How Joe Manchin’s bill could impact national parks, public land in Utah

A sweeping public lands bill that West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin says will “ensure our treasured public lands are accessible for generations” cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday with a unanimous vote.

America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022, sponsored by Manchin and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, seeks to promote collaboration between federal agencies, expand bike trails, designate target shooting ranges, increase parking and more, all on public lands, while working with gateway communities grappling with the unprecedented surge in visitation.

Nearly 300 million people visited national parks in 2021, an increase of 60 million compared to the year prior. Utah’s Arches National Park reported 1.8 million visitors that year alone, by far the most since tracking began in 1929.

A little closer to Manchin’s back yard is Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, the most popular park last year, with 14.1 million visitors.

In a press release, Manchin said the bill “will improve our recreation infrastructure” and “make it easier for businesses to thrive in rural areas.”

The bill has been backed by a number of influential activists, politicians and sportsmen for environmental groups like the American Mountain Guides Association, REI and the Utah-based Mule Deer Foundation.

But it has critics, including the National Parks and Conservation Association, which worries the bill would promote visitation without addressing the current workload and resources of parks’ workers.

“These public lands are often immediately adjacent to NPS land, and the bill does not sufficiently outline mitigation efforts that must be undertaken to ensure a safe and unimpaired park experience,” the group said, according to National Parks Traveler.

The association also raised concerns over provisions encouraging target shooting, which in some cases has started wildfires and led to the destruction of rock art panels.

If passed, the bill would have a sweeping impact on recreation in the West. Utah boasts over 35 million acres of federal land alone, which would be subject to dozens of the bill’s provisions. The Bureau of Land Management has six regional offices and there are seven national forests in the Beehive State.

Here are 10 key takeaways from the 155-page bill:

A visitor services assistant directs traffic around the full Wolfe Ranch parking lot, which serves as the starting point for the popular hike to Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

More parking

“Lot Full” signs are in high demand at Arches National Park, where increasing visitation has resulted in frequent park closures and popular trailheads overflowing with tourists.

One of the provisions in the bill is to increase parking, mainly for land managed by the Forest Service and Department of the Interior.

But due to a deferred maintenance backlog, which refers to projects that have been postponed due to budget constraints, the bill allows agencies to partner with the private sector “and lease non-federal land for parking opportunities.”

Parking is a hot debate, at least for National Park advocates, who worry that more parking will lead to more visitors that could result in more environmental degradation, search and rescue calls, wildfire risk and traffic.

“We could totally build a five-story parking garage but do you want to add that many people to the trail? What would that do to the experience while you’re hiking if you’re shoulder to shoulder and you’re waiting hours to get a picture under the arch,” ranger Melissa Hulls, visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches, told the Deseret News in September.

Target shooting

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management will be required to maintain at least one designated shooting range for each district under the bill. The ranges will not require a fee.

The bill piggybacks on former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s wish to see more shooting ranges in national monuments. But some environmental groups warn that more target shooting could lead to increased wildfire risk and vandalism.

‘Long distance’ biking

Under the bill, federal land management agencies — specifically the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service — need to identify at least 10 long distance bike trails, defined as a system with at least 80 miles on federal land.

Agencies will also need to identify 10 additional areas for trail development. For existing trails, the agencies need to “publish and distribute maps, install signage, and issue promotional materials.”

Broadband infrastructure

In a push to expand internet access on public land and rural communities, the BLM and Forest Service would be directed to identify “high priority” recreation sites that lack broadband.

The agencies would then estimate the cost to develop broadband infrastructure, and if necessary, partner with the Rural Utilities Service under the Department of Agriculture.

The National Parks and Conservation Association, however, says the provision raises concerns, and agencies need to first understand “the extensive use of and impacts to natural and cultural resources to build and maintain broadband at recreation sites within the National Park system.”

Defining ‘peak season’

Moab locals can confirm — the busy season is growing, inching into traditionally slow parts of the year.

In an effort to “better understand visitor trends” the Department of the Interior would be directed to examine the impact seasonal closures have on local tax revenue, while looking for opportunities to extend the time certain public lands are open.

“This section directs the agencies to make efforts to minimize seasonal closures on lands where such closures prevent recreational activities that provide economic benefits,” the bill reads.

Hotels and housing for gateway communities

Moab locals can also confirm that finding housing in the southern Utah gateway, whether as a renter or buyer, is a monumental task. Housing shortages in mountain towns and park-adjacent communities are driving locals out and resulting in labor shortages.

Under Manchin and Barrasso’s bill, the Department of the Interior will identify solutions to housing shortages, working with local governments, housing authorities, trade associations and nonprofits.

The bill also instructs the department to “provide financial and technical assistance to gateway communities to establish, operate, or expand infrastructure to accommodate visitation including hotels and restaurants.”

Climbing on Forest Service land

A brief provision in the bill says the Forest Service will “issue guidance” on climbing management in designated wilderness areas.

The bill is not entirely clear on what that “guidance” will be, but gives the agency 18 months to develop a plan that will consider the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the “appropriateness” of recreational climbing, placement and maintenance of fixed anchors and the use of other climbing equipment.

New digital tools

Several provisions in the bill seek to improve access to real-time data, permits and reservations. Consider this:

  • The National Parks and Federal Land Pass would be available in digital format.
  • Through a pilot program, the public could obtain real-time visitation data on federal land.
  • Land agencies would experiment with new, more intuitive, ways to tally visitor data.
  • Tourists who reserved visitation to public lands that require reservations or permits, could notify agencies of certain days they will not use — those days are then granted to guide companies and the unguided public.

Modernize campgrounds

Again turning to the public-private partnership model, the bill requires agencies to develop a pilot program to modernize campgrounds and buildings on Forest Service and BLM land.

Agreements with private companies would not last more than 30 years, and within three years of obtaining land use authorization, the company is required to spend at least $2 million on improvements.

Filming and photographing public lands

Buried at the end of the bill is a provision that would “modernize film and photography permitting on public lands to account for changing technology and social media.”

Production crews of less than eight people would not have to obtain a permit. Any filming or photography “that is merely incidental to an otherwise authorized or allowable activity” will not need a permit, either.