a simplified special recreation permit that may be cheaper than previous permits and also can be applied across lands held by different federal agencies.
The National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forestry Service and other public lands administrators have broadly allowed for continued use in recent weeks, but there have been issues with conflicting restrictions depending on state lines. During questioning, Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., said that a visitor to the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area complained to his office that restrooms and fish cleaning stations were closed on the Wyoming side but open on the Utah side.
Conflicting restrictions aside, certain parks are still seeing plenty of visitors. Mason Pritchett, director of the 4Corners Paddling School in Durango, said his shop has seen huge upticks in sales for paddling gear, faster than his suppliers can keep up with the demand. Meanwhile, his coworkers have seen lines form at Lake Nighthorse, where the company commonly rents gear, and large crowds on the Animas River.
“You could probably step onto a raft at the put-in and walk all the way across the rafts to the take-out,” Pritchett said.
Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Parks Foundation, acknowledged during Thursday’s hearing that visitors to public lands tend to concentrate in certain areas, and that it could be a problem for those hoping for a peaceful retreat.
“The joke among park superintendents is: Find a park, but find somebody else’s park because mine’s got too many people right now,” Shafroth said.
In her opening statement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, praised the work of her fellow lawmakers in the House of Representatives for passing the Great American Outdoors Act on Wednesday after the Senate had already passed the bill in June. But she pointed out that Land and Water Conservation Fund money is apportioned based in part on matching agreements on behalf of states. But if revenue from hunting and fishing licenses is reduced, that makes LWCF funds harder to access.
“COVID-19 has added a whole new layer of complexity to public land management,” Murkowski said. “We need to ensure the federal government is supporting the users who are essential job creators and environmental stewards while also respecting the wishes of the local communities who call those areas home.”
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is on the committee, sponsored the Great American Outdoors Act. A spokesperson said he attended the hearing on public lands Thursday but did not ask questions. He is a co-sponsor of the SOAR Act, along with his Democratic colleague Sen. Michael Bennet.
Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.