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Recreation on Federal Lands

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The growing and diverse nature of recreation on federal lands has increased the challenge of balancing different types of recreation with each other and with other land uses. Motorized recreation has been particularly controversial, with issues centering on access and environmental impacts. The 109th Congress has been considering legislation and conducting oversight on issues involving recreation on federal lands, including traditional recreational pursuits and newer forms of motorized recreation. The Administration is addressing these issues through budgetary, regulatory, and other actions. This report covers several prominent issues.

Motorized Recreation on NPS Land: Off-Highway Vehicles, Personal Watercraft, and Snowmobiles. Off-highway vehicle (OHV), personal watercraft (PWC), and snowmobile use at National Park Service (NPS) units has fueled ongoing debates over the balance between recreation and the protection of parklands and waters. Since 2003, NPS has issued regulations to open designated areas at 13 units to PWC. The agency is developing a new winter use plan for snowmobiles at three Yellowstone area parks. OHV use at some units is being challenged in the courts.

Aircraft Overflights. Grand Canyon National Park is at the center of a conflict over whether or how to limit air tours over national parks to reduce noise. NPS and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continue to work to implement a 1987 law that sought to reduce noise at Grand Canyon, and a 2000 law that regulates overflights at other park units. Recent regulations require air tour operators to seek authority to fly over park units; the agencies then must develop Air Tour Management Plans at those park units. Further, the FAA is developing final safety regulations for commercial air tours nationally.

Motorized Recreation in the National Forests and on BLM Land. The use of OHVs on Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands has been controversial. Both agencies decide the extent of allowed OHV use through their planning processes. The FS finalized new regulations (Nov. 9, 2005) governing OHV use that require designating roads, trails, and areas open for OHV use and prohibit OHV use outside the designated system. The BLM is addressing transportation issues through national strategies and other guidance. A July 13, 2005, House Resources joint subcommittee hearing examined motorized recreation use on federal lands.

National Trails System. While designation of trails is often popular, issues remain regarding the funding, expansion, and quality of trails. The 109th Congress has been considering a variety of trail measures, including adding routes to the National Trail System, authorizing studies of routes for possible additions to the system, and authorizing land acquisitions from willing sellers. Legislation has been introduced to create a new category of trails, called National Discovery Trails.

This report replaces CRS Issue Brief IB10141, Recreation on Federal Lands, coordinated by Kori Calvert and Carol Hardy Vincent. It will be updated periodically to reflect legislative and regulatory action.


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2006-07-11 version