SALT LAKE CITY — Outdoor industry companies like Patagonia, L.L. Bean and The North Face, as well as local outdoor recreation organizations such as Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, are calling on Congress to invest in recreation infrastructure to help manage outdoor recreation hotspots amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The purpose of the Great American Outdoors Act, which was introduced in March and has bipartisan support from over 50 senators, is to address the maintenance problems caused in every part of the outdoor recreation system. That has only been compounded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would provide permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and primarily address deferred maintenance projects administered by the National Parks Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education.
"Our system of parks and public lands being open for public use is critical for small and large retailers and outdoor businesses, along with the supply chain that serves them," the letter stated. "Plus, these natural places bring quality of life to communities across the nation. Every part of this system has been interrupted by COVID-19, impacting the health and wellness of individuals, companies, and communities."
The letter also calls for the prioritization of transportation funding as well as infrastructure policies that help to reduce carbon emissions.
Another letter in support of passing the Great American Outdoors Act was signed by about 800 organizations, including Trails Utah and the Utah Restaurant Association, and sent to Congressional leadership on May 11. They emphasized that the direction of up to $9.5 billion over the next five years to address maintenance needs within the parks system, public land agencies, and Bureau of Indian Education schools would ensure "protection of and access to irreplaceable lands and local recreation opportunities."
Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, explained that her organization in particular "has lost funding for trail crews this year because funding was linked to Salt Lake County grant funds which were tied to the transient room tax."
"If people aren’t staying in hotels and eating at restaurants, that tax isn’t replenished and places where we play are impacted," she said.
She added that there is inadequate maintenance to accommodate for the use happening around Utah in terms of trail work and recreation infrastructure to ensure these trail areas are sustainable for the numbers flocking to them.
"We all know people are trying to get outside during this pandemic because we feel like it is a safer place than indoors," Geisler told KSL.com. "(However), as the crowds are taking to outdoor spaces without recreation infrastructure in place like clean restrooms, trailheads, adequate parking, established trails that are hardened for the masses and anchors for climbers that are maintained for safety. Then we destroy the very places we are going out to enjoy. To achieve these goals, dispersed recreation infrastructure and maintenance requires long term, sustainable funding at a local and national level."
Geisler added that it is understandable for funding to be directed toward fighting the pandemic, but people are still going outside and without dedicated long-term funding for outdoor recreation infrastructure and maintenance, massive impacts are being left on these places.
There are great things happening, such as the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation Grant and the recent Central Wasatch Commission short-term project support, Geisler said. However, she believes grant-based funding is not sustainable to employ trail crews and fund federal public land maintenance operations across the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Federal legislation like the Great America’s Outdoors Act might help address this gap.
"Many state parks and national parks that have been closed (until recently) have experienced overcrowding, especially in the past couple of weeks. The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest has remained open and with stay home orders in place; people have been concentrated into a finite number of climbing areas and other recreation sites," Geisler told KSL.com. "You have to think about what our impacts as crowds are taking to the crags and trails and having on the landscape, especially if there aren’t maintenance activities (happening). The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, (for example), doesn’t have any Adopt-A-Crags scheduled this year. Our hands are tied to help maintain and steward climbing areas when funding is taken away."
Outdoor enthusiasts are pretty good about Leave No Trace practices; however, if there aren’t sustainable trails and facilities in place, impacts to the landscape are inevitable and maintenance is necessary, Geisler added. There are other maintenance issues, like invasive species mitigation, that also suffer from a lack of sustainable funding.
"The Great American Outdoors Act is at the national level to get funding federally," Geisler said. "That trickles down to your own forest. It’s really important, especially as we are entering into the recovery phase and people are finding solace in the outdoors."