Order Code IB10141
CRS Issue Brief for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Recreation on Federal Lands
Updated June 8, 2006
Kori Calvert, Coordinator,
and Sandra L. Johnson
Knowledge Services Group
Carol Hardy Vincent, Coordinator,
Ross W. Gorte, Nicole T. Carter, Nic Lane,
David L. Whiteman, and M. Lynne Corn
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
Overview of Issues
Motorized Recreation on BLM Land
Motorized Recreation in the National Forests
Personal Watercraft (PWC)
The National Trails System
Recreation in the National Wildlife Refuge System
Recreation at Federal Water Sites
Grand Canyon Colorado River Management
Recreation on Federal Lands
tween recreation on, and protection of, park
lands and waters. Regulatory actions restricting use of these vehicles have been especially
controversial. The NPS currently is evaluating PWC and snowmobile use in several
areas. Service-wide management policies
encompassing motorized and nonmotorized
recreation are being reviewed.
The growing and diverse nature of recreation on federal lands has increased the challenge of balancing recreation with other land
uses, and balancing different types of recreation. Motorized recreation has been particularly controversial, with issues centering on
access and environmental impacts. The 109th
Congress is considering legislation and conducting oversight on issues involving recreation on federal lands, including traditional
recreational pursuits and newer forms of
motorized recreation. The Administration is
addressing these issues through budgetary,
regulatory, and other actions. Several prominent issues are covered in this report.
Aircraft Overflights. Grand Canyon
National Park is at the center of a conflict over
whether to limit air tours over national parks
to reduce noise. The NPS and the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) continue to
work to implement a 1987 law that sought to
reduce noise at Grand Canyon, and a 2000 law
that regulates overflights at other park units.
Recent regulations require air tour operators
to seek authority to fly over park units; the
agencies then must develop Air Tour Management Plans at those park units. Further, the
FAA is developing final safety regulations for
commercial air tours nationally.
Motorized Recreation in the National
Forests and on BLM Land. The use of offhighway vehicles (OHVs) on Forest Service
(FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
lands has been particularly controversial.
Both agencies decide the extent of allowed
OHV use through their planning processes.
The FS finalized new regulations (Nov. 9,
2005) governing OHV use that require designating roads, trails, and areas open for OHV
use and prohibit OHV use outside the designated system. The BLM is addressing transportation issues through national strategies
and other guidance. A July 13, 2005, House
Resources joint subcommittee hearing examined motorized recreation use on federal
lands. The FY2007 Administration budget
request would cut FS recreation management
by 3% and trails funding by 19%, and BLM
recreation management by 2%. The Housepassed Interior appropriations bill restored or
increased funding for these accounts.
The National Trails System. While
designation of trails is often popular, issues
remain regarding funding, expansion, and
quality of trails. The 109th Congress is considering a variety of trail measures, including
adding routes to the National Trail System,
authorizing studies of routes for possible
additions to the system, and authorizing land
acquisitions from willing sellers. Legislation
has been introduced to create a new category
of trails, called National Discovery Trails.
Other Issues. Other federal land recreation issues of interest to the 109th Congress
include recreational uses within the National
Wildlife Refuge System, recreation at federal
water sites (Army Corps of Engineers and
Bureau of Reclamation), recreation fees, and
Grand Canyon Colorado River management.
Personal Watercraft and Snowmobiles. Personal watercraft (PWC) and snowmobile use in National Park Service (NPS)
units has fueled debate over the balance be-
Congressional Research Service
The Library of Congress
MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
In H.R. 5386, the House approved $67.0 million for BLM recreation
management in FY2007, a 3% increase over the FY2006 appropriation.
The House approved $264.0 million for FS recreation management, 1%
above FY2006 and 4% above the request, and $73.4 million for trails, 1%
below FY2006 and 22% above the request.
On May 10, 2006, the House Appropriations Committee adopted an
amendment to the FY2007 Interior appropriations bill (H.R. 5386, H.Rept.
109-465) urging NPS to complete PWC rulemakings “in an efficient and
On May 4, 2006, NPS issued final rules to allow PWC use within designated
areas of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The House passed H.R. 5386 on May 18, 2006, with a provision (Sec. 124)
to ensure that the rule allowing snowmobiles in three Yellowstone area
parks will remain in effect throughout the 2006-2007 winter use season.
On June 1, 2006, the Secretary of the Interior announced the designation of
36 new National Recreation Trails (NRTs), totaling more than 800 miles.
BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
Four federal agencies administer about 94% of the approximately 672 million acres of
federally owned land in the United States: the National Park Service (NPS), the Fish and
Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Department of
the Interior (DOI), and the Forest Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture. The lands
these agencies administer are managed for a variety of purposes relating to the preservation,
development, and use of the lands and natural resources. The NPS administers the Park
System for recreational use of parklands and preservation of park resources, a mission that
can be contradictory. The FWS manages wildlife refuges primarily for protecting and
improving fish and wildlife habitats. The BLM manages public lands and the FS manages
national forests for similar multiple uses — grazing, recreation, timber, water, and fish and
wildlife. Most forests and public lands also are available for mineral exploration and
development. The National Trails System, administered by the FS, NPS, and BLM, often in
cooperation with state and local authorities, permits most recreation uses, but motorized
vehicles generally are prohibited. This preservation/use dichotomy, while varying among
agencies, is a focal point for debate over recreation on federal lands. Increased recreational
use, and charges of overuse in some areas, contribute to disagreement on issues of access,
regulation, integrity of natural and cultural resources, and motorized versus nonmotorized
recreational activities. Recreation debates also arise in areas managed by other federal
agencies, such as reservoirs and rivers managed by the Army Corps of Engineers (in the
Department of Defense) and the DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation, where decisions on water
releases may affect recreation.
