WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee has taken the first steps in considering a legislative package addressing outdoor recreation.
Committee leaders, including Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., announced the Expanding Public Lands Outdoor Recreation Experiences Act on Wednesday ahead of a related hearing Thursday. Westerman introduced the legislation alongside Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, who serves as the committee's ranking member.
The EXPLORE Act consists of 15 bills with language addressing issues such as recreation infrastructure, incentives for creating long-distance bike trails, partnerships for hosting events and increasing accessibility, and streamlining the permitting process for recreational activities.
During Wednesday's announcement outside of the U.S. Capitol, Westerman referenced the importance of outdoor recreation in his life, citing Hot Springs National Park in his hometown, the Ouachita National OVERSET FOLLOWS:Forest, the Ozark National Forest and the Buffalo National River as important areas in his congressional district.
"I've been very blessed to live near and recreate on some of the most beautiful public lands and waters in this country," he said.
"While we might disagree on many things, we're united in the fact that expanding access to outdoor lands and improving the experience for outdoor recreation on federal lands and waters is something worth fighting for."
The House bill serves as companion legislation to a bipartisan Senate proposal. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced America's Outdoor Recreation Act in March. Manchin and Barrasso serve as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, respectively.
"It is not just something that happened this Congress," Westerman said Wednesday. "A lot of these policies have been debated for years, and it was the will to come together to work on an outdoor recreation package that is bipartisan."
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., emphasized the importance of the EXPLORE Act's bipartisan support.
"Too much of the stuff around here is partisan," she said Wednesday. "We need for people to be able to be outdoors."
The EXPLORE Act includes a Westerman bill concerning the Ouachita National Forest. The Hot Springs congressman introduced the Ouachita National Forest Overnight Camping Act in March, which would instruct the Department of Agriculture to identify 54 spaces within the national forest suitable for camping. The agency would have to reopen 27 campsites within the two years of the bill's enactment.
Overnight camping has been closed in the Ouachita National Forest since 2010 following fatal flooding in the Albert Pike Recreation Area. Under the bill, all future campsites would be outside of spaces susceptible to "100-year" floods, or areas with a 1% chance of flooding in a given year.
Katherine Andrews, director of outdoor recreation for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, endorsed the EXPLORE Act before House Natural Resources Committee members on Thursday during the Federal Lands Subcommittee's hearing on the package.
"Access to outdoor recreation inspires generations of Arkansans to care of and champion the future of our natural places, ensuring that we remain the Natural State," she said.
"When visitors come to an area to recreate outside, they're also spending time on Main Street, they're eating in restaurants, they're visiting antique shops," Andrews said during the hearing. "They're spending their money in local gateway towns, and that contributes to a local economy. This bill helps to support local gateway regions and access resources to further tourism in those areas."
Westerman is eyeing a full committee markup on the EXPLORE Act next week with interest in pushing for a full House vote in the subsequent days. The congressman additionally acknowledged the possibility that Congress could pass one recreation package before lawmakers leave Washington, D.C., for the holidays.
"I believe there are folks in the Senate that are anxious for us to get our legislation over there," Westerman said Wednesday. "It realistically could happen by the end of the year, but this is Congress."