Earlier this summer, a trio of states took bold steps toward potentially altering the course of their multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation economies.
Within a matter of weeks, Vermont Governor Phil Scott created the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative; North Carolina established the Outdoor Recreation Recruitment Director role within its Commerce Department; and the Oregon legislature passed a bill that will create the Oregon Office of Outdoor Recreation (the bill is currently awaiting the signature of Governor Kate Brown).
While each of these states took different approaches, they’re all working towards the same overall goals: Improving outdoor access for constituents and visitors, boosting tourism, and growing the local economy.
In all, Utah, Colorado, Washington, Montana, Rhode Island, Wyoming, North Carolina, Vermont, and Oregon have created state offices, advisory councils, task forces, or collaborative groups to study their state’s outdoor economy, develop ideas for increasing outdoor tourism, and support statewide economic growth. New Mexico and California were unsuccessful in establishing similar outfits in the 2017 legislative session.
Land management and access remain divisive issues at the federal level—Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced (and abruptly withdrew) federal legislation earlier this year that would have transferred 3 million acres of federal land to state hands—but most state legislatures have little appetite for fighting that battle in the state house. "We find that across the country, outdoor recreation issues are largely bipartisan, and that’s especially true when the issue is on economic development," says Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, state and local policy manager with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
O’Brien-Feeney says that the industry’s explosive growth and contribution to local economies has made lawmakers more receptive to its concerns and pressing issues. According to the OIA, which has lobbied for outdoor recreation offices throughout the United States, the outdoor economy will generate $887 billion in consumer spending in 2017. That, in turn, creates $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.
Priorities vary among states, but the offices generally create a venue for business leaders, nonprofits, lawmakers, stewardship organizations, and interested constituents to meet, discuss important issues, examine development opportunities, and make policy recommendations. "Each of the state offices or task forces does a lot of listening," says O’Brien-Feeney.
“While each of these states took different approaches, they’re all working towards the same overall goals: Improving outdoor access for constituents and visitors, boosting tourism, and growing the local economy.”
In Montana, for instance, Governor Steve Bullock convened numerous roundtable discussions to support business growth and increase outdoor participation within the state. A Washington task force, meanwhile, examined the state’s byzantine pass system for accessing various public lands.
The newly created office in Oregon will address a long-standing concern among locals and lawmakers alike: How can the state maintain its much-loved outdoor experience while accommodating an influx of new residents and tourists?
Adam Baylor, stewardship and advocacy manager with the Mazamas mountaineering organization, lobbied for the Oregon state office and sees it as an opportunity to address key issues facing outdoor enthusiasts. "Trailheads are crowded, break-ins are happening, trail conditions are really bad, and as we see an increasing population, that’s only going to get worse," he says. “If we don’t have the beautiful places to go play, industries don’t want to be here, people don’t want to play here, and we lose what it means to be an Oregonian.”
States certainly hope the offices, panels, and task forces preserve and strengthen their outdoor economies, but these efforts also create an outlet for disparate industries to collaborate. During a recent RootsRated Labs podcast, Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, recalled a time when the state’s advisory council brought the mountain bike and OHV communities together to save a high school mountain biking event.
Escaped cows from a nearby farm had rendered the mountain bike paths impassable, throwing the race into jeopardy. The OHV community, normally indifferent to mountain bikers, volunteered to ride the course on ATVs through the night in order to smooth it out and make it passable for cyclists.
The collaboration, which was coordinated by Benitez’s office, represented a sea change in how normally disparate industries could find innovative ways to work together. "When you look at the outdoor industry historically, we’ve somewhat been a fractured, disjointed community. Whatever people are fighting for or focused on, they sort of stay in their own lane," he said. “We have to understand that we are interconnected.”
Every state that puts an office like this in place is saying they not only care about public lands, they care about local businesses, too. Any way you look at it, outdoor recreation fuels local economies and it deserves the same unwavering support given to other industries.
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