The growth and development of western states, proximity of many urban areas to public
lands, and growing popularity of outdoor recreation have translated into high demand for a
variety of recreational opportunities on federal lands and waters. Agency figures indicate an
overall increase in recreational visits to federal lands in recent decades. In 2005, DOI
experienced 461 million recreation visits: 58 million visits to 3,496 BLM recreational sites;
273 million recreation visits to NPS units (then 388, now 390 units); 40 million visits to 545
FWS wildlife refuges; and 90 million visits to 308 Bureau of Reclamation recreation sites.
(See [http://www.doi.gov/budget/2007/07Hilites/DH53.pdf].) The Forest Service reports
211 million recreation visits to its national forests and grasslands, and the Corps 400 million
visits for the most recent year available.
Over the last 40 years, new forms of motorized recreation — snowmobiles, personal
watercraft, other off-highway vehicles — and nonmotorized vehicles, such as mountain
bikes, have gained in popularity. For instance, there were roughly 8.6 million visitor days
of motorized recreation on BLM lands during FY2004. This figure includes off-highway
vehicle (OHV) use of all- terrain vehicles, dunebuggies, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and SUVs
as well as recreation involving powerboats, personal watercraft, and snowmobiles. In 2004,
OHV users accounted for between 11 and 12 million recreation visits to national forests and
grasslands. These new forms intersect with the many popular traditional forms of recreation.
These include water-based activities — fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, etc. — and a
variety of land-based pursuits — birdwatching, camping, hiking, hunting, horseback riding,
rock climbing, skiing, etc. The use of motorized OHVs on federal lands and waters has been
particularly contentious, and lawsuits have challenged OHV management. OHV supporters
argue that these vehicles provide outdoor recreation opportunities for the disabled, senior
citizens, and others with mobility limitations; visitor access to hard-to-reach natural areas;
economic benefits to communities serving riders; and, for snowmobiles, increased access to
sites during the winter season. They believe technological advances do and will continue to
limit noise and pollution. Critics of OHVs raise environmental concerns, including the
potential for damage to land and water ecosystems and wildlife habitat; noise, air, and water
pollution; and a diminished experience for recreationists seeking quiet and solitude.
Two executive orders define and generally guide administering OHV use on federal
lands. The first (E.O. 11644, Feb. 8, 1972) defines an off-road vehicle, now commonly
referred to as an off-highway vehicle, as “any motorized vehicle designed for or capable of
cross country travel on or immediately over land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland,
or other natural terrain,” with exceptions for any registered motorboat or authorized or
emergency vehicles. It was issued to “establish policies and provide for procedures that will
ensure that the use of off-road vehicles on public lands will be controlled and directed so as
to protect the resources of those lands, to promote the safety of all users of those lands, and
to minimize conflicts among the various uses of those lands.” The order directed each
agency head to develop and issue regulations to carry out this purpose and to provide for the
designation of areas and trails on which OHVs may be permitted, and areas in which such
vehicles would not be permitted. Agency heads were to monitor the effects of OHV use and
amend or rescind designations of areas or other actions taken pursuant to this order as needed
to further the policy of the executive order.
A subsequent executive order (E.O. 11989, May 24, 1977) amended the 1972 order to
exclude military, emergency, and law enforcement vehicles from the definition of off-road
vehicles (to which restrictions would apply). It provided authority to immediately close areas
or trails if OHVs were causing or would cause considerable adverse effects on the soil,
vegetation, wildlife, wildlife habitat, or cultural or historic resources of particular areas or
trails. Areas could remain closed until the manager determined that “the adverse effects have
been eliminated and that measures have been implemented to prevent future recurrence.”
Also, each agency head was authorized to adopt the policy that areas could be closed to OHV
use except for those areas or trails that are specifically designated as open to such use. This
meant that only open areas would have to be marked, a lesser burden on the agencies.
Overview of Issues
Federal land managers face a difficult task in managing lands to achieve multiple
purposes: to provide recreational opportunities for popular, but often conflicting, motorized
and nonmotorized recreational uses; to protect resources for future generations; and to
determine which lands should be open for development (e.g., timber harvesting, livestock
grazing, and energy development). BLM and FS managers formulate guidance on the nature
and extent of land uses, including OHV use, through regulations, national policies, land and
resource management plans, and area-specific decisions. In 2004, the NPS conducted an
internal survey of current OHV use, authorized and unauthorized, and the extent of OHV
damage (if any) at NPS units to respond to concerns raised by Bluewater Network. Currently,
NPS is developing regulatory guidance and planning documents for individual park units,
and considering what elements of OHV management may best fit under a national OHV
management strategy. Meanwhile, on November 29, 2005, Bluewater Network and two
other conservation groups sued DOI and NPS over alleged OHV damage to park resources.
The NPS also released draft Management Policies for public review through February
18, 2006 (70 Fed. Reg. 60852, Oct. 19, 2005; 70 Fed. Reg. 71557, Nov. 29, 2005), part of
ongoing efforts to review and revise policies guiding management throughout the national
park system, including changing recreational uses and evolving technologies. (See
[http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?projectId=13746&documentID=12825] for the
proposed Management Policies and an annotated comparison between the 2001 document
and current draft proposal.) The draft language requires “balance” between “conservation
and enjoyment,” whereas current policy states that “conservation is to be predominant” in
conservation/enjoyment conflicts (sec. 1.4.3). The draft defines key concepts (“conserve,
preserve, protect,” “impairment,” “appropriate use,”and “unacceptable impacts”). The
proposed policies also revise language pertaining to soundscape management (sec. 4.9), use
of motorized equipment (sec. 8.2), and off-road vehicle use (sec. 8.2.3). The extent to which
these and other changes represent a shift in emphasis for management of motorized and other
recreation is uncertain.
The 109th Congress is considering legislation and conducting oversight on issues
pertaining to recreation on federal lands. Several major issues are covered in this report,
particularly motorized recreation on BLM and FS lands; use of personal watercraft and
snowmobiles in certain National Park System units; overflights of national park units; and
expansion of the National Trails System. Other issues addressed cover recreation within the
National Wildlife Refuge System; recreation at federal (Corps and Bureau) water sites;
recreation fees; and Colorado River management within Grand Canyon National Park.
