Updated: May 25, 2022
Appalachia Sustainable Tourism Collaboration Primer on obtaining a special use permit with the United States Forest Service for commercial operations.
ASTC worked with Region 8 of the USFS, inside the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest.
What you can do with it
1. After getting in touch with a Ranger District or Supervisor’s Office, you will be introduced to a USFS employee who is over permits. They are the Authorized Officer (AO).
The A O might be in charge of several Districts and or a Natural Recreational Area within a National Forest.
Here is a useful link from the USFS, Special-use Permit Application.
2. ASTC. You can email or call us if you have any questions. We are a social enterprise, so there are no fees.
Activities: Having access to USFS lands greatly expands upon your possibilities to create high quality tourism experiences. Your model will have a giant arrow in its quiver. However, be sure to first research what recreational opportunities are strong and weak in specific Districts. Furthermore, call ahead and get a general impression of what you can do. For example, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is actually the Dept of Interior, so some Forests can’t help you gain commercial access to this attraction if the Dept. of Interior does not want commercial activities on the AT. Head over to our USFS Tourism page to see the large lists of National Forests to choose from.
Economic Revitalization: Our Coal Country region is in great need of guiding services to help bring down constraints that are preventing tourists from visiting distressed areas. More guides will create a network for Travel Agents to begin creating touring packages, which in turn will increase revenue streams. See our bog on this matter.
Furthermore, you can also conduct work hikes with tourists, something we call voluntourism. When the trails are improved, the tourism experience is improved which creates returned visits and positive reviews on social media. Also the tourists who work on the land have skin in the game and become stakeholders.
What you can do with it
Income: This is highly variable. There are several examples,
1. One person does everything.
Pros: less liability, and you control every aspect of customer service and the impacts on the land which could result in fines or loss of permit.
Cons: Less income.
2. One person does administrative duties, and another person does the field work.
Pros: more income, and you can hire those who have special talents.
Cons: more liability, overhead, and taxes.
3. You can hire contractors. You can have a Master List of 3rd Parties who are contracted employees of your business as it pertains to the special use permit. For example, you collaborate with a Mt. Bike Outfitter. They meet or shuttle your clients over to the USFS and take them on a bike trail. You split the profits how you see fit.
Pros: You never have to leave the office. You or another person on your staff can be setting up a tent at a campground or picking up supplies at a grocery store for your clients. You are insured and the Mt. Bike Outfitter is insured. Be sure to go over this with your Insurance Agent and the AO in the proposal.
Cons: More liability. If the Mt. Bike Outfitter does damage to Federal Land or breaks the laws, you are the principal and could be fined or lose your permit.
Keep in mind this goes for horse trails, or ATV trails, Kayaking, or Interpretive Ecotourism Guides. So now we are talking about scale if you have a strong Master List.
Create Jobs: Some people make poor business managers, but they have the personality to be a great guide. Find that diamond in the rough, or as we like to say, “A Mick.”
You can do all of the logistics and planning while they stay in the field.
Create More Organizations (or businesses) Ok, so you want a minimalist enterprise. Just help the Micks out there create their own LLC and put them on your Master List. Now they can use their own vehicle and shoulder some of the costs and liability. However, they will need more payments than an employee. But that is ok, you can be a Travel Specialist that sets up the logistical planning for their clients both in and outside USFS lands, thus a great relationship. Remember, scale is your friend here. Plus you will create more vendors or suppliers for Travel Agents to call upon if something happens to you or your business.
Create a region where tourists become stakeholders. That’s ASTC’s vision! If tourists are having a great time, they will come back and get involved, or best yet move here.
You can lead work hikes to locations that need improvements. The permit may allow you to have access to a couple of service gates to get your clients and tools closer to the work site, but the District Ranger would need to be willing to write that provision into the permit.
Big Picture: It can take several months (up to 7 months) to obtain a permit. This is good and bad. If they handed them out like candy, then you would compete with many others, and they could possibly degrade the tourism experience that would hurt the brand for the region.
Plan ahead. If you get things started in October, then you should be ok to providing services in May.
Your first permit will be only good for 1 year. This will allow you and the USFS to better understand what is needed for a longer time period. After a successful first year, upon renewal of the permit, it can be issued for a longer time frame, typically 5 years, but 10 years is possible.
The more attention to detail you put into your packet the more professional you will look and be in the field. For example, your Standard Operational Procedures for emergencies go hand in hand with activities outside the USFS lands.
There is no upfront cost to start the process, meaning there is no cost recovery.
Land Use Fees
These will be assessed at 3-5% of your Gross Revenue (ASTC was quoted at 5%). At either the start of the permit, or at the start of the new year (for multiple year permits), an Initial Bill will be issued. There is a minimum, non-returnable, fee that is adjusted annually. This year (2021) it was $115. The Initial Bill will be at least the minimum, but can be any amount based on the estimated revenue generated. At the end of the season, a Final Bill will be issued after you report your Total Gross Revenue in the required Annual Use Report. If 5% of the Gross Revenue exceeds the amount billed for in the Initial Bill, a Final Bill will be issued to cover the remaining fees.
So, if you make $50,000 in gross revenue for your business, and just $10,000 of the revenue took place on the USFS land, then you will have $500 ($10,000 X .05) in fees to pay to the USFS.
Look into a minimum of $600,000 aggregate.
From what we researched, this is
The average price of a standard $1,000,000/$2,000,000 General Liability Insurance policy for small outdoor guides and outfitters ranges from $47 to $79 per month based on location, size, revenue, claims history and more.
