How The SOAR Act Impacts Guiding Businesses

The SOAR Act will make your life as a guide easier. At least, that’s the hope. As we know, federal land management agencies require guiding businesses and outfitters to get special recreation permits so they can operate on public lands and waters. Even though this is a legal requirement for professional guides, they aren’t easily obtainable. Not only is the process totally convoluted, a lot of businesses ask agencies about available permits to only be told there aren’t any available. Because of this, guiding companies can’t take their clients out on public lands and their businesses suffer.

I. What’s the SOAR Act?

According to Access The Outdoors, a lot of the time agencies deny permit applications because they don’t have enough people to actually process the permit application. So, it doesn’t have anything to do with land capacity or negative environmental impacts. Instead, the process is so grotesquely complicated and labor-intensive that agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, deny permit applications because they can’t handle them.

It wasn’t always like this. It’s something that’s happened over time with agencies adding more and more requirements to obtain a special recreation permit. Essentially, there need to be more laws—enter the SOAR Act—to undo the dilemma of what other laws created. And it has to happen because this problematic process for permits not only limits public access to public lands but negatively impacts guiding businesses because they can’t operate.

The Simplifying Outdoor Access For Recreation (SOAR) Act contains rules to streamline the permitting process for guiding professionals, outfitters, and outdoor leaders operating on public lands. Essentially, it mandates agencies to assess the current permitting procedure and find ways to make it less of a headache.

Pssst – You can also read about the Great American Outdoors Act here; another bill that affects guides.

Read the full bill here.

II. Summary of Sections in the SOAR Act

To make it easier to digest, here are summaries of Sections 4-11 of the SOAR Act that directly impact guiding professionals. You can read a summary of the entire bill here. If you want a different section-by-section summary, access it here. But we’ll do our best to put it in words you can actually understand.

Section 4 Summary

This directs agencies to assess the recreational outfitter and guide permitting process and find ways to eliminate any duplicative processes, reduce administrative costs for guides, and cut down the processing times for permit applications. 

They’ll also be required to make permit applications available online. Once the SOAR Act is passed, agencies have roughly one year to put all of this into place.

Section 5 Summary

This section gives guiding professionals, outfitters, and outdoor leaders more flexibility when it comes to their permits. First, it lets guides use one permit to cover similar activities instead of having to get a whole new permit per activity. For example, a kayak guide could also offer stand-up paddle boarding activities under the same permit.

Second, it extends the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management temporary permits to two years. In some circumstances, it’ll also authorize temporary permits to be converted into long-term permits. 

Third, it creates a program so permit holders can return unused service days and allow for other guides and outfitters to use them. 

Section 6 Summary

Agencies will have to notify the public of available permits and respond to permit applications in a “timely manner.” 

Section 7 Summary

Allows agencies (like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management) to issue a single permit to guiding professionals and outfitters who operate on several different lands. Right now, guides need to get a separate permit from every agency where their activities take place.

Section 8 Summary

The SOAR Act protects U.S. Forest Service permit holders from losing guiding days because of seasonal demand fluctuations or circumstances outside of their control, like natural disasters. 

Section 9 Summary

This section controls liability insurance costs for guiding businesses and outfitters by letting them use liability release forms with their clients. Right now, liability release form rules are different between agencies and regions of the same agency. Further, it conflicts with state law in states where the use of release forms is allowed.

Also, this section waives permit indemnification requirements for state universities, city recreation departments, and school districts.

Section 10 Summary

Reduces permit fees and cost recovery expenses for small businesses and organizations by establishing a flat 50-hour cost recovery exemption for permit processing. This is an additional fee the Forest Service and/or BLM charges to process special use applications. Under Section 10, permit processing will be exempt from this fee.

Section 11 Summary

The SOAR Act would push back a permit expiration to up to five years for long-term permit holders so long as the guiding business submitted their permit renewal application in a timely manner. Right now, because the permit renewal process is so complicated, sometimes guiding permits expire before an agency finishes processing its application.

