Efforts Continue in Minnesota to Create an Office of Outdoor Recreation
Despite broad awareness of the state’s recreation economy and a promising push during the 2019 legislative session, a bill to create the state’s office stalled out. Here’s what we learned.
“In Minnesota, there’s a long history of loving time outdoors,” says REI’s director of government and community affairs, Marc Berejka. “It’s the land of 10,000 lakes, and Minnesotans consider venturing outdoors any time of year as part of their tradition, part of their fun.”
Minnesotans live and breathe outdoor culture of all kinds, from ice skating and snowmobiling in the winter to paddling and hiking in the summer. But it has yet to establish an office of outdoor recreation or OREC for short. Despite a promising push for one earlier this year, the bill to create a Minnesota OREC hit a dead end when it didn’t make it into the state’s final budget in late May.
At the time of reporting, 14 other states have created ORECs. The first one was established in Utah in 2013.
An OREC’s exact role varies from state to state, but the common thread that ties them all together is how they serve as advocates for recreation interests and elevate the outdoors as an economic driver.
“From what we’ve seen, an office like this helps bring these people together and provides an industry focal point and an opportunity to be a coordinating body,” says Andrew Pappas, OIA’s manager of state and local policy. “Creating this office in Minnesota would have supported the growth of the industry within the state while bringing people together.”
In Minnesota, the OREC was proposed as part of the state’s tourism department and was designed to elevate the state’s $16.7 billion outdoor recreation economy. A primary focus of this bill was also to provide equitable access to the outdoors for all Minnesotans, particularly for minorities who live in urban environments. And as the demand for and approval of other ORECs across the country proves, concentrating advocacy efforts at a regional, more local level has big implications for recreation policy on a larger scale.
“Truth be told, 90 percent of the dollars spent on outdoor recreation infrastructure are spent by state and local government,” says Berejka, whose role at REI includes elevating OIA’s efforts to see more of these OREC adopted in more states and supported advocacy efforts in Minnesota. “So, it’s imperative that anybody who wants to sustain, who wants to expand access to outdoor places, work at all levels of government. Particularly, that we work at the state and local level.”
In Minnesota, those who supported bringing an OREC to the Land of 10,000 Lakes hoped primarily that an office would act as a bridge between different organizations and stakeholders, fostering greater collaboration to better serve outdoorists from the Boundary Waters to the inner cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
A primary focus of this bill was also to provide equitable access to the outdoors for all Minnesotans, particularly for minorities who live in urban environments. And as the demand for and approval of other ORECs across the country proves, concentrating advocacy efforts at a regional, more local level has big implications for recreation policy on a larger scale.
“So, what’s really needed–I refer to it as the pollinator role, so forgive the nature metaphor,” says Minneapolis-based Sarah Milligan-Toffler, the executive director of the Children and Nature Network, a national organization that tackles issues related to equitable access to the outdoors. “What I see the offices of outdoor recreation doing is really serving a role at the state level to bring together a lot of the nonprofit partners that currently aren’t connecting–really connecting with the state health agencies, with education, with parks, with transportation–all of those systems really do interact and impact nature access.”
And the current lack of collaboration between stakeholders in Minnesota very well might have been one of the large reasons why this bill didn’t make it out of budgeting to be signed into law this year.
“There’s work to be done to foster greater collaboration,” says Berekja. “But if the legislation eventually makes it into law, one of the additional functions of the office will be to raise that big tent and demonstrate that together in Minnesota, like in other states, outdoorists can come together and create more opportunities for everyone.”
While Minnesota won’t get another chance to form an OREC until 2020, there is a rising awareness about how important outdoor recreation is to the state, both as an economic driver and as the backbone of its culture. And above all, there’s a desire to make sure when and if an office is created in the state of Minnesota, it’s done right.
“I think that there’s support, I think that there’s momentum, it’s just about creating more alliances and partnerships to build,” says Milligan-Toffler. “It takes time. We’re not going to break down the silos in state government, but we can create connective tissue between them, and I feel like that’s really the role of this office. Because if it ends up being another program with its own silo, we’ll be missing so much opportunity.”
Supporters of Minnesota’s OREC will continue to rally support and foster greater collaboration, breaking down these silos and bringing the state’s key stakeholders together for next year’s legislative session. In short, Minnesota is a state that lives and breathes the outdoors, and it’s not yet prepared to accept defeat when it comes to growing its outdoor economy and seeing recreation accessible to all.
“We are excited to build on the great progress that was made,” says Pappas, who also credits the authors of the bill, Representative Jim Davnie and Senator Carrie Ruud, for their leadership and collaboration on Minnesota’s OREC. “And we look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders across the state to ensure an office is created that grows Minnesota’s $16.7 billion outdoor economy, drives coordination amongst all the agencies who work to support the state’s outdoor recreation industry, and ensures Minnesota’s outdoors are accessible to all.”