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Names are floating about as potential picks for Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture, but nothing is certain at this point, though we should know more by the middle of December. Until then, I refuse to worry about it. I can't change the weather; I certainly can't help the Redskins; I don't understand what's happening to the economy except a whole lot of people are losing their homes and jobs; and I don't have a clue what the President-elect is up to in terms of pulling his cabinet together. In other words, I'll have to wait to find out like the rest of America and then I will figure out how to deal with the news.
110th Congress Lame Duck Session
The Lame Duck session met and after a few days, left town without much to brag about. When the Congress was in town, much attention was placed on the plight of the American auto industry and the millions of Americans whose livelihoods are dependent upon the financial health of these companies. The Detroit CEOs didn't do a very good job of explaining why they needed the bailout. For one thing, they didn't seem to have a coherent business plan on how they plan to turn their companies around. And then, the mode of transportation they used to get to Washington didn't help matters. Each CEO flew to town on his own corporate jet. Not an unusual circumstance, by any means, but maybe they should have considered "jet pooling" to Washington. I guess if you are a CEO you don't do that sort of thing. Congress returns again on December 8th and we will see the CEOs do a better job of justifying the need for the bailout. If they pass that road test, I expect Congress will approve the bailout before the Christmas holiday.
There is one positive note regarding the Lame Duck session. The Senate did not pass H.R. 5151, the massive public lands bill that many ARRA members oppose. Senator Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, announced that the Senate did not have sufficient time to break the likely filibuster of Senator Tom Coburn. Reid also announced, however, that he intended to make the measure a priority in the early days of the 111th Congress. With Senate Democrats enjoying a larger majority in the new Congress, Senator Coburn may have more difficulty stopping Senate passage. Also, it's likely that the new President will sign the legislation, so Senator Reid's decision to pull back and wait until next year probably makes sense from their perspective. ARRA, along with a large number of other organizations, will continue to oppose the passage of this legislation.
Fewer Visitors to our National Forests
A recent study by the U. S. Forest Service shows that fewer Americans are using their National Forests as a venue for recreation. Forest Service officials seem to be surprised by this news and uncertain as to why this is the case. The statistics are startling. In 2004, total forest visits were 204.8 million. In 2007, that number dropped to 178.6 million visits, a 13% decline.
Obviously, there are a number of factors contributing to the problem. Part of the decline may stem from our change of lifestyle including the amount of time we all spend in front of a computer or television screen. It's just a fact of life that people spend less time outside.
Some years ago, the National Park Service was alarmed by the drop-off in visitors to the National Parks under its jurisdiction. We wrote about this phenomenon back in May, 2006. During the course of a Congressional oversight hearing on the subject, one of the reasons cited for the decline was that the National Park Service had developed a reputation of being unfriendly towards park visitors. It's a simple thing, if the welcome sign isn't out, people won't come.
The Forest Service faces a similar dilemma. Policymakers are busy designating millions of acres of our National Forests as wilderness areas making access to those areas more difficult. Then, several years ago, the Forest Service decided to go to a designated trail system for OHV recreation when it promulgated the Travel Management Rule. We supported that rule because we felt that a designated trail system made sense. We also said at the time that the implementation process associated with the design of a trail system was critical in making the policy a success. Gaining public input on where those trails should be would ensure that people would want to continue to visit our National Forests for recreational activities.
We were concerned at the time that the local forest districts lacked adequate funding for the implementation phase of the rule. Forest supervisors were told to find the money by re-programming funds from other programs. Some found the money and others didn't, but all operated under the same strict timetable for completing the designation process - which is slated for December, 2009. Time will tell whether OHV enthusiasts are turned off or turned on by what they find as designated trail system for OHV recreation. If they are turned off, visitation to our National Forests will decline further. Let's hope this is not the case.
Looking to 2009
The best thing about the New Year is that it arbitrarily marks a time for new beginnings. The clock doesn't stop; it simply slips into another demarcation for the recording of the passage of time. 2008 has been a tough year for many Americans and here's wishing that the New Year brings better economic times for all.
With a change in Administration and Congress, OHV recreation will be met with new challenges. I think we have a very positive story to tell about responsible recreation and all the good things that OHV enthusiasts do in their communities and on public lands. Our detractors aren't going to tell the good stories, only the bad ones. It's up to us to keep the record straight. Join us in 2009 in meeting this challenge.
Until then, please enjoy the holidays with family and friends.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access