Inside The Beltway

By Jim Duke

A common term used quite often when describing the happenings in and around the Capitol complex in Washington, D.C. is “Inside the Beltway.” Here is some news of interest to snowmobilers from inside that Beltway.

It’s well known that snowmobilers are most concerned about conditions within their own state and usually pay little attention to what is happening in other states, including close neighbors, much less what is in the legislative works by our elected federal lawmakers. But the political arena can sometimes be a tinderbox of activities that could, and usually does, affect the very recreational freedoms that we snowmobilers treasure and enjoy when the winter season comes around. For that very reason, it is imperative that the organized snowmobiling community keep a watchful eye on which legislative initiatives may have a positive impact and which might work against our favorite form of recreation.

Over the past 20-plus years, the American Council of Snowmobile Associations (ACSA) has hosted an annual event in Washington, D.C., known as the Fly-In, where delegates from most of the states where snowmobiling is available and embraced as a lawful recreational activity come together to discuss issues of common concern. Delegates also meet with agency leadership from the departments of Agriculture and Interior, such as the chiefs of the National Forest Service, the Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration.

One day is devoted to visiting the Capitol and meeting with each state’s senator and representative or a staffer. The Michigan delegates always have appointments with both senators, who always take time to see us, and 14 representatives, about a third of whom see us in person. As much as we are disappointed that not all our legislators are snowmobile friendly and won’t schedule time for us, we always drop off an informational packet to their offices and hope that a staffer might take time to read it or at least browse through it. Unfortunately, due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Fly-In for 2020 had to be canceled for the first, and hopefully, only time.

Even with the current pandemic, there’s quite a bit of legislative activity in both the House and the Senate and some of it, once it makes its way through the entire process, will benefit motorized recreation in general and snowmobiling in every state that qualifies. Presently, 49 states qualify for some sort of recreational funding, with 27 snowmobiling states in the mix. Of particular interest to both snowmobilers and off-road vehicle users is Senate Bill S.3422 with the title of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). If approved as written, it will allocate about $1.9 billion annually to address the $20 billion maintenance backlog and provide for improvements on America’s public lands.

Vickie Christiansen, Chief of the National Forest Service explains the huge maintenance backlog within the NFS, the ongoing battle with wildfire suppression, and how it all might affect the Recreation Community.

After much debate in the Senate, the bill was voted on and received a strong bipartisan vote of 73 to 25. It is now in the House for more debate and considerations, but we will undoubtedly see some alterations and financial finagling to the original bill. Whatever we end up with is better than what we’ve had and getting rid of the backlog of maintenance projects on the trails is of primary importance. The entire powersports industry will benefit from this act as well as all motorized recreational enthusiasts. It will undoubtedly boost recreation opportunities and the economy in many different ways. Fast forward a bit and the House introduced its own version of the Great American Outdoors Act as H.R. 7092 and, on July 22, the bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 310 to 107.

The bill retained the $20 billion provision to address the maintenance backlog within and on public lands and waters across the nation. This benefits the recreational community immensely, not only for snowmobile enthusiasts, but also for other motorized trail users as well. With Congressional approval of both Senate and House, the bill has been signed into law by the president. As a result of this action, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt has established a Coordination and Implementation Task Force for the DOI’s portion of the GAOA.

Another important piece of legislation that passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee on July 29 by unanimous consent is H.R. 3879, the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act, which is a close companion to H.R. 3458, the Recreation Not Red Tape Act, and includes most of the provisions set forth in that bill. Both bills have strong support from the recreation community. H.R. 3879 is awaiting action on the House floor as this goes to press.

Briefly, an update on the Federal Highway Administration’s efforts to obtain reauthorization has been somewhat successful with the passing of House Bill H.R. 2, better known as the Moving Forward Act by a 233 to 188 vote. The $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill will ensure that the states will continue to receive a portion of the tax dollars back from the money paid into the National Highway Trust Fund every time we purchase fuel for our recreational toys. Sources within Capitol circles indicate the bill could provide up to three times the amount of Recreational Trails Program (RTP) funding we currently receive. H.R. 2 is currently held up in the Senate for consideration, but it has been rumored the major concern is how to pay for the $1.5 trillion and the president’s displeasure with the several “add-ons” that would divert monies from the Highway Trust Fund to rail and other transit projects.

Christopher Douwes of the Federal Highway Administration explains possible changes to the Recreational Trails Program at a pre-COVID-19 ACSA meeting.

The Coalition for Recreational Trails (CRT) extended the deadline for submission of nominations for the RTP Awards through Aug. 15. The outstanding completed projects that utilized funding from the RTP that were submitted by public agencies, trail administrators or other project sponsors are eligible. These awards recognize the significance of trail-related recreation supported by the Recreational Trails Program and brings attention of the importance of RTP to the members of Congress.

In other news around the Capitol, the never-ending conundrum of how to adequately fund for wildfire suppression, which seemingly is increasing at an alarming rate. With the number of fires burning in several of the Western states, hundreds of thousands of acres are under siege annually and, with shortages in both funding and personnel, is becoming much more difficult to contain and control. But the Forest Service is far from just giving up and has other methods to put into practice

Under the current administration, the Forest Service has increased the number of timber sales beyond previous years and has already sold more timber than in the past two decades. Although they still have a huge hill to climb, they have made significant increases in hazardous fuel reductions. How does this affect our recreation? Much more seriously than one might imagine. Consider the impact a wildfire has on the environment and the landscapes of our public lands. Consider the resulting hazardous conditions where trails once meandered through lush forests now must navigate past charred stumps and across devastated grounds. Consider why it became necessary to close huge tracts of land due to the unstable and deteriorated soil. The snowmobiling community has always supported efforts of the National Forest Service (NFS), National Park Service (NPS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in every opportunity to reduce or eliminate wildfire possibilities.

It seems like a lifetime since the onset of the coronavirus and every recreationalist, regardless of which activity they embrace, wonders if it will ever end so we can resume our specific endeavors. Without question, every state in the nation has been affected, some to a greater degree than others, and for many the end still is beyond sight.

That being said, some states are beginning to reopen and as they do they are increasing recreational access to roads and trails for both motorized and non-motorized sectors. Federal, state and local authorities are closely monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to do so as long as the need exists, and most, if not all, have established guidelines to ensure, to the best of their ability, the overall safety of every citizen within their respective jurisdictions.

From the very onset, our recreational freedoms were threatened to some degree in that all maintenance and repairs to the snowmobile and ORV trails was ordered to cease until further notice. Any expense incurred went unpaid due to a temporary freeze of funding and was just recently released, but with stipulations for what would be allowed and what remained restricted. With the snowmobile season just a few months away, it’s imperative that the grant sponsors be given the go ahead to prepare the trails for a safe and successful season.

As with most states, Michigan has a phased approach to stop, or at least slow, the coronavirus spread and, obviously, the more populated the region, the greater the number of citizens who test positive for the virus. Likewise, the rural areas within the state have the least. It’s also been noted, especially in the Upper Peninsula, that those counties with communities considered “college towns” are the hot spots with the largest number of cases. As this crisis drags on, the growing unrest among those who have followed the increasing number of mandates by wearing a mask everywhere they go and avoiding even their closest relatives and friends by the social distancing requirement is reaching the boiling point, as witnessed by the number of protests. We can only hope this virus is contained soon and we can return to some degree of our normal lives.

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