While this report focuses on recreation issues on federal lands, it does not cover
additional issues affecting these lands comprehensively. For background on federal land
management generally, see CRS Report RL32393, Federal Land Management Agencies:
Background on Land and Resources Management, coordinated by Carol Hardy Vincent.
Overview information on numerous natural resource use and protection issues is provided
in CRS Report RL32699, Natural Resources: Selected Issues for the 109th Congress,
coordinated by Nicole Carter and Carol Hardy Vincent. For information on NPS issues, see
CRS Issue Brief IB10145, National Park Management, coordinated by Carol Hardy Vincent.
Information on BLM and Forest Service lands is contained in CRS Issue Brief IB10076,
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Lands and National Forests, coordinated by Ross W.
Gorte and Carol Hardy Vincent. For information on appropriations for federal land
management agencies, see CRS Report RL33399, Interior, Environment, and Related
Agencies: FY2007 Appropriations, coordinated by Carol Hardy Vincent and Susan Boren.
Motorized Recreation on BLM Land (by Carol Hardy Vincent)
Background. The growing and diverse nature of recreation on BLM lands has
increased the challenge of managing recreation and other land uses, and managing different
types of recreation. Access to BLM lands for a variety of recreational purposes is viewed as
important for fostering public health, public support for land management, and a stable
economic base for communities that depend on recreation and tourism. It also has enhanced
interest in protecting the ecological integrity of federal lands from environmental harm as a
result of recreational use.
Motorized OHV use, including use of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles, is a major
recreational use of BLM lands that has been controversial. While motorized user groups
often have opposed restrictions on OHV use, many environmentalists have been concerned
about harm to natural and cultural resources. In some areas, OHV use may conflict with
other types of recreation, such as hiking, that seek quiet and solitude on agency lands. There
are also differing views on how effectively OHV authorities are being enforced. While BLM
employs a variety of means of enforcement, including monitoring, law enforcement, signing
and mapping, and emergency closures of routes, enforcement may be impeded in some
locations due to their remoteness, insufficient signage, lack of sufficient staff and resources,
and other factors.
Administrative Actions. Guidance on OHV use on BLM lands is provided in law,
executive orders, and agency regulations and policies. Under agency regulations (43 C.F.R.
8340), BLM has been designating public lands as open, limited, or closed to OHV use. As
of October 31, 2005, the following designations had been made: open, where OHV use is
permitted anywhere, 81.1 million acres; limited, where OHV use is in some way restricted,
126.7 million acres; and closed, where OHV use is prohibited, 11.6 million acres. The
remaining 42.1 million acres of BLM land (mostly in Alaska) are not currently designated.
Other regulations govern OHV use in particular areas. For instance, on August 18, 2005,
BLM issued final supplementary rules for its lands in Oregon and Washington, which include
guidance on OHV use.
The FY2007 BLM budget justification describes BLM’s “most pressing challenge” as
“comprehensively managing travel, off highway vehicles (OHVs), and public access in the
West (p. III -128). In FY2007, BLM plans to develop approximately 67 travel management
plans, which will identify and designate roads and trails for motorized travel, and to begin
implementation when the plans are completed. The agency requested $63.8 million for
recreation management generally for FY2007, a 2% reduction from the FY2006 level of
$65.1 million. In passing H.R. 5386, the House approved $67.0 million for recreation
management in FY2007, a 3% increase over FY2006 and a 5% increase over the
BLM has issued two national strategies dealing with transportation on its lands. The
National Management Strategy for Motorized Off-Highway Vehicle Use on Public Lands
([http://www.blm.gov/ohv/]) has multiple purposes, including to guide land managers in
resolving OHV issues; to promote consistency of OHV decision making; to highlight needed
staff and funding for OHV management; to reduce conflicts among land users; to promote
responsible OHV use and reduce habitat degradation; and to lead to an update of OHV
regulations (which has not occurred to date). The National Mountain Bicycling Strategic
Action Plan ([http://www.blm.gov/mountain_biking/] addresses mountain bicycling and
other muscle-powered mechanical transport. Further, to guide BLM managers in taking
actions affecting recreation during FY2003-FY2007, in May 2003 BLM issued The BLM’s
Priorities for Recreation and Visitor Services.
BLM revised its land use planning handbook in 2005 regarding motorized and nonmotorized recreation. The agency makes OHV designations during the planning process, on
an area-by-area basis, and such designations often have been contentious and complex.
Although the agency is in the midst of a multi-year effort to develop and update land use
plans, many plans do not currently address OHV use and other relatively recent issues. In
some cases, the BLM and FS jointly address OHV use on their lands. For instance, an
interagency plan governs OHV use on lands in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Joint management approaches, where federal lands are intermingled, can promote
consistency and public understanding of OHV guidance. However, BLM and FS lands are
different, and they are governed by separate authorities, making complete consistency on
vehicular travel management difficult to achieve.
Legislative Activity. A July 13, 2005, House Resources joint subcommittee hearing
examined motorized recreational use on federal lands. (See [http://resourcescommittee.
house.gov/archives/109/nprpl/071305.htm].) Agency representatives discussed the increased
popularity of OHV use on federal lands, development and implementation of travel
management plans, and challenges of managing OHVs. Other witnesses testified on
availability of federal lands for OHV use, and the effects of OHV use on human health, the
economy, the environment, and other forms of recreation.
Some pending measures affect OHV use in particular areas. For instance, H.R. 3603
contains provisions related to OHV use in Central Idaho. They include conveyance of BLM
land to the State of Idaho to establish a motorized recreation park, establishment of a special
management area on certain BLM and FS lands to provide opportunities for motorized and
other recreation, and authorization of up to $1.0 million for the Secretary of Agriculture to
grant to the State of Idaho for the off-road motor vehicle program.
Motorized Recreation in the National Forests (by Ross Gorte)
Background. The national forests are managed by the USDA Forest Service (FS) for
a variety of uses, including many types of recreation — sightseeing, OHV use, backpacking,
etc. — while preserving the productivity of the lands. Recreation use continues to grow, with
OHV use among the fastest growing uses. (See Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation in the
United States, Regions and States (USDA-FS Southern Research Station, June 2005).)
