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Know the West

Outfitter bill may be missing the boat

  Guiding hunting expeditions and rafting trips is a risky business, but some commercial outfitters think that some challenges shouldn't be part of the job: They say the changing policies of federal agencies make it difficult to get guiding permits. They're hoping a new bill, sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., will be the answer to their problems. Some environmental groups, however, say the bill gives commercial interests too much power over public lands.

Outfitters now obtain special-use permits to operate on federal lands, which can be revoked by the agencies if rules are not followed. The Outfitter Policy Act (S. 1489) would turn these permits into contracts that could be held for 10 years, transferred to third parties and renewed indefinitely if minimum standards are met.

"There needs to be some sort of reasonable, consistent regulation that will allow companies to provide these services and plan for the future," says David Brown of America Outdoors, a national organization of outfitters. The bill is supported by many other outfitting groups, including Outward Bound.

"The bill guarantees a place for outfitters on public lands," says Michael Frandsen, a spokesman for Sen. Craig's office. "Previously, that place was dependent on the good graces of land management agencies."

But a boatload of wilderness and private recreation groups are fighting the bill, arguing that agencies should be protecting the environment instead of private enterprise.

"This is part of a larger effort toward industrial-strength recreation," says Scott Silver of the Eugene, Ore.-based Wild Wilderness. "This bill takes the privilege of special-use permits and turns it into a private property right."

The bill has been introduced into the Senate, and is now being rewritten to address the concerns of its many critics. But, says Silver, "I don't think they're going to be coming up with any legislation that will make us want to support it. There's no benefit to wilderness or the environment here. The only benefits are to private outfitters."

The text of S. 1489 can be found on the Library of Congress Web page at http://thomas.loc.gov, or by writing the Senate Document Room, Hart Office Building Room B04, Washington, DC 20510. - Michelle Nijhuis