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To the pleasure of Colorado's outdoor industry, Forest Service promises simpler public lands access

September 28, 2016 Updated: September 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm
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photo - <contentattributes><credit>Bob Riggs</credit><cutline>Beaver Pond, Near San Isabel, San Isabel National Forest</cutline><longcutline></longcutline><alt></alt><title></title><available_photo></available_photo></contentattributes>
Bob RiggsBeaver Pond, Near San Isabel, San Isabel National Forest 

DENVER - From the day in 1996 that he took over Angler's Covey in Colorado Springs, David Leinweber has longed to take customers on fishing trips to small streams along the South Platte River. But he's been denied by the landowner, the U.S. Forest Service.

"If you wanted to go, and you wanted to hire me as a coach to go with you, and you were told that you could not, you would say, 'What?'" he said with an incredulous shake of the head. "But that's what it is."

Manager Scott Holmberg has experienced the same rejection at Underwater Connection, an outfitter in town leading water adventures. The business has hit a wall in its attempts for permits at local reservoirs.

"So we're sending several hundred people a month down to New Mexico, to Santa Rosa," Holmberg said. "Or I'm hauling people to Aurora, and they're bringing money to Aurora. We want to keep money in our community, right?

"But after you've been told no so many times, you move on."

On Wednesday, he and Leinweber felt uplifted. They felt that their fortunes just might change one day soon.

They were two of about 80 representatives spread across Colorado's outdoor recreation industry and nonprofit scene, all brought together at Denver's flagship REI store downtown. They were grinning as high-ranking officials from Washington, D.C., discussed the Forest Service's attitude shift on commercial and private group access to public lands.

Those gathered were told that their laments for a streamlined special-use permitting process have been heard. Reform is underway, they were told in a meeting room that often filled with claps of joy.

"We're moving away from the approach of regulating, and toward an approach of enabling," said Meryl Harrell, senior adviser to the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, echoing a June letter of intent from the agriculture secretary and Forest Service chief.

Leading the meeting alongside Forest Service personnel were members of the Outdoor Access Working Group, formed in 2014 for the very purpose of pushing discussions like Wednesday's - long overdue, outfitters and guides feel as they've grappled with a permit application process that they describe as paperwork-heavy, cumbersome and archaic. Last year, in his first months as the first governor-appointed head of Colorado's Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, Luis Benitez flew to D.C. four times to sit at a table with the Forest Service and the working group.

He considered Wednesday a day of victory.

"This is a big, big deal for Colorado," he said. "Actually, it's a big, big deal for the country."

Benitez is especially giddy about the prospect for rural communities. He brought up the example of an entrepreneurial mountain biker in Kremmling wanting to use the surrounding forest for a guiding service.

"So you write a business plan," Benitez said, "and you go to the Forest Service to apply for permits and user days, and that requires a NEPA study . and you wait and wait and wait to put your plan to action, and it could take anywhere from 12 months to five years to forever, and the plan never happens.

"Ultimately what you're talking about is limiting economic development."

Forest Service officials Wednesday presented a multimillion-dollar plan to develop an e-permitting system, where applications would be submitted online through a one-stop shop. They outlined a procedure in which land managers would determine "nominal effects" - effects by outfitters or guides that would be no more taxing on the landscape than effects by everyday users. In such determined cases, permits would bypass lengthy environmental studies and be granted immediately.

"We've had this strange tendency to veer toward no rather than yes," said Tinelle Bustam, a forester helping to lead the reform in D.C. "We want to pivot toward yes."

Joe Meade, director of recreation, heritage and volunteer resources for the National Forest System, called it "peeling back unneeded bureaucracy." In thinking a streamlined process has long been due, the industry has long been right, he said.

"We have known for decades we do not have the staffing needed to administer the volume of special-use inquiries coming in," he said, explaining the agency's budget being sapped 60 percent by wildfires. "Staffing is 30 percent smaller today than in the year 2000, and that's significant, considering we were clunky and slow with this in 2000."

Action has been spurred, Meade said, with the growing awareness of outdoor recreation's economic merits: The industry reports stirring $646 billion in annual American spending, with $13.2 billion in Colorado. Indeed, the numbers have prompted governors around the nation to create positions like the one Benitez holds.

Along with that awareness, Meade said, action comes as the Forest Service recognizes a rising generation hungry for recreation. National forests are visited by 145 million people every year, and Meade explained how a streamlined permitting process could bring more and help raise the land's next stewards.

That's a message Colorado's leading conservation group can get behind.

"To the extent that this process allows more people to connect with public lands in a way that keeps the environment protected, that's a process we'll be supportive of," Scott Braden, public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado, said of the streamlined permitting process.

Meade said 19 pilot sites around the country have been picked to pilot the reform, with one being the White River National Forest, Colorado's busiest wilderness.

But he warned against any quick change. After all, this is cultural change, he said.

Leinweber and Holmberg hope the change comes to the region. The way they see it, restrictions keep them from helping.

"Park rangers barely have the time to see their forests anymore," Leinweber said. "When I see something like a trail eroding or a bunch of trash dumped, that's an on-site evaluation that the Forest Service would have to pay somebody to do. We can be the eyes and ears of the forest."

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