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Wyden bill aims to ease recreation access

In a room packed Thursday with outdoor-recreation gurus, agency managers and tourism officials, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, sought feedback on a bill that would streamline permitting and access on federal lands and waterways.

Owners and operators gave the impression in the Medford meeting they had no problem reaching officials but found those officials had little ability under current law to approve new or unusual requests.

Pete Wallstrom of Momentum River Expeditions in Ashland said his company both encourages younger generations to go outdoors and to host international travelers.

"We're always trying to introduce new activities, but it's almost impossible to get them through the Forest Service and the BLM," Wallstrom said. "Not because they don't want it, but because it's not a priority for them, and because they don't have the time. They are understaffed, and the systems they use are antiquated. When I saw the bill, I was so excited because it can take us over six years to get a permit for new outdoor activity in public lands; that's just not OK."

It took nearly that long for Jennifer Roe of Roe Outfitters in Klamath Falls to get a permit to operate a zipline operation on Tomahawk Hill off Highway 140 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Operations began after a four-year ordeal to obtain all the approvals.

"Getting things done like this is a huge, huge win for Southern Oregon," Roe told Wyden. "I'm preaching to the choir here, but there are a lot of people who won't go off pavement without someone to lead the way. The people in this room are critical to the success of recreation in Oregon, and we can't do it without working with public lands."

Wyden said he was aware of a litany of obstacles facing commercial, volunteer and other groups looking for access. 

"A lot of the natural resource agencies do not get up in the morning and say, 'Gee, let's be rotten to people who are interested in recreation.' That's not what goes on," Wyden said. "What does go on, however, is that everybody is tethered to these rule books from yesteryear. The reality is that the rules are out of date, and that's what we've had hammered home this summer."

The bill would require agencies to use similar language and formats in dealing with requests. Outfitters and guides also encounter obstacles because of outdated rules, he said.

"Often they have to put money up ahead of time before they know what's going on, and then have trouble getting it back," Wyden said.

Promoting outdoor recreation is critical to companies such as White Water Manufacturing, make of Sotar rafts in Merlin, said Hugh Griffith, general manager and chief operations officer. 

"If you can't get out there and get on the river, there's really no reason to buy an American-made, or any other, raft," Griffith said. "The promotion of outdoor recreation is good for America's health, America's industry, and fundamentally good for America."

He said no two rivers in the United States are managed in the exact same way.

"You almost have to get a doctorate in permit application," Griffith said. "The Grand Canyon, the Sand River, the Salmon River, the Rogue River — all the permitted rivers that are closed without permits have a slightly different approach. As a result, it's very difficult to recreate in America's wonderful outdoors."

Will Volpert of Ashland's Indigo Creek Outfitters said he was pleased to see a diverse representation spanning whitewater, lodging and nonprofit groups at the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County office.

"I didn't realize how much emphasis would be put on the permits," he said. "It made me think how convoluted and confusing the permitting system is, and how different it is on each river where we operate. After some time you just get used to it. But if you're an outside business trying to understand the special-use permits each time you try to get commercial authorization on federal land, it can be overwhelming."

The bill also would allow volunteer groups to have easier access to trails to perform maintenance work.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.