The various uses and values of the national forests sometimes conflict with one another.
For example, timber harvesting and OHV use may affect birdwatching and sightseeing, and
can degrade water quality in certain settings. Decisions about what uses are allowed, and
when and where, are made in comprehensive land and resource management plans prepared
for each unit of the National Forest System, and at the project level. Because of multiple
efforts to modify the planning regulations, many plan revisions were delayed. New planning
regulations (70 Fed. Reg. 1023, Jan. 5, 2005) have recently been finalized, and plan revisions
are now expected to proceed. (See [http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma/index2.html].)
Administrative Actions. Federal guidance on OHV use in E.O. 11644 and E.O.
11989 was incorporated into FS regulations, at 36 C.F.R. Part 295. Despite this guidance,
not all forest plans have identified areas as open or closed to OHVs, and local practices as
to OHV use vary. In 2004, the FS Chief identified unmanaged recreation — “increasing use
of the national forests for outdoor activities ... , including the use of off-highway vehicles”
— as a threat to the nation’s forests and grasslands. In particular, OHV use has created
many unauthorized roads and trails, which can be unsafe and harmful to other resources. In
response, the FS has finalized new regulations (70 Fed. Reg. 68264-68291, Nov. 9, 2005)
to require forest plans to identify a system of roads, trails, and areas for motorized vehicle
use and prohibit the use of OHVs and other motorized vehicles outside the designated
system. Implementing directives are expected to be published for public comment during
2006, and decisions governing motorized uses are then to be made in forest planning (with
public involvement) over the next four years.
Opinions are divided over the importance and impact of the regulations. Some assert
that the regulations do not go far enough, preferring that all OHV uses be prohibited in the
national forests, because OHVs can (and sometimes do) damage national forest lands and
resources. Others counter that the regulations penalize the majority of OHV users that obey
the current rules and restrict off-highway uses at a time when other landowners and other
federal and state agencies are reducing recreational access to their lands.
The FY2007 FS budget proposes cutting recreation funds. Recreation management
would be funded at $250 million, a $7.9 million (3%) reduction from the FY2006 level of
$258.8 million. Trails funding would be $60.3 million, a $13.9 million (19%) reduction
from the FY2006 level of $74.2 million, with a greater reduction (in dollars and percentage)
in trails construction than in maintenance.
Legislative Activity. The House-passed FY2007 Interior appropriations bill, H.R.
5386, restored or increased FS recreation and trails funding, compared to the request.
Recreation management was approved at $262.0 million, $3.2 million (1%) above FY2006
and $11.1 million (4%) above the request. Trails funding was approved at $73.4 million,
$0.8 million (1%) below FY2006 (all in construction) and $13.1 million (22%) above the
request (increasing both construction and maintenance).
On July 13, 2005, two subcommittees of House Resources held a joint hearing to
examine motorized recreation use on federal lands. (See “Legislative Activity” under BLM,
above.) To date, no comprehensive legislation addressing OHV use in national forests
generally has been introduced in the 109th Congress.
Personal Watercraft (PWC) (by Kori Calvert)
Background. PWCs are high-speed, very shallow draft, and highly maneuverable
watercraft “operated by a person or persons sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel rather
than within the confines of the hull” (36 C.F.R. §1.4). Often used to perform stunt-like
maneuvers, PWCs include watercraft known by their brand and generic names as jet ski, sea
doo, surf jet, water sled, wavejammer, wetjet, waverunner, and wet bike. While PWCs
represent a small segment of the recreational boat market, the number of PWC accidents has
raised concerns. Critics of PWC use cite environmental issues, including noise, air, and
water pollution; damage to land, plants, and wildlife; and public safety. Supporters of access
for PWCs argue that technological advances enable manufacturers to produce cleaner, more
efficient machines, and point to the economic benefits to communities serving users. PWC
users assert that in park units that allow motorized boating generally, PWCs also should be
allowed. Recent controversies have focused on regulatory actions that would restrict
recreational use or “access” of these vehicles, often in specific park units.
Administrative Actions. The NPS currently is evaluating PWC use in several of its
390 units. That effort began in 2000 when the agency issued a rule prohibiting PWC use in
66 of the 87 units where motorized boats were allowed (65 Fed. Reg. 15077, effective April
20, 2000). The rule allowed PWC use to continue until April 22, 2002, at the remaining 21
areas while the NPS evaluated whether to permanently authorize PWC use and develop
special regulations. The rule recognized that certain National Recreation Areas (NRAs),
such as Lake Mead and Glen Canyon, might choose to continue PWC use because their
establishing legislation emphasized motorized water-based recreation as a primary purpose.
An April 2001 negotiated settlement of a lawsuit by Bluewater Network and Earth Island
Institute over the PWC rule prohibited PWCs from the 21 areas unless the Park Service
initiated park-specific rules and environmental assessments. PWCs could continue to operate
during the rulemaking process, but only until specified “grace period” deadlines.
The NPS has been working on such park-specific rules and analyses for the 21 areas.
The NPS has lifted PWC bans and authorized their use in 11 designated areas: in 2003, Lake
Mead and Glen Canyon (Lake Powell) NRAs, and Assateague National Seashore; in 2004,
Lake Meredith, Lake Roosevelt, Amistad, and Chickasaw NRAs; in 2005, Bighorn Canyon
NRA, Fire Island National Seashore, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; and in 2006,
Gulf Islands National Seashore. Five areas are working on environmental reviews and
special regulations on PWC use, and the NPS has proposed rules to allow PWCs in three:
Cape Lookout National Seashore (Dec. 29, 2005), Gateway NRA (Feb. 24, 2006), and
Curecanti NRA (March 17, 2006). The agency prohibited PWC use in another 5 of the 21
areas (effective April 22, 2002) that had completed an environmental review process and
favored PWC bans: the Cape Cod and Cumberland Island National Seashores, Delaware
Water Gap and Whiskeytown NRAs, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Draft NPS Management Policies include revisions concerning PWCs (sec. 18.104.22.168). The
draft replaces existing language stating that “(PWC) use is prohibited unless it has been
identified as appropriate for a specific park” and is consistent with visitor use criteria (sec.
