Outdoor recreation advocates — including two climbers — testified to Congress on Thursday to push through a bill expanding park access.
Professional rock climber Sasha DiGiulian, mountaineer Luis Benitez, and outdoor industry leaders said all Americans deserve time in nature. The EXPLORE Act introduced to the House this week would widen access for veterans and people with disabilities as well as protect existing land uses like rock climbing, according to testimony.
The bill — one of two related pieces of legislation before both chambers of Congress — has been hailed as the first ever that was fully conceived, drawn up, and finalized by the outdoor industry specifically.
“We all love to go outside and we take it for granted that there’s all these resources available to us,” DiGiulian told GearJunkie ahead of her testimony. “The fact that we can unite behind a shared appreciation for our outdoor spaces is what makes America America.”
Benitez, the Chief Impact Officer for the Trust For Public Land, said in Thursday’s hearing that outdoor recreation has become a “juggernaut” in the American economy. But without “comprehensive attention” like the EXPLORE Act, the industry’s “momentum will begin to falter,” he added.
“This trillion-dollar economy doesn’t just depend on designing and marketing awesome puffy vests and hiking boots,” Benitez said. “It relies on the protection of — and access to — our parks and public lands.”
The EXPLORE Act and its Senate companion bill, the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, represent the first time the outdoor recreation industry has crafted legislation “from start to finish,” said Jessica Wahl Turner, President of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.
After years of behind-the-scenes work, it’s no accident that the legislation is getting more attention this year. House representatives repeatedly mentioned federal data showing that the industry now brings in over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, or more than 2% of the GDP.
“Money talks in Washington,” DiGiulian said.
On Thursday, Congressman Tom Tiffany (R-WI) started the hearing by calling the EXPLORE Act “historic, first-of-its-kind legislation.” It includes 15 individual bills aimed at bolstering outdoor recreation across the country. With bipartisan support, Wahl Turner said she feels optimistic about finally getting the bill across the Congressional finish line.
“If you RV, if you camp, if you climb, if you hunt, if you fish — you are in this bill, and that’s a really amazing thing,” Wahl Turner told GearJunkie on Wednesday. “This is the farthest the outdoor recreation community has come with our own package.”
Bill to Help Veterans, Housing in Gateway Communities
On Wednesday, 22 members of the House introduced the Expanding Public Lands Outdoor Recreation Experiences Act, or EXPLORE Act.
The legislation includes more than 15 individual bills from both sides of the aisle. Among many provisions, it would improve access to parks and public lands for veterans and people with disabilities by building additional trails. The bill would bolster affordable housing in gateway communities, where many workers face skyrocketing housing costs, primarily by offering leases within federal parks.
It also aims to help small businesses like guides and outdoor outfitters by streamlining special-use permits at many national parks and forests.
“These common-sense provisions do not cost taxpayers any additional money,” Wahl Turner told Congress on Thursday. “On the contrary, if this bill passed, it’s likely to bring in new revenue as we manage lands with better tools and data.”
A Crucial Moment for Rock Climbing
During Thursday’s hearing of the House’s Federal Lands Subcommittee, DiGiulian focused on the Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act, one of the bills included in the batch of legislation.
The bill would protect climbing from the National Park Service, which recently proposed a ban on fixed anchors in wilderness areas, including parks like Yosemite. At the hearing, DiGiulian spoke about the “privilege” of getting to experience the wilderness by climbing on El Capitan, where climbers rely on bolts drilled into the wall to stay safe.
“As a climber, it’s incredibly pressing,” DiGiulian told GearJunkie on Wednesday. “The iconic climbs of our history, that have existed for 60 years, are now facing uncertainty. It’s a huge threat.”