Make your guiding business legal: License and permits

You will have to contact Forest Service office in the area where you want to guide. They will determine if your activity meets their pre-application screen requirements for special purposes:

  • The proposed use is consistent with federal, state, and local laws, regulations, orders, and policies applicable to national forests and grasslands;
  • The proposed use is consistent with, or can be made consistent with, the forest plan that established standards and guidelines for management of the land where the activity will take place;
  • The proposed use will not create a serious and substantial risk to public health or safety;
  • The proposed use will not create an exclusive or perpetual right of use or occupancy;
  • The proposed use will not unreasonably conflict with or interfere with Forest Service administrative uses, other approved existing uses, or uses of adjacent non-NFS lands;
  • The proponent must not owe any fees to the Forest Service from a prior or existing special use permit;
  • The proposed use does not involve gambling or the provision of sexually oriented commercial services, even if permitted by state law;
  • The proposed use does not involve military or paramilitary training or exercises unless such training is federally funded;
  • The proposed use does not involve the disposal of solid waste or the disposal of radioactive or other hazardous substances.
  • If you meet the initial screening requirements, the Forest Service Administrator will provide guidance on what information is required to complete your application. If your proposed arrangement does not meet the screening requirements, you will be notified that the proposal as submitted is rejected.

A proposal that passes the initial screening moves on to second-level screening. Your proposal will be accepted as an application if it meets all of the following:

  • The proposed use will be consistent with or compatible with the purposes for which the areas are managed; and
  • The proposed use will be in the public interest; and
  • The proposer is qualified; and
  • The proponent can demonstrate technical or financial ability to undertake the use and fully comply with the terms and conditions of the permit; and
  • There is someone authorized by the proponent to sign a permit or there is someone willing to accept responsibility for the terms and conditions of the permit. Upon satisfactory completion of this screen, the Forest Service will process your request

Planning process

The US Forest Service determines the need, use, capacity and allocation levels for guides and outfitters before issuing new permits. When conducting a “needs assessment,” they look at “accessibility, size, terrain difficulty, current levels of amenities and guidance, and demographics of visitors to the area” (CRS).

If there is a potential for adverse impacts to the land, then the Forest Service will conduct a “resource capacity analysis” to determine how much the land can be utilized without adverse environmental and associated impacts.

After the two assessments, the Forest Service chooses who gets the permits. This is split between non-outfitted visitors and commercial guides and outfitting operations. It can also be divided between priority use and temporary use permits.

Permit conditions and fees

The Forest Service authorizes guides and outfitters through two types of special use permits: (1) Priority Use Permits and (2) Temporary Use Permits.

Priority use permissions: Intended for ongoing commercial guide and outfitter operations and is issued for a period of up to 10 years (as long as no new companies enter). If a new company also wants a certain limited permit, the Forest Service can issue a prospectus to applicants and select the guide or outfitter competitively.

Selection Criteria: The nature and quality of the proposed service, the applicant’s experience, verification of financial resources and potential fees returned to the federal government.

Temporary use permits: For operators who need a one-time or short-term use of forestry land. They are not eligible for renewal.

Fees: According to CRS“commercial guides and outfitters operating under a priority use permit shall pay FS a land use rental fee of approximately 3% of their adjusted gross revenue (defined by FS as “gross revenue and revenue allowance less applicable exemptions”).”

Insurance and liability

Forest Service policies require general liability insurance for “permits based on the likelihood and severity of injury.” Minimum limits start at $300,000 of total coverage for low-risk activities (eg backpacking, cross-country skiing, nature hikes).

There is not a Service-wide policy on the use of disclaimers for commercial recreation operators, but some Forest Service regions prevent permit holders from requiring their customers to sign disclaimers. Instead, allow some commercial outdoor guides to require visitor acknowledgment of risk (VAR) forms (they must be approved by the Forest Service).

Check with your forest service office to check what insurance and liability they require and prevent.

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