8.2), with revised wording stating that “(PWC) use may be permitted through special
regulations and when this use has been identified as appropriate for a specific park.”
Whether these changes would have a substantive impact on PWC management is unclear.
Legislative Activity. On May 10, 2006, the House Appropriations Committee
adopted by voice vote an amendment to the FY2007 Interior appropriations bill urging NPS
to complete PWC rulemakings “in an efficient and timely manner.” (See “Administrative
Actions,” above; and H.Rept. 109-465.) A March 15, 2006, House Government Reform
subcommittee hearing examined NPS rulemaking efforts governing PWC use, status of
park-specific rules, and reasons for and impacts of rulemaking delays.
[http://reform.house.gov/RA/Hearings/EventSingle.aspx?EventID=40886].) On May 4,
2005, a House Resources subcommittee oversight hearing considered PWC use in the
National Park System. (See [http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/archives/109/nprpl/
Snowmobiles (by Kori Calvert)
Background. Proposals to regulate recreational snowmobile use in NPS units have
been controversial, with debate often mirroring the preservation/use conflict within the NPS
mission. On April 27, 2000, the NPS announced the strict enforcement of long-standing
regulations on snowmobile use, which would have prohibited recreational snowmobiling
throughout the Park System. Limited exceptions to this new enforcement policy included
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, park units in Alaska, Voyageurs National Park
(MN), and access to private land within or adjacent to a park. By July 2000, the Interior
Department had backed away from its strict enforcement stance with a clarification:
snowmobiles would not be banned in the 43 park units permitting such use prior to the April
2000 announcement, pending formal rulemaking and public comment period. To date, NPS
has taken no further action on a general policy for snowmobiles.
Administrative Actions. Since the summer of 2000, regulatory and judicial actions
to restrict or allow snowmobile use have centered on Yellowstone and Grand Teton National
Parks and the connecting John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway. The Clinton
Administration issued final rules (66 Fed. Reg. 7260, Jan. 22, 2001) to incrementally
eliminate snowmobile use in these three park units, with limited exceptions, in favor of
multi-passenger “snowcoaches” by the 2003-2004 winter season. However, a June 2001
Bush Administration lawsuit settlement with the International Snowmobile Manufacturers
Association (ISMA) and the state of Wyoming required NPS to revisit the snowmobile ban
and consider any additional information on “cleaner, quieter” snowmobile technology. The
new NPS final rule (68 Fed. Reg. 69267, Dec. 11, 2003) reversed the snowmobile ban in
favor of daily entry limits, use of trained guides, snowmobile emission standards, and an
“adaptive management strategy” allowing park managers to take remedial action if
monitoring indicates unacceptable impacts from air and noise pollution.
Subsequent legal challenges effectively split the 2003-2004 winter season into two subseasons, each managed under different rules with significantly different limits on daily
snowmobile entries. These conflicting rulings created confusion for park visitors, local
communities, and businesses, with many unsure whether they could visit the park in winter
and what winter use rules were in effect. Subsequently, NPS issued a final rule (69 Fed.Reg.
65348, Nov. 10, 2004) to implement a temporary winter use management plan effective for
three winter seasons, through 2006-2007. (See [http://www.nps.gov/yell/press/04114.htm].)
The interim rule allows up to 720 commercially guided Yellowstone snowmobile entries
daily. Commercial guides are not required for the 140 daily snowmobile entries to Grand
Teton and the Rockefeller Parkway. The plan includes, with limited exceptions, Best
Available Technology (BAT) requirements to reduce snowmobile emissions and noise, but
no “adaptive management strategy” component.
The interim rule’s intent is to provide certainty to gateway communities, businesses, and
park visitors while NPS completes long-term environmental impact analyses of motorized
oversnow vehicles on the three area parks, and develops a new long-term plan to manage
winter recreational use. The agency anticipates releasing a draft Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) by fall 2006. The EIS will evaluate several alternative winter use scenarios,
each with varying mass-transit snowcoach and snowmobile entry levels, commercial guiding
requirements, and Best Available Technology standards for snowcoaches and snowmobiles.
(See [http://www.nps.gov/yell/planvisit/winteruse/index.htm].) Meanwhile, the 2005-2006
winter use statistics show 19.9% and 15.3% increases in snowmobile and snowcoach
visitors, respectively, over the previous winter season.
Judicial proceedings also continue. On October 14, 2005, Judge Clarence Brimmer,
Federal District Court for Wyoming, ruled against the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant
Association’s challenge of the NPS interim rule, calling it “...the best compromise currently
available.” (See [http://www.nps.gov/yell/technical/planning/winteruse/plan/wlraorder.pdf].)
(For background information on snowmobiles in park units generally, see CRS Report
RL31149, Snowmobiles: Environmental Standards and Access to National Parks, by James
The recently released NPS draft Management Policies add new language to cover both
snowmobiles and oversnow vehicles (sec. 22.214.171.124). It states that “Routes and areas may be
designated for snowmobile and oversnow vehicle use by special regulation on routes and
water surfaces that are used by motor vehicles or motorboats during other seasons. Such
routes or areas shall be designated only when determined to be an appropriate use.”
Legislative Activity. The FY2007 Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 5386, Sec. 124)
contains language to ensure that the three Yellowstone area parks remain open to
snowmobiles throughout the 2006-2007 winter use season. The FY2005 and FY2006
Interior appropriations laws (P.L. 108-447 and P.L. 109-54) included similar language to
ensure that judicial rulings could not deny snowmobiles entry during the 2004-2005 and
2005-2006 winter use seasons, respectively. On April 12, 2005, a House Resources
subcommittee held an oversight hearing on snowmobile use and restrictions in the National
Park System and their economic impact on local communities.
