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DOI receives input from the public on equity and access issues

By André Sanchez

Throughout the month of October, the Department of Interior (DOI) conducted a series of virtual listening sessions in order to obtain community input on barriers that underserved communities and individuals face while trying to participate in outdoor recreation on DOI-managed lands and waters. Additionally, DOI invited the submission of written public comment through the Regulations.gov website for those who could not attend any of the listening sessions or wanted to submit more substantial comments towards this issue.

These actions from DOI are related to President Biden’s Executive Order 13985 that was issued back in January 2021 and which seeks to “Advance Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government”. As the community at large continues to seek respite from the stresses of COVID-19, the pressures of everyday life, and seeking ways of reconnecting to natural landscapes, actions such as these from DOI are much needed in order to increase access and provide equitable outdoor recreation opportunities for all.

As part of our continued efforts through our Public Lands Equity and Resilience initiative, CalWild staff engaged in one of DOI’s listening sessions in order to provide input about the barriers that DOI land managers can help address. Below are our abbreviated thoughts shared during this process.

What are the barriers to visiting public lands and waters managed by DOI (including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)?

Recreational Fees

One of the barriers consistently expressed by community members and partner organizations is the recreational fees required to utilize or access public lands and waters managed by DOI. While we acknowledge that fees are a partial funding source to sustain and maintain public lands and waters, it simultaneously imposes a significant barrier to low income families and community members. There are already inherent cost getting to a majority of federal lands and waters and then doing certain activities through gear cost and more. Recreational fees further add to the overall cost of the enjoyment of public lands and waters.

Lack of access to locations

While DOI manages several rivers and streams, safe and easy access to these locations is often limited, posing a barrier to the enjoyment of the waters intended for public access and enjoyment. Where possible, we suggest increasing developed water access and boat access. Additionally, while the popularity of outdoor recreation increases, several developed locations are often filled. Where appropriate and possible, expansion of primitive camping opportunities should be considered to allow additional opportunities for camping.

Beyond the sites themselves, lack of transportation poses another significant barrier to DOI-managed lands. In order to travel to these public areas, reliable transportation is required and if potential visitors do not have a reliable vehicle, they will never reach the public lands and waters. We suggest seeking and increasing partnerships with local transportation agencies in order to offer options that leave from urban centers to locations of public lands and waters.

Lack of information and easy access to it

First, we want to highlight that Indigenous communities continue to lose access to their land as many actions intended to protect/conserve managed lands have historically undermined the ability for Indigenous communities to use and steward the lands since time immemorial. Significant relationship building is required to rectify this and a chance in policies leading to access and use for Tribal communities should be considered a top priority.

Second, DOI agencies need to create better informational materials of the public lands and waters and there needs to be a better disseminate of these materials. This should include more materials in different languages, placing these materials in more noticeable locations on DOI managed lands, placing materials at locations that are close in proximity to these managed lands and placing materials where community members are most likely see or visit before reaching those lands. The latter would require more outreach and community involvement which would benefit both the DOI and visitors.