U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, yesterday chaired a hearing to examine opportunities to improve access, infrastructure, and permitting for outdoor recreation on our nation’s public lands, which featured witnesses from a variety of recreation sectors.
Murkowski opened by noting the timeliness of the hearing, which came just two days after President Trump signed her bipartisan lands package into law. That measure, S. 47 and now Public Law 116-9, contained a number of measures to increase and maintain recreational access to public lands.
“We know firsthand in Alaska how recreating on public lands, including state lands, can enhance communities and foster economic development in rural areas,” Murkowski said. “As a growing number of people want to go outside and be active in our National Parks, Forests, Refuges, and on our BLM lands, the strain is visible on our trail systems, roads, and other infrastructure.”
Murkowski invited Dan Kirkwood, co-chair of the JEDC Visitor Products Cluster Working Group, to testify about the tourism boom in southeast Alaska, its boost on the local economy, and impact on infrastructure in the Tongass National Forest.
“This year more than 1.3 million people will visit southeast Alaska on cruise ships, growing 14 percent in 2019 and with 5 percent additional growth in 2020,” Kirkwood said. “We believe that the Forest Service must embrace a proactive vision for tourism in the Tongass. This means engaging the industry to develop solutions, taking collaborative steps to support tourism businesses in southeast Alaska, and ensuring that tourism resources remain intact.”
Murkowski asked Dr. Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director of American Whitewater, about the barriers and lengthy timelines that exist for obtaining permits.
“One of the things is to make this a priority for land managers and river managers,” O’Keefe said. “Rivers do cross jurisdictions and having better coordination for a river system that crosses between Bureau of Land Management land, Forest Service land, and National Park Service land – currently an outfitter has to interface directly with each of those agencies individually, and there are opportunities for better coordination.”
“Special recreation permits are taking far too long to be processed. We had a situation in the Chugach National Forest, where a guide wanted to offer an opportunity for people to go ice fishing, a pretty low key operation. He was told that there was a moratorium on permit applications and to check back in seven years. Seven years for a permit to take folks ice fishing. That is unacceptable,” Murkowski said. “Rather than encouraging individuals and small businesses to use our lands, federal bureaucracy and a lack of resources and capacity are making it difficult to respond to the increasing and diverse needs of recreationists and to provide that quality visitor experience.”
The Bureau of Economic Analysis found that in 2016, outdoor recreation generated $412 billion, accounted for 2.2 percent of U.S. GDP, and grew at a rate of 1.6 percent.
Murkowski is chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. An archived video of yesterday’s hearing can be found on the committee’s website. Click here, here and here to view Murkowski’s questions for the witnesses.