Aircraft Overflights (by Carol Hardy Vincent and Kori Calvert)
Background. The NPS is to provide for the public enjoyment of parklands while
protecting resources, while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controls airspace and
aircraft overflights. This has created a conflict between resource management and aviation
access authorities and their constituencies. Grand Canyon National Park has been the focal
point of a conflict between groups seeking to limit overflights of national parks due to
concerns about noise and safety, and air tour operators whose economic stability, with ripple
effects on local businesses, may depend on providing overflights. The National Parks
Overflights Act of 1987 (P.L. 100-91) directed NPS to recommend a flight control plan for
Grand Canyon that would provide a “substantial restoration of the natural quiet” and
prohibited flights below the canyon’s rim. It required an NPS study of the effects of all
aircraft overflights, which was submitted to Congress in 1994.
The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (Title VIII, P.L. 106-181,
hereafter “Air Tour Act”) regulates commercial air tours at other park units. It requires the
FAA and NPS to create management plans for air tours at individual park units and within
a half-mile of their boundaries. Each plan could prohibit or limit air tours, such as by route
and altitude restrictions. The act also requires the FAA to establish “reasonably achievable”
requirements for quiet aircraft technology for the Grand Canyon within one year and to
designate, by rule, Grand Canyon routes or corridors for aircraft and helicopters using quiet
technology. Quiet aircraft would not be subject to existing caps on canyon overflights.
Administrative Actions. Several actions have been taken to achieve the substantial
restoration of natural quiet at Grand Canyon. First, a limitations rule capped the annual
number of commercial air tour overflights at Grand Canyon (65 Fed. Reg. 17708, effective
May 4, 2000). Second, the airspace rule expanded flight-free zones and restrictive routing
over the canyon. East end Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) airspace changes were delayed
until February 20, 2011 (71 Fed. Reg. 9439). Third, the FAA issued a final rule establishing
a standard for quiet technology for certain aircraft in commercial air tour operations over
Grand Canyon (70 Fed. Reg. 16084, March 29, 2005). The rule identifies which aircraft
meet the standard. In future rulemaking, the FAA will address the establishment of routes
or corridors for commercial air tour operations that use the quiet technology. Fourth, data
on the natural ambient sound level is being collected and used, together with air tour reported
flight operations data and radar tracking data, to model air tour traffic and aircraft noise at
the park. The model is being used to measure success in restoring natural quiet. Most
recently, the FAA and NPS published a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact
statement on options that could be taken to restore natural quiet at Grand Canyon (71 Fed.
Reg. 4192, Jan. 25, 2006). There is a public comment period through April 27, 2006.
Other regulatory actions affect commercial air tours at park units. The Air Tour Act
final rule (67 Fed. Reg. 65661, Oct. 25, 2002) requires air tour operators to apply for
authority to fly over national park and abutting tribal lands. The FAA received applications
for commercial air tours over 107 of the 388 park units, and has granted interim operating
authority to applicants. Application triggers development of an Air Tour Management Plan
(ATMP) by the FAA and NPS for each unit where none exists.
[http://www.atmp.faa.gov/default.htm].) The purpose of a plan is to mitigate or prevent any
harm by commercial air tours to natural and cultural resources, visitor experiences, and tribal
lands. Development of an ATMP requires an environmental analysis under the National
Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA, U.S.C. § 4321-4370f). The FAA and NPS
currently are developing their first ATMPs for six areas. On September 30, 2005, the FAA
and NPS released an implementation plan for the development of the ATMPs that sets out
the roles and responsibilities of the two agencies in developing ATMPs.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (GAO-06-263, Jan. 27, 2006)
addressed the impact of the delay in implementation of the Air Tour Act. The report
concludes that the delay has had little effect on park units, but has limited the ability of tour
operators to make major business decisions. The agency identified four issues for Congress
and the agencies to address to improve implementation, relating to the lack of flexibility for
determining which parks need plans, an absence of NPS funding for plan development,
limited ability to verify and enforce the number of air tours, and inadequate FAA guidance
on the act’s safety requirements. A more recent GAO report (GAO-06-468, May 11, 2006)
addresses NPS collection of air tour fees.
The FAA is developing a final rule to provide safety standards for commercial air tours
nationally, including over Grand Canyon and other park units (68 Fed. Reg. 60572). The
proposed rule seeks to increase air tour safety by requiring certification of tour operators and
by establishing safety standards, including regarding low-level flights, over-water flights, and
visibility limits. Opponents assert that the cost of compliance would make it infeasible for
many to continue operating, existing regulations are sufficient to keep tours safe, and the
proposed merger of helicopter and airplane traffic increases the chance of collisions. The
agency expects to issue a final rule by fall of 2006.
As part of an overall review of its management policies, the NPS has proposed changes
on overflights and aviation uses (sec. 8.4) and on soundscape management (sec. 4.9). One
proposal would delete existing language stating that the NPS “will preserve, to the greatest
extent possible, the natural scoundscapes of parks.” Another change would replace “adverse
effects” of overflights with “unacceptable impacts” in a number of places. Such changes
could be regarded as having a substantive effect on management of overflights.
Legislative Activity. To date, general legislation on aircraft overflights has not been
introduced in the 109th Congress. P.L. 108-176 directed the Secretary of Transportation to
issue a final rule establishing standards for quiet technology that are reasonably achievable
at Grand Canyon. The FAA issued the final rule on March 29, 2005. The law also
established a mediation process for rulemaking disputes. Conferees stated that they were
“greatly disappointed with the lack of progress” in managing the noise in parks from air
tours, and directed the agencies to develop ATMPs expeditiously and collaboratively and to
determine environmental impacts of air tours.
The National Trails System (by Sandra L. Johnson)
Background. The National Trails System Act (P.L. 90-543), authorizing the National
Trails System (NTS), became law on October 2, 1968. (See [http://www.nps.gov/nts/].) The
federal portion of the trails system consists of 24 national trails (8 scenic trails and 16
historic trails, both of which must be designated by Congress) covering almost 50,000 miles,
more than 900 recreation trails, and 2 connecting and side trails. Issues involve the funding,
quality, and quantity of trails.
