Rep. Joe Neguse is pushing to improve access and funding for public lands in Colorado and around the country.
Last week, Neguse, who chairs the U.S. Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, presented the subcommittee with three bills targeted at improving access to public lands and supporting Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy. By and large, the bills would help to simplify the permitting process for allowing guide services and individual parties to access public lands, ensure local communities get their fair share of ski fees paid by resorts, and promote the digitization of outdoor recreation mapping records around the country.
Neguse, who serves Summit County as part of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, is in a unique position among his colleagues in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the conservation and improved use of public lands, not only via his position with the subcommittee — which oversees some of America’s most iconic landscapes and the agencies in charge of protecting them — but also because of the vital role those landscapes play in his district.
Neguse said more than 50% of his district is composed of federal public lands, including Rocky Mountain National Park, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, and the White River National Forest here in Summit County, the most visited national forest in the country. With public lands playing such a vital role in the quality of life for residents, and as the primary economic driver for the region, Neguse said he owes it to his constituents to make sure the lands are taken care of.
“First and foremost, I’m a Coloradan,” Neguse said in an interview with the Summit Daily on Thursday, June 10. “I’ve lived in this state since I was 6 years old, and I’ve never left. I grew up with a deep and abiding love of our great outdoors in our wonderful state. As a citizen, as a father who wants to ensure that his 3-year-old daughter and her generation can enjoy these public lands that we hold in public trust, I think it’s just incredibly important and a top priority of mine in the United States Congress.”
Among the bills Neguse is advocating for is the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development Act, or SHRED Act. Currently, ski resorts operating on federal lands pay a permit fee to the U.S. Treasury. The White River National Forest alone is home to 11 ski areas, including Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort.
If passed, the bill would establish a Ski Area Fee Retention Account, wherein forests that receive less than $15 million in fees would get to keep 75% of it — or 60% for forests making more than $15 million — to use for wildfire preparedness, processing ski area improvement proposals and more. The remaining 25% would be earmarked for visitor services, avalanche education activities and other purposes.
Neguse said the move would serve as a good short-term solution to help local land agencies reinvest funds to support trailhead improvements, backlogged maintenance projects, increased staffing and more, all of which have become especially important as officials deal with ever-growing volumes of visiting recreationists. But Neguse said there would still be a need for more robust and sustainable funding from the federal government in the future.
“The longer-term solution is Congress mustering the political will that is necessary to fund the Forest Service at appropriate levels,” he said. “… It’s something that is reflected within the Civilian Conservation Corps proposal, which would scale up the Forest Service’s maintenance and other important accounts. We’re just going to have to keep pushing. But the current situation is simply unsustainable and unacceptable.”
Neguse declined to comment on why some members of Congress opposed increased funding for agencies like the Forest Service and said that position is “refuted by the facts on the ground.”
“Any member of Congress who feels differently can come to the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, come to Rocky Mountain National Park, come to the White River National Forest and see the real unmet needs for themselves,” he said.
In the meantime, Neguse is hoping to pass a pair of other bills that would improve access to public lands for recreation enthusiasts. The first is called the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act, or SOAR Act. The bill is essentially meant to modernize and remove barriers to obtaining recreation permits for outdoor guides, educational organizations, higher-education programs and others.
Neguse said the processes used by many agencies to issue permits is currently outdated, overly complex and time consuming.
“As a result, federal land management agencies are often unable to issue the permits for guided outdoor recreation activities, even when the activities ultimately are within the capacity limits established for the given landscape,” Neguse said. “At the end of the day, the unintended consequence of that is that local economies don’t end up receiving the benefit of those outdoor recreation visits.”
Neguse is also advocating for the passage of the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land Act, or MAPLand Act. The bill would direct federal land management agencies to standardize and digitize their mapping records, which in turn would help the agencies identify areas with limited access points to open them up to the public and provide users with better and more easily attainable information on the lands.
Neguse said in order to find the best outcomes for public lands, lawmakers would need to strike a balance between making sure everyone has the access they desire and ensuring management agencies have the resources they need to support that usage.
“It’s important that we ensure the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado remains a robust one,” Neguse said. “It has a significant economic impact on Colorado and certainly my district. Through legislation like the MAPLand Act and the SOAR Act, we can ensure Coloradans and others are able to access our wonderful outdoors that is core to who we are as Coloradans. At the same time, we need to take the necessary steps to maintain our public lands and ensure we are investing the necessary federal resources so these lands can be protected for future generations.”
As Neguse works to improve access and funding for federal lands, he’s also made progress in helping to fund local transportation infrastructure projects.
Last week, more than $11 million for Summit County infrastructure projects was included in the INVEST in America Act, which, if passed, would provide funding for the Gap Project, the Frisco Transit Center and Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel improvements.
“It would certainly be the largest infusion of federal transportation dollars for local Summit County projects in decades,” Neguse said. “The fact that the transportation committee ultimately included the three projects, which are critically important to Summit County, was a great step forward. Now, we’re going to have to make sure we work hard to have these projects survive the rest of the legislative process and get to the president’s desk for a signature.”