Our Tourism Consulting page has information on insurance.
It can take a long time to get your permit approved so wait as long as you can to start paying those premiums. We recommend completing the paperwork (below) first in order to show more professionalism and to help the insurance agent better understand what you want to do, plus you will have your standard operational procedures complete.
Proposal. You can spend a few hours on this, or maybe a couple of days.
As mentioned, find out what activities are available for you to use first.
See how close the District is to other tourism attractions. What logistical support can you call upon from Outfitters? How can you expand?
There is no special form, just a word document. The following is found in a Proposal:
In your own words use a few sentences to describe what you want to do. See above on what you can do with a permit for ideas.
Description of activity or activities/services provided
If you only want to focus on rock climbing, just put that down. If you plan on doing interpretive guiding, document that. If you are just going to be a service that helps carry gear, set up camps, and pick up Mt. Bikers at trail heads, put that down.
An important thing to remember is that a permit does not allow you to go everywhere in the District. This will hurt your ability to make unique travel experiences from scratch, and it will hurt your ability to be spontaneous with your clients when on a trail. However, you can articulate every location you want to go. If the Public Land has 22 Trails, then just list them all. Create guiding packages for different trails and place them on your website.
If your AO is over a few Districts, think outside the box. Look over the best offerings and pick a few that the AO has the ability to sign off on. But this will cause more time for things to get approved because there will be other District Rangers to sign off on things.
What if you have a client who wants to go explore an area that is way off the beaten path, (to find butterflies) how do you plan for this? Ask your AO of the best locations. You might be able to have a 50 acres patch in the woods to explore with clients. If you wish to do something like this, then discuss this in the proposal so that it will be fleshed out early.
Months of operation
Central Appalachia can handle tourists 12 months a year. But keep in mind certain campgrounds, roads, and activities are only opened during certain months of the year. Gates close at certain times of the year.
Estimated number of trips per month
If you have a vehicle that seats 7 passengers, then you can quickly get a high low number per month. Adjust for seasons if you know trips will go down.
Your initial proposal is good to go, now it’s time to start filling out documents. Be sure to double check with the AO to see if there is a new form. We are using form 2700-3f. There are 10 steps.
Ask your AO for a pdf file to print off.
1. Applicant Information.
But what if you do not have a brick and mortar office? They just need a billing address, so the PO Box that you have set up is fine.
2. Description of Activity
This is the most intimidating. As said before, your first permit is only good for one year. Come up with a few recreational opportunities to list. Later, when you go to get your second permit, you will be ready for a more exhaustive list.
“Location of routes and starting and ending points for the proposed operations (include a map showing these locations).”
For the mapping, you can use the National Geographic Maps, Google Maps, USGS Quadrangle Maps, Avenza, or any other GPS mapping system. Ask your AO if they will create an “official” map for the permit, but you must be clear so that the AO will understand where you want to conduct the activities. The clearer and more precise the mapping info you provide, the better and easier it is to generate the permit. Remember, your FIRST permit is only good for 1 year, so do not spend too much here unless you have lots of guides to go into the field.
“Services that will be offered to clients (identify any services that will be provided by a party other than the holder).”
This is where you will list any “3rd Party Contractors” that you are working with. A list of company names and addresses, along with the individual guides if known.
Be sure to double check with your AO about activites in Wilderness. There are more restrictions, such as group size. With the 1964 Wilderness act, section 4d5 covers commercial services. Extent necessary clause or test. Some goes for filming a video for a client. Go to 48:48 of this video.
From your website, provide links or address to where tourists can read the description of the guided services you offer.
4. Client Charges
This will just be for the USFS, do not worry about services conducted outside the Forest or National Recreational Area.
5. Guide Identification
Staff training is very important for liability. The more detail you put here, the better.
We recommend Wilderness First Aid, but check with your AO or Insurance Agent.
“If the state in which your activity would occur requires licensing for outfitters and guides, include a copy of relevant licenses.”
VA: Is not an issue. However, laws can change, check with your AO.
6. Operating Plan
Discuss the type of First Aid Kit you will use. The type of SPOT device and service you will use. The type of Bear Spray. Make a list of all Hospitals and what type of trauma care they offer. If you plan on meeting at a certain trail head, then a specific route and hospital will align with this trail. These should be printed off and shown to the clients, with phone numbers and the like for easy access in case you are the person who needs medical care, with no cell phone coverage.
With Resource Protection, document how you will check alerts before going out, to include wildland fire alerts. Get familiar with the area and talk to staff to better learn how to protect natural resources, which go hand in hand with tourism experiences.
7. Liability Insurance
Your AO will help you determine this.
The Forest Service requires a $600,000 aggregate minimum, but $1,000,000 is the typical amount of insurance carried by O&G permit holders. The Forest Service has some very detailed requirements that must be included on the Certificate of Insurance and/or policy, regarding indemnification of the Government. Also, policy cancellation provisions. You will need to make sure your carrier is aware of these.
8. Client’s Acknowledgment of Risk Form
This is a good opportunity to create a health risk medical questionnaire and to come up with a fitness level requirement for certain outings. This will greatly help your clients make the right call for their outing, and help decrease your liability.
2 lines are present in case you have a business partner.
There you have it. We hope this primer greatly helps you in determining if this is the course of action for your organization. Let us know if you have any other questions. Also, let us know how we can improve this primer.
Here is a USFS Special Use Permits FAQ resource from Coalition for Outdoor Access.
Thank you for reading.
Appalachia Sustainable Tourism Collaboration