Administrative Actions. On June 1, 2006, the Secretary of the Interior announced
the designation of 36 new National Recreation Trails (NRTs). Since 2001, the Bush
Administration has designated 164 National Recreation Trails, totaling more than 4,200
miles. These designations do not require an act of Congress and are part of an ongoing effort
to promote community partnerships and to foster innovative ways to encourage physical
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more miles of National Historic
Trails than any other federal agency. On February 13, 2006, the BLM released its first
National Scenic and Historic Trails Strategy and Work Plan for congressionally-designated
trails under its jurisdiction. The 10-year plan provides guidance to establish a coordinated
and consistent trails-focused administrative infrastructure; develop national policies to
protect and sustain trail resources within BLM’s multiple-use mandate; manage trail
resources to enhance visitor experiences and promote “appropriate public access;” and
maintain and advance BLM’s partnerships with trail organizations and other agencies. (See
Legislative Activity. Many trail projects became eligible to receive federal highway
program funds with the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of
1991 (ISTEA; P.L. 102-240), reauthorized as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st
Century (TEA-21, P.L. 105-178). The Recreational Trails Program (RTP), originally a sixyear program authorized under ISTEA and reauthorized under TEA-21, provides funds to
states to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for motorized and
nonmotorized recreational trail uses. On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law
the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users
(P.L. 109-59, SAFETEA-LU). SAFETEA-LU authorizes funds for the Recreational Trails
Program at $370 million over five years ($60 million for FY2005, $70 million for FY2006,
$75 million for FY2007, $80 million for FY2008, and $85 million for FY2009). The
measure sets a specified level of $840,000 annually for administrative expenses.
Legislation (H.R. 690) introduced on February 9, 2005, would add National Discovery
Trails as a new category of long-distance trails within the National Trails System, and
designate the American Discovery Trail (ADT) as the nation’s first coast-to-coast National
Discovery Trail. The ADT would connect several national scenic, historic, and recreation
trails, as well as many other local and regional trails. Two “willing seller” bills (H.R. 2332,
S. 974) would provide federal authority to acquire land from willing sellers to complete nine
national scenic and historic trails. These proposals would not commit the federal
government to purchase any land or spend any money, but would allow managers to purchase
land to protect the national trails as opportunities arise and funds are appropriated.
Measures introduced in the 109th Congress to designate, study, or extend specific
components of the National Trails System are shown in the following table. The table
includes bills that could involve management by the NPS or other agencies. Bills related to
the system more generally are not included.
National Discovery Trails Act
Arizona Trail Feasibility Study Act
Mississippi River Trail Study Act
Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic
Chisholm Trail and Great Western Trail
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
1855 Treaty Trail
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Extension
Act of 2006
Amends the National Trails System Act to require
the Secretary of the Interior to update the
feasibility and suitability studies of four national
historic trails, and for other purposes
Also, on July 26, 2005, a House Resources subcommittee conducted an oversight
hearing on the implementation of the National Trails System Act. Issues covered by agency
and other witnesses included trail designations, maintenance, and management; land
acquisitions; private landowner concerns; and public-private initiatives and collaborative
efforts. (See [http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/archives/109/nprpl/072605.htm].)
The 109th Congress is evaluating several other recreation issues affecting federal land.
These include recreation within the National Wildlife Refuge System; recreation at federal
water sites (Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers); recreation fees; and
Grand Canyon Colorado River management.
Recreation in the National Wildlife Refuge System. (by M. Lynne Corn) The
National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) is dedicated primarily to conserving animals and
plants. Other uses — hunting, fishing, recreation, timber harvest, grazing, etc. — are
permitted only to the extent that they are compatible with the purposes for which the
individual refuges were created. Some have characterized the NWRS as intermediate in
protection between the BLM and FS lands on the one hand and NPS lands on the other, but
this is not entirely accurate. The NWRS resembles the FS or BLM lands in allowing some
commercial uses, but in certain cases, uses (e.g., public access) can be substantially more
restricted than for NPS lands. For example, some refuges (especially island refuges for
nesting seabirds) may be closed to the public — more restrictive than for an NPS area, given
the NPS mandate to provide for public enjoyment of park resources.
Recreational conflicts within the NWRS were more frequent before the 1997 enactment
of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act (16 U.S.C. 668dd). A key
provision of this law designates “compatible wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving
hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and
interpretation as priority public uses of the refuge system.” It also requires that priority
public uses must “receive enhanced consideration over other general public uses in planning
and management within the System.” The law continues the statutory policy that activities
that are not wildlife-dependent (e.g., grazing, growing hay, etc.) may be permitted, provided
they are wildlife-compatible. Final regulations for determining compatibility were published
on October 18, 2000 (65 Fed. Reg. 62457). Some interest groups contended that the
regulations did not allow for sufficient public access for some forms of recreation, such as
use of off-road vehicles or personal watercraft. Others felt that the regulations struck a
proper balance among user groups.
A recent controversy concerns applications for amateur radio operators to have access
to three remote island refuges (Farallon, Navassa, and Desecheo) to transmit from these
locations. To protect the refuges’ seabird colonies and vegetation, FWS does not allow
access or consider radio transmission a priority or compatible use. Two bills would require
the Interior Secretary to open these refuges for at least one period each year under special use
permits. H.R. 298 applies to the three refuges, while H.R. 1183 (reported on Dec. 6, 2005;
H.Rept. 109-320) applies only to Navassa and Desecheo. Supporters include radio operators
but also those who favor wider public access to federal lands in general. Opposition includes
scientists and environmental groups based on risk to the colonies through human
interference, introduction of invasive species, and precedent for wider access to sensitive
Recreation at Federal Water Sites. (by Nicole Carter and Nic Lane) Much of the
recreation on federally owned or managed waters and adjacent lands occurs at U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers (“Corps,” in the Department of Defense) and Bureau of Reclamation
(“Bureau,” in DOI) sites, primarily at federal reservoirs. These agencies’ more than 4,000
recreation areas attract nearly 500 million visits per year (400 million at Corps-managed
areas; 90 million at Bureau sites). While these federal reservoirs often are operated primarily
for irrigation, navigation, hydropower, and/or flood control, they also provide recreation and
other benefits. Reservoir operations can be contentious because decisions on water releases
often represent tradeoffs among the multiple reservoir and river uses and among different
types of recreation, such as birdwatching, boating, fishing, hunting, sightseeing, swimming,
and whitewater activities.
