13 Huge Wins for Outdoor Recreation

By serving as a leader for interest groups and growing local outdoor recreation economies, state offices of outdoor recreation are turning heads in the industry and beyond.

By Jill Sanford March 15, 2018
Updated March 23, 2018*

When the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance first proposed a new trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1988, their painstakingly typed paper proposal gained little momentum. The climbers who wanted to improve an approach to a popular route would wait nearly three decades before their vision became a reality.

In 2015, “they finally broke ground on the project. It was made possible only through unheard of collaboration by the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance in partnership with the USFS, REI, the LDS Church, private landowners, and a handful of other local entities,” says Tom Adams, the director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. “It’s not just for climbers now, it’s for everybody.”

Listen to Tom Adams and Utah public lands Trailblazer Ashley Korenblatt talk about the power of collaboration between government and private business.

The Lower Little Cottonwood Canyon hiking and climbing trail is the largest climbing access trail project on U.S. Forest Service land in the country, but that’s not the only reason it’s significant. Thanks to Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, the project was ultimately successful in bringing together diverse voices and user groups, something that might not have happened without the leadership of Adams and his team at the helm. Adams also credits Julia Geisler of the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance as a leader who helped make this a reality.

Throughout the country, state offices of outdoor recreation are gaining steam and breaking ground on projects that improve communities, economies, and outdoor access.

Read about Adams’ Colorado counterpart, Luis Benitez:

A Rising Tide for Outdoor Recreation

“Three years ago, there was one office; two years ago, there were three offices; and now there are eight offices and a few operating commissions,” says Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, the Outdoor Industry Association’s state and local policy manager. “We’ll see a few more happen this year.” By serving as a leader for interest groups and growing local outdoor recreation economies, state offices of outdoor recreation are turning heads in the industry and beyond.

“We don’t have to depend on the federal government for leadership here.” —Steve Barker, founder of Eagle Creek and member of OIA’s Recreation Advisory Committee

While increasing challenges face the outdoor industry on a federal level, there’s a renewed focus on how to grow the outdoor recreation economy, which officially contributes $373 billion to the GDP, according to a preliminary report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and is responsible for $887 billion in annual consumer spending. National recognition of these statistics is growing and a friendly arms race among states has begun. Each of the seven offices of outdoor recreation, the three commissions, and the four states with pending bills seek to establish themselves as a leading hub for both outdoor recreation and the industry—prioritizing conservation, access, and economic growth like never before.

Listen to OIA’s Cailin O’Brien-Feeney and Stewart Lewis talk about the offices of outdoor recreation movement in this episode of Audio Outdoorist. 

“In some ways, it’s a reaction to what’s happening at the federal level,” says Steve Barker, founder of Eagle Creek. In addition to serving on OIA’s Recreation Advisory Committee, Barker is one of many OIA members in support of pending legislation that would establish a state office of outdoor recreation in California, his home state.

“Within the states, especially where these offices of outdoor recreation are organized, what we’re seeing is that people are more than willing to spend money on local conservation projects,” says Barker. “There’s maybe a reaction or a renewed focus to get a lot done at the state and local level. We don’t have to depend on the federal government for leadership here.”

In addition to conservation efforts, the states with established offices of outdoor recreation are also focusing their attention on driving economic growth.

“There’s a lot that we are still learning about how to grow the outdoor recreation industry,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “That’s very much the job of these offices. Whether it’s through formal surveys, official gatherings, advisory councils, or informal conversation, the core responsibilities of a lot of these organizations is to support the outdoor recreation community, which includes a lot of OIA members, and to improve economic opportunities at large.”

State Leaders Convene as Momentum Increases

On January 24, 2018, the eight offices of outdoor recreation convened in the first biannual summit of this magnitude, the Outdoor Industry Recreation Confluence. Hosted by Luis Benitez, Colorado’s director of outdoor recreation, and John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s governor, the conference focused on collaboration, friendly competition, and four main tenants that each office can bring to their respective states—economic development, conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, and public health and wellness.

A Q&A WITH COLORADO’S TOP OUTDOORIST

The summit involved almost 80 people whose conversations helped craft the Colorado Accords, a report that will be shared publicly later this spring.

“This time last year, Luis Benitez, Jon Snyder (of Washington’s state office) and I were sitting at Outdoor Retailer, just the three of us. We were the only offices of outdoor recreation, and just last month we just had our first Confluence in Denver. Over the span of one year, we went from three to roughly nine offices or task forces,” says Tom Adams. “The 2018 Confluence wasn’t the first meeting of its kind. But it gave us the opportunity as a group to come together and really think about what we want to do collaboratively, how we want to unify as offices of outdoor recreation throughout the states, and what we want to stand for from that 30,000-foot level.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN IS WASHINGTON

This unity and collaboration received widespread attention, especially since the state offices and commissions themselves differ so greatly from one to the next and are growing rapidly in number from year to year.

The Formation and Function of an Office of Outdoor Recreation

“The needs and opportunities of each of these states is different,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “Creating an office of outdoor recreation isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Each state that we have seen take this step so far and each state that is considering it puts their own local flavor on the creation of an office of outdoor recreation.”

