America’s Outdoor Recreation Act – Boon or bust?


…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  -National Park Service Organic, August 25, 1916

America’s Outdoor Recreation Act seems a win for those who enjoy our public lands. A bipartisan act championed by a Democrat and a Republican that seems to give more money and support for public lands. We’ll potentially see more trails, improve the huge infrastructure backlog on public lands, increase outdoor access for more user groups, and improve the outdoor experience.

The Act has many champions, including RVers, backcountry-focused outdoor publications, and environmental groups. And others.

But I see problems with the Act as it seems it’s more about pumping money into private parties to, yet again, profit from our public land access.

Sure, parts of the Act hold promise. Who wouldn’t want more green space in urban areas? (As one example)

But at what cost?

Much like handing over the keys for public access to a multi-billion lobbying firm, many provisions of this wide-ranging Act could lead to long-term control of public land access for the profit of private entities. It’s telling that the bill mentions the Department of Commerce five times among the bill’s provisions.

Subtitle C, Improving Recreation Infrastructure, is the meat of the more questionable provisions of the Act –

Sec. 131. Broadband internet connectivity at developed recreation sites.
Sec. 132. Extension of seasonal recreation opportunities.
Sec. 133. Gateway communities.
Sec. 134. Parking opportunities for Federal recreational lands and waters.

Sec. 136. Public-private partnerships to modernize federally owned campgrounds, resorts, cabins, and visitor centers on Federal recreational lands and waters.

Taking the bullet point highlights of each section one at a time –

  •  The installation or construction of broadband internet infrastructure at developed recreation sites on Federal recreational lands and
     waters to establish broadband internet connectivity—

That means high-speed internet in developed sites such as campgrounds, visitor centers, and other areas. This increased infrastructure means more construction, building, and impact upon the public lands. Our culture demands connectivity regardless of the consequences, of course.

  • …to extend the outdoor recreation season and the duration of income to gateway communities…

In other words, with all the capital that hotels, restaurants, and similar services put into an area, the Department of Commerce will assist businesses in ensuring the tourist season expands. With our public lands continuing the trends of getting accessed mainly but the upper echelons of the income bracket, an act to extend the time when tourism dollars get spent seems not unexpected.

  • PARTNERSHIPS.—In carrying out this section, the
    Secretaries may, in accordance with applicable laws, enter
    into a public-private partnership, cooperative agreement,
    memorandum of understanding, or similar agreement with
    a gateway community or a business in a gateway community

While the Act promises potential funds to address housing shortages, the cynic in me sees it as a way for developers to grab funds under the Act’s auspices and funnel it into vacation homes as affordable housing figleaves. Why? A developer already flaunted Air BnB and affordable housing rules in Moab via loopholes. I suspect it can quickly happen again when public funds become available.

  • The Secretaries shall seek to increase parking opportunities for persons recreating on Federal recreational lands and waters.. To supplement the quantity of parking spaces available at units of Federal recreational lands and waters on the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretaries may enter into a public-private partnership for parking opportunities on non-Federal land;

Meaning? Expanded parking lots and parking spaces on private land to shuttle more visitors into areas. While I applaud a shuttle system, the potential here seems to bring more visitors into public lands first, which means more tourist dollars. The shuttle system seems more of an adjunct to this goal of generating more money rather than a way to address traffic and congestion problems in the park. Instead, there appears to be more incentive to increase visitation and generate more revenue.

  • capital improvement, including the construction, reconstruction, and nonroutine maintenance of any structure, infrastructure, or improvement, relating to the operation of, or access to, a covered recreation facility;

The Sec 136 title spells out the purpose in explicit detail. “Modernize” means more than pit toilets or flush toilets, but more significantly,  sites to accommodate more RVs, fewer tents, and KOA-like amenities (no doubt, and discussed before). Is the end goal that most public lands will have a version of the Mesa Verde campground with wifi, showers, laundry, and increasingly more expensive camping? And privatization, of course.

When the President and CEO of the RV Industry Ascoc praises this portion of the bill, I wonder who this bill serves.


Ultimately, I see this Act with some benefits for some public land users. As mentioned, increased green space, shuttle services, and potential employee housing sounds excellent.

But I also know how much of these cash cows work. Developers, political interests, and businesses will use public funds for green-washing their profits. And our public lands will continue to be accessible to fewer people while getting controlled more by private interests.

The Act’s intent is potentially good; however, American business culture will profit from it in the end.

I don’t see any indication of hiring more personnel for the public lands or provisions for increased salaries of our public servants so they can afford to live in the town serving the 10% income bracket that will benefit from these so-called improvements. Will funds get allocated CCC-style for the backlog of trails that need maintenance? Etc.

With the infrastructure upgrades and a mandate to consult with towns for further expansion, sounds more like a mandate for more expensive privatization of public land access that benefits fewer and fewer people in the population. The act seems less about ensuing public lands for future enjoyment and more about old-fashioned, pork-barrel politics —no matter what green label gets slapped on a project.

Old West versus New West? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell that anything has changed at all. The extractive industries are alive and well. The glitter had a different glint, that’s all. –Jim Stiles, Brave New West

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Jim Austin
Jim Austin
1 year ago

One of the most blatant and negative consequences of private development next door to a National Park is Gatlinburg, TN–just outside the GSMNP. Some of this Act will surely encourage more of the same, in Gatlinburg and many other locales. There are good aspects, too, and I hope these can be emphasized over the negative ones. •All but the higher pay grades in both NPS and USFS are woefully underwhelming for the employees, financially. Needs fixing, fast. •Many facilities are understaffed, have been for eons, and the current struggle to hire has exascerbated the situation. Needs fixing, fast. •The current… Read more »

1 year ago

After all these years. Edward Abbey as right, if not more, than he ever was.

Colorado Jones
1 year ago

Thanks for another thoughtful reflection on the politics of outdoor recreation, Paul! Can I assume that you were a poli-sci or soc major in a previous life?

Colorado Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Kudos on not letting work/career get in the way of your first love, Paul! I have numerous former classmates (and have crossed paths with many others over the years) who earned degrees in history, lit, or the social sciences and, instead of going the traditional teaching route, wound up in careers in tech or business that allowed them to pay the bills and support their families. Fast forward three decades, where kids are going into six-figure debt for an education that lands them back home with their parents working a minimum wage job, and Matt Damon’s words in the 1990s… Read more »

1 year ago

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the a additional gun ranges to be created. I wonder why we need public land and funding for gun ranges? How does this address the need for equitable access to underserved communities of color? And where are they getting the money for any of this? The whole thing seems like a way to justify how a committee spent its time; badly.