III. How will this impact guides?

This is all dependent on whether the SOAR Act is passed. Should this bill pass, it will impact guides by:

  • Directing agencies to improve their permit recreation issuing process. This means they need to figure out how to eliminate duplicative processes, reduce costs for permits, cut down the processing time, and make the environmental review simpler. 
  • If your guiding business operates activities similar to the activity on your permit, you won’t have to apply for an additional permit.
  • Agencies will have to offer more short-term permits to guides, outfitters, and outdoor leaders. They’ll also have to create a program to share unused permit service days for all permit holders, so no days go to waste.
  • Agencies will have to notify the public of any available recreation permits. Plus, they’ll have to respond in a timely manner to permit applications.
  • If your guiding business involves more than one land management agency (i.e. Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service), they’ll issue you a joint permit to cover all land instead of separate permits. 
  • They’ll now exempt permit processing fees from the 50-hour cost recovery fee for small businesses and organizations. 
  • If you are a Forest Service permit holder, you’ll have more protection around demand fluctuations and permit use reviews in extraordinary circumstances outside of your control, like wildfires.
  • You’ll be able to use liability release forms with your clients to help control liability insurance costs.
  • Agencies will waive the permit indemnification requirement for state universities, city recreation departments, and school districts.

IV. What other organizations are saying about it 

American Mountain Guides Association Deputy Director, Matt Wade

“The American Mountain Guides Association applauds Senator Manchin and Senator Barrasso, and the entire Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, for advancing the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022. It will make significant improvements to the outfitter and guide permitting systems of the Federal land agencies to make it easier for Americans to access public lands with a guide, and easier for guides to provide their services at climbing and skiing destinations across the country.”

America Outdoors Executive Director, Aaron Bannon 

“I am excited to see this bill move through the ENR committee and have high hopes for swift passage on the Senate floor. We are encouraged to see such a great show of bipartisan support for outfitted outdoor experiences. It is vital that we modernize the permitting process to allow outfitters and guides the opportunity to focus on what they do best- facilitating life-changing outdoor experiences.”

Outdoor Recreation Roundtable President, Jessica Turner

“Today’s passage of the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022 out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is monumental because it marks the first-ever recreation package heading to the Senate floor. We applaud Chairman Manchin, Ranking Member Barrasso and the members of the Committee for their important and timely provisions that came together in this outdoor recreation package, and for passing it out of committee.

As outdoor recreation participation has increased across the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, communities are looking to outdoor recreation as an economic development strategy and for its widespread benefits to public health. With this interest in promoting time outside combined with outdated policies and processes, agencies need updated tools in their toolbox when it comes to managing more users of our public lands and waters, mitigating the impacts of climate change, supporting rural businesses coming back from COVID, and ensuring the outdoors is accessible to everyone. The $689 billion outdoor industry now urges Congress to pass the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022 to continue the tremendous momentum of this growing industry that supports all facets of American life.”

Outdoor Industry Association Executive Director, Lise Aangeenbrug 

“Increased support for outdoor recreation through federal investments in recreation infrastructure and public parks is critical to the continued success of our business and the outdoor industry. This bipartisan proposal will expand Americans’ access to outdoor spaces and recreation, support local outdoor industry businesses and their employees, and bring meaningful economic opportunities to countless communities. Following nearly two years of COVID-19-related lockdowns and economic stress, these proposals would also improve the mental, physical, and economic well-being of everyone, regardless of zip code, background, or income. As this measure advances in the Senate, we remain committed to working with Congress together to ensure this vital legislation is passed and enacted into law.”

Outdoor Alliance Policy Director, Louis Geltman

“Outdoor Alliance is grateful for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s work to advance important bills for the recreation community. Effectively managing our public lands and waters requires both conservation and sound policy guidance. We are pleased that America’s Outdoor Recreation Act will provide improved management for climbing and mountain biking; enhance the ways that land managers and agencies account for recreation, and invest in equity through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership and by making facilitated access experiences available to more Americans. We are also tremendously pleased by the committee’s attention to protecting critical landscapes for conservation and recreation, including through the CORE Act, Wild Olympics, and the Smith River NRA Expansion Act.”

National Forest Recreation Association Executive Director, Marily Reese

“The National Forest Recreation Association strongly supports America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022. The Act will result in unprecedented enhancements of outdoor recreation on our federal lands. NFRA in particular is excited about the Act’s pilot program to modernize federal campgrounds. It takes advantage of public-private partnering to avoid any use of public funds to improve our nation’s aging campgrounds, many of which were constructed in the 1950s and 60s, so they can meet the needs of today’s campers. The result will promote inclusion of more diverse users groups in our outdoor spaces in addition to ensuring facilities allow those with disabilities to fully enjoy the outdoors.” 

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Many of the organizations quoted above plan to work with the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to make pertinent recommendations and amendments to the bill, secure floor time, and make sure the bill passes quickly. 

Follow the bill here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/1229

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