Offices vary from state to state in their size, structure, and even what branch of government they are housed in. Some might be established within the state offices of economic development, parks and recreation, commerce, natural resources, or tourism. Others are the result of a gubernatorial decision and are located within the office of the governor.

Regardless of what department an office or commission is established under, a state has to choose between two options if it is interested in pursuing its own office of outdoor recreation.

The first is a legislative route, meaning that the state’s lawmakers vote the office or commission into action. The second is an executive or administrative order from the governor, which usually first creates a commission or task force to evaluate how an office of outdoor recreation would be created.

“On the one hand, there’s permanence and structure but sometimes it is a longer process when states go the legislative route,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “On the other, there’s expediency but less certainty in regard to where the budget comes from or what the goals are if the office develops from governor action.”

State offices and commissions of outdoor recreation “serve as conveners, resources, problem solvers, recruiters, hubs for data and expertise, and advocates for the outdoors,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “Each state, because of its local differences, is going to do this in a different way. They are all finding success because they are taking an approach that is unique to their own state.”

The states with active offices of outdoor recreation are Utah, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Montana, North Carolina, and Wyoming. Vermont and Maryland have gubernatorial task forces or commissions that are studying the viability of an office of outdoor recreation, and Rhode Island’s task force has recently submitted its year-long study to the governor.

Green Mountain State Gold

We Got Another One

California, West Virginia, Alaska and New Mexico are the four states with active legislation that O’Brien-Feeney is confident will pass in 2018. In California and West Virginia, the passage of these bills would create two more offices of outdoor recreation. Alaska’s bill is a request for the governor to create an office. New Mexico’s legislation, on the other hand, would create a study to examine what branch of government the office would be created in and how this office should be funded.

*Update, March 22, 2018: New Mexico and West Virginia’s legislative sessions have ended meaning that no further action will be taken on the office of outdoor recreation bills mentioned in those states in 2018. In California, support for Assembly Bill 1918 continues to grow having received a favorable 8-0 vote from the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee on 3/20.

States with Offices of Outdoor Recreation Have a Leg Up

“The thing that really unifies these offices,” says O’Brien-Feeney, “is that they all share the common goal of growing their state’s own recreation economy and improving opportunities for outdoor recreation within the state.”

Utah’s office of outdoor recreation, for example, was established in 2013, making it the first in the nation. In the five years since, it has grown from a governor’s directive into a department within the state’s office of economic development.

“While the office of outdoor recreation has helped move more outdoor brands to the state of Utah, it has also found that other companies outside of the outdoor industry have referenced that access to the outdoors is one of the reasons that they chose to set up shop or expand there,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “Because Utah’s office of outdoor recreation is housed within the office of economic development, part of its effort is to bridge that gap between economic development and tourism.”

Offices of outdoor recreation can facilitate a new level of collaboration, often bringing together different interest groups that otherwise wouldn’t consider working in tandem, as was the case with the climbing and hiking trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

This type of collaboration and economic growth isn’t unique to Utah. Each of the states with offices or commissions of outdoor recreation emphasize local cooperation centered around economic growth and access to the outdoors.

As the Momentum of State Offices Accelerates, So Does Their Potential

“Offices of outdoor recreation represent sort of a watershed moment and are really gaining steam for a variety of reasons,” says Bob Ratcliffe, the National Park Service’s chief of conservation and outdoor recreation programs. “From my perspective, it’s the most exciting advancement in the recognition of outdoor recreation as a key part of economy, quality of life, and regional planning.”

Ratcliffe and the National Park Service recently commissioned the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University (USU) to explore how these state level initiatives evolved in order to better facilitate local partnerships and stewardship of public lands. The study is being conducted by Dr. Jordan W. Smith and Brooke Sausser.

“My interest,” says Ratcliffe, “is to have a better understanding of what ingredients are emerging from these offices and how federal agencies can better align and support public land policy that helps achieve those goals.”

The national recognition of these state offices of outdoor recreation doesn’t stop there.

“Eventually, we will start seeing people elected to serve in Washington who are coming from these local state offices,” says Barker. “If we are focusing on these issues at the local level, it ensures that back in D.C., the House members and senators will end up as advocates of outdoor recreation and its benefits.”

Not only do state offices benefit the local economies and communities they serve, these offices will increasingly impact federal policies and priorities in the years to come.

Read about five local economies that have benefited from investments in outdoor recreation infrastructure.
Richmond, Virginia
Bentonville, Arkansas
McCook, Nebraska
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Ogden, Utah

“It makes sense to bring a group of states together to advocate for their interests at the federal level,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “That’s the next stage that we will see—how these states will band together and advocate for recreation at the national level.”

State offices of outdoor recreation lead to productive conversations, action, and legislation that serve the outdoor industry on both a local and national level. These state offices will continue to grow in quantity and impact, ultimately strengthening local economies and benefiting the overall economic and political impact of outdoor recreation.

The collaborative yet competitive spirit of the January Confluence in Denver will continue this July in Asheville, when the state offices of outdoor recreation will once again convene to discuss how to best strengthen their local economies and grow the outdoor community.