Call of the Wild: More States Are Embracing Outdoor Recreation

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“Those people out in the woods having fun are spending a lot of money,” says one Montana official.

State governments around the U.S. are devoting increased attention to the outdoor recreation industry, a segment of the economy that generates billions of dollars each year.

At least 11 states have created offices or other entities to oversee economic development and policy issues that involve outdoor recreation. Another eight could take similar steps with bills that are either pending or expected to be introduced soon.

“It’s a national movement,” said David Knight, who about a year ago began as North Carolina’s outdoor industry recruitment director.

For people who hold jobs like Knight’s, outdoor recreation is a broad term. “Hunting, fishing, motorboat riding, kiteboarding, paddling, you name it,” he said, “that’s all outdoor recreation.” Rock-climbing, skiing, cycling or bird watching are a few other possible examples.

While activities like these are typically thought of as things to do on a weekend or a vacation, they also have a sizable economic footprint.

Bureau of Economic Analysis figures from last September estimate the outdoor recreation economy in 2016 accounted for 2.2 percent, or $412 billion, of the nation's gross domestic product and grew 1.7 percent, faster than the economy’s overall 1.6 percent growth rate that year.

(It's worth noting that the BEA data incorporates some activities that might not immediately come to mind when thinking of outdoor recreation, like outdoor concerts, "RVing" and gardening.)

The Outdoor Industry Association in a 2017 report credited the sector with $887 billion in consumer spending annually.

This presents economic opportunities for states that can attract outdoor businesses and enthusiasts. At the same time, cultivating outdoor recreation can align with other policy goals to improve public health and quality of life, as well as revitalize rural areas.

“We’re definitely seeing a growing interest,” said Sue Gander, director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices environment, energy and transportation division.

Rachel VandeVoort became the first director of Montana’s Office of Outdoor Recreation in 2017 after working in the firearms industry and describes herself as an avid hunter, “obsessive” fly fisherwoman, skier and hiker.

“We’re now beyond the point of just saying it’s a bunch of people running around in the woods having fun,” she said. “Those people out in the woods having fun are spending a lot of money.”

Utah in 2013 was the first state to launch an outdoor recreation office. Since then, Colorado, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming have done the same, or taken similar action.

David Weinstein, state and local policy director for the Outdoor Industry Association, said the group is excited about the trend. “Policies that are pushed through these offices,” he added, “are things that are going to benefit the industry, do right by conservation and stewardship and access needs, and thus grow the recreation economy.”

These days, Weinstein said he spends much of his time working with states on forming new offices.

He noted that California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada and West Virginia are all states where legislation is either being considered, or is expected soon, to create some type of lead state outdoor recreation entity.

Range of Work

Luis Benitez became Colorado’s first Outdoor Recreation Industry Office director in 2015. He explains that the work of his office and others like it tends to fall into four key areas: economic development, conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, and public health and wellness. “On any given day we’re kind of living in one of those four worlds,” he said.

Last summer, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming signed onto what are known as the “Confluence Accords,” a guiding document of sorts for how the states approach the outdoor recreation industry.

The accords outline “common principles” in each of the four areas Benitez mentioned. Examples of those principles include working to establish sustainable outdoor recreation infrastructure and funding, and promoting interest, participation and diversity in the outdoors.

But in each state that’s decided to put a special emphasis on outdoor recreation, the specifics can vary.

“The first thing that we try to do is really listen. What do state elected officials have to say about the needs of their state?” said Weinstein with the outdoor association. “Is it economic development in a place like Tennessee? Or is it a public health crisis in West Virginia? Or is it the need for better infrastructure in the state of Maine?”

Asked about some of what he’d been working on recently, Benitez highlighted a new initiative in Colorado to promote “Leave No Trace” practices—basic tenets meant to reduce the imprint people leave behind in the backcountry.

But he said about 40 percent of his time is spent on the economic development aspects of the job, which can mean looking for ways to link up rural entrepreneurs with capital, or talking to companies interested in locating in Colorado about possible incentives.

VandeVoort said inquiries Montana gets from outdoor recreation companies potentially interested in relocating to the state are typically routed through her office.

She says she also hears from small businesses that want to expand, and points to firms like Chilton Skis, a Missoula company that makes skis out of salvaged wood, and Sasquatch Fuel, out of Bozeman, which makes backpacking food with biodegradable packaging.

Offering another example of her work VandeVoort described how, after a small ski area near Choteau, Montana didn’t open due to financial reasons and went up for sale, she helped out securing a grant to study future options for the ski hill, including the possibility of turning the area into a publicly-owned cooperative.

North Carolina’s Knight said his job takes him to events ranging from the Miami International Boat Show, to the hunting and firearm industry’s SHOT Show, to the Outdoor Retailer trade show, which showcases gear for backpacking, skiing, camping and other activities.

“It is going out and trying to have a presence at these trade shows,” he said, “looking at and talking to interested companies from other places that may want to come to North Carolina.”

Knight said he also offers assistance to local governments interested in boosting outdoor recreation. This might mean working with them on expanding access to a river, securing more funding for state or local parks, or for a bike or pedestrian corridor project.

“They have these incredible natural assets,” he said. “It’s just about figuring out how to market them, how to access them.”

Some Sensitive Politics

The politics around outdoor recreation can sometimes get thorny.

Companies like Patagonia, REI and the North Face vocally opposed the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to downsize national monuments. And the Outdoor Retailer show, which draws tens of thousands of attendees, moved to Denver last year after about two decades in Salt Lake City. Organizers were opposed to positions Utah politicians had taken on public lands.

Conflicts can arise among different types of recreationalists as well—for instance hikers and skiers may not be keen to share certain areas with all terrain vehicle or snowmobile riders, or vice versa.

Weinstein believes there’s a role for state outdoor recreation leaders here, finding common ground. “At the end of the day, we all have certain end goals that we support,” he said, “and those do include more funding, more access, protected lands for all use.”

“It would truly be my hope that if we get 25 different states in the next three or five years, that have offices of outdoor recreation, that that becomes more of that mega concentration of voices that can then communicate better to Washington, D.C.,” Weinstein added.

Outdoor recreation often takes place in rural areas and in a state like Montana that can mean places with legacies tied to industries like mining, timber or farming. VandeVoort stresses that her office is not looking to replace these industries.

“You are who you are, we’re not trying to erase your history,” she said. “We’re just saying that we’re economically diversifying,” she added. “It’s just about giving your community another tool in the toolbox.”

Not Just For Western States

Although state recreation offices carry out work on multiple fronts, Weinstein said policies that help to build and maintain access to the outdoors are important to the industry, as are initiatives that can help foster interest in the outdoors among diverse groups of young people.

“We don’t have an outdoor industry, we don’t have a recreation economy, without places to play that are close to home, that are easily accessible and are safe,” he said.

“It’s just as important, if not more, to ensure that as we move forward that we’re introducing a whole new and different looking generation of people to the outdoors,” Weinstein added.

He noted a proposal taking shape in New Mexico to provide $100,000 beginning in fiscal year 2020 for an “outdoor equity grant program”, to help cover the cost of outdoor recreation programs for low-income youths in the state. The plan for that grant funding is included in a bill that would create an outdoor recreation division in the state’s economic development department.

Weinstein pushes back on the notion that an office like this only makes sense for states with iconic western landscapes or big national parks.

“We would argue that there is a recreation economy that’s significant in your area,” he said.

“It doesn’t need to be a lot of money for the creation of these offices,” he added. “And when you look at the various benefits that are wrought by outdoor recreation, you should have a recreation sector lead that spends his or her day thinking about leveraging all the opportunities.”

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