Bureau of Reclamation. An ongoing issue involves the Bureau’s Lake Berryessa
in Sonoma County, California. Formed when the Bureau built Monticello Dam in 1957, the
lake is a popular recreation area where the Bureau has let long-term contracts with seven
concessionaires who provide recreation support services. Six of these contracts, which have
been in place for 40 plus years, will expire in 2008-2009. The seventh, an interim contract,
expired at the end of 2005. The Bureau is considering significant changes to contract
structure upon renewal, including actions that will affect long-term camping (trailer parking)
at the lake. This is contentious for the concessionaires and current occupants of long-term
sites. (See [http://www.usbr.gov/mp/berryessa/faqs.html].) A Record of Decision clarifying
the Bureau’s intent for the management of long-term camp sites at the lake is expected to be
released this summer.
Corps of Engineers. The 109th Congress is considering questions related to the
maintenance of recreational facilities (under constraints on recreational spending), relative
priority of multiple reservoir uses, and policies for recreational development and land use at
Corps and Bureau projects. Two authorization bills include changes to Corps recreation. The
House version of a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA, H.R. 2864) would adjust
the existing user fee authorization. The Senate version (S. 728) would make more extensive
changes. One provision of S. 728, which is similar to the Administration proposal from the
FY2006 and FY2007 budget requests, would require the Corps to implement recreation
admission fees. User and admission fees collected would be available directly to the Corps.
This contrasts with the deposit into general Treasury accounts of current collections from
Corps user fees. A second provision in S. 728 would allow the Corps to enter into a contract
with public or private entities to provide visitor services.
Recreation Fees. (by Carol Hardy Vincent) The 108th Congress established a new
recreation fee program for the four major federal land management agencies (NPS, BLM,
FWS, and FS) as well as the Bureau of Reclamation. Provisions of P.L. 108-447 (Division
J, Title VIII) provide guidance on establishing entrance, standard, expanded, and special
recreation permit fees. They outline criteria for establishing fees, and prohibit charging fees
for certain activities or services. The law provides for public input in setting fees, including
establishing Recreation Resource Advisory Committees to make fee recommendations. It
authorizes the creation of an interagency national recreation pass and of regional multi-entity
passes. Each agency can spend the revenue collected without further appropriation. In
general, not less than 80% of the fees are to be spent at the collecting site, but that amount
can be reduced to not less than 60%. The balance of the collections is available to be used
agency-wide. The collections can be used for specified purposes, such as repair,
maintenance, and facility enhancement. The agencies are to report to Congress on the
program every three years, and the program is to terminate 10 years after enactment.
DOI and the Department of Agriculture are implementing the new law. They are
developing long-term fee guidance and the America the Beautiful Pass, which will cover
entrance and standard fees for the five agencies. During the transition to the new program,
the agencies have agreed that existing passes will be honored, no new fee areas will be
created, and existing fees will be evaluated against the criteria and prohibitions set out in the
new law. The agencies (excluding the Bureau of Reclamation) anticipate collecting about
$208 million in fees in FY2006 and $240 million in fees in FY2007, with NPS collections
accounting for about two-thirds of the totals. The 109th Congress is overseeing agency
efforts to establish, collect, and spend recreation fees under the new program. On February
17, 2005, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on NPS implementation of the program,
with a focus on the development of the America the Beautiful Pass. On October 26, 2005,
a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the implementation of the new fee program.
Grand Canyon Colorado River Management. (by David Whiteman) The NPS
regulates and manages river-running boat trips on the Colorado River inside Grand Canyon
National Park to protect river resources and ensure a high-quality visitor experience. The
277-mile river canyon is a popular destination for multi-day raft trips, one of the most iconic
of national park experiences. Decades of conflict have ensued over motorized boating,
helicopter flights used to ferry commercial boating passengers in and out of the canyon, and
the proportion of commercial outfitters versus noncommercial private boaters. Historically,
about 70% of river access permits have gone to commercial concessioners, with about 30%
to noncommercial self-guided private boaters. These activities have been opposed by groups
favoring the preservation of wilderness-like values in the river corridor. Commercial river
trip outfitters assert that access for motorized boating does not harm resources and is the only
practical way to offer popular short-duration trips.
In late 2005, the NPS proposed a new Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP)
governing recreational river use for at least 10 years and establishing goals and objectives
for a longer time frame. The NPS analyzed nearly 20,000 comments before completing a
Final Environmental Impact Statement and issuing a Record of Decision on March 23, 2006.
The new management plan alters the allocation of river access between commercial and
noncommercial users, with more access for the self-outfitted sector and a shorter season for
commercial trips. The waiting list for noncommercial users is to be phased-out and replaced
by a “hybrid” weighted lottery system. Complaints thus far contend that, even though
noncommercial users have more overall access, they are largely relegated to off-season
periods and are allowed less time on the river. Also, some interests fear that
accommodations for motorized use could jeopardize long-pending prospects for wilderness
On February 16, 2006, a coalition of conservation groups filed suit in federal court to
force Interior to re-evaluate its approach to river canyon ecosystem recovery. They cite
continuing damage to beaches, vegetation, unique species, and cultural resources from the
operation of the Glen Canyon Dam, and contend that the new CRMP does not adequately
protect park resources from user impacts. Another coalition of conservation and boating
groups filed a separate suit on March 28, 2006, over motorized use and perceived inequities
of the new river use plan.