Washington Just Threw Down the Gauntlet

By tapping his state's first recreation advisor, Governor Jay Inslee—along with chief executives in Colorado and Utah—has sent Western policymakers a strong message and a challenge: Support the outdoor industry or lose one of your state's biggest economic engines.

By Avery Stonich February 19, 2016

When 200 outdoor recreation industry executives, nonprofits, guides, conservation groups, and other stakeholders gathered at the Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition annual rally in Olympia, Washington, on February 3, they had a lot to celebrate.

A year earlier, members had been biting their nails during a record-long legislative session, unsure if outdoor interests would triumph or tumble. On the table was a bill that would create a state-level position for outdoor recreation, and fund No Child Left Inside, a grant program to support outdoor education and recreation programs.

The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, making Washington the third state to designate a state-level position to promote outdoor recreation. On January 12, Jon Snyder took the reigns as Washington Governor Inslee’s policy advisor for outdoor recreation and economic development, giving him front-line access to the state’s top policymaker and his purse strings. Snyder’s charge is to bolster the state’s outdoor industry and increase participation in outdoor recreation.

With vast and diverse natural resources, Washington likely felt pressure to join the race or get dropped. Back in 2013, Utah started a trend by creating the first state Office of Outdoor Recreation in the nation, naming a director to lead it. Last year, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appointed Luis Benitez as the first director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

Unlike Utah and Colorado, which created departments with directors, Washington established a policy advisor position. Snyder says this could give him an edge in influencing policy.

“The governor uses them [policy advisors] to develop policy positions and background material on a variety of policy issues. And they also give input on the governor’s budget every year. So there’s a different kind of mechanism of access there to the governor, the most powerful policy voice,” says Snyder.

Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, local recreation advocacy manager for Outdoor Industry Association, says it’s not so important how a state establishes a position as it is that it simply gets done. “States have to decide for themselves whether legislation or an appointment makes more sense—OIA and our members are just excited to see this trend grow,” he says.

Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, local recreation advocacy manager for Outdoor Industry Association, says it’s not so important how a state establishes a position as it is that it simply gets done. “States have to decide for themselves whether legislation or an appointment makes more sense—OIA and our members are just excited to see this trend grow,” he says.

Snyder brings a deep resume of outdoor industry and public policy experience. He started Out There Monthly, a magazine focused on outdoor recreation in the Inland Pacific Northwest. In his nine years as publisher, Snyder became intimate with outdoor recreation issues in Washington, and recruited national outdoor industry businesses to support the magazine. Snyder also spent six years as a Spokane city councilmember, championing causes such as the city’s first Complete Streets ordinance, Spokane County’s Conservation Futures Program, and the Spokane River Centennial Trail.

“It was a good boot camp for the sometimes contentious issues we’ll have at the state level,” says Snyder.

Washington’s success in creating Snyder’s position is a testament to the influence of the outdoor industry when it rallies around an issue and speaks with a common voice. Less than five years ago, Washington’s Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition was in its infancy, working to corral outdoor recreation organizations, environmental organizations, and land and conservancy groups to raise awareness of the importance of the outdoor recreation sector to Washington State.

Central to the argument is the economic impact of outdoor recreation in Washington, which generates $21.6 billion in annual spending and supports 199,000 jobs—more than aerospace and information technology—according to a study published by Earth Economics in 2015. The economic benefits of outdoor recreation touch communities large and small across the state.

Spurred by the Big Tent Coalition, Washington Governor Jay Inslee established a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation in February 2014 to develop a strategy to better manage and leverage Washington’s outdoor recreation assets, increase outdoor participation, and bolster the state’s outdoor recreation industry.

Barb Chamberlain, chief strategic officer for Cascade Bicycle Club, the nation’s largest statewide bicycle nonprofit, co-chaired the task force, which spent six months collecting 3,700 comments from Washington citizens. “We kept hearing the same themes,” says Chamberlain. “The need to coordinate, the need to work across boundaries, the need to find more money to invest.”

In September 2014 the task force issued its final recommendations, with the top priority to support the outdoor recreation industry and create a state-level position to oversee it.

Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research, served on the task force and fought hard to recommend the position. “I felt like it was the lowest cost and highest potential impact thing that the state could do,” he says.

Based on the task force’s recommendation, Democratic Senator Kevin Ranker sponsored a bill in the 2015 legislative session to create a state lead on economic development and outdoor recreation. Four Democrats and four Republicans joined him as co-sponsors of the bill, which passed with broad support from both sides of the aisle.

“I think it’s an acknowledgement of the importance of the economic engine that the outdoor industry provides,” says Benitez.

In his remarks at the Big Tent Rally, Snyder acknowledged the power of a collective voice In making this happen: “In just five short years, you’ve shown that hunters and fishers can come together with surfers and cyclists, from Colville to Camano Island, from Seattle to Spokane, motorized and non-motorized, wakeboarders and standup paddleboarders, birdwatchers and biathletes—can all find common ground and push government forward.”

Now that the champagne has been poured, it’s time to get to work. “What a lot of people envision with this position is to see the outdoor recreation aspect in parts of state government where it hasn’t been anyone’s responsibility before,” says Snyder.

“It gives the array of stakeholders in the outdoor community an opportunity to work with a single point person at high levels of government in order to raise awareness of the importance of outdoor recreation to Washingtonians, to our quality of life and to our economy,” says Marc Berejka, director of government and community affairs for REI, who also served on the task force and is vice president of the Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition.

Access, permitting and interagency coordination have already bubbled to the surface at hot buttons in the state.

Katherine Hollis is Conservation and Recreation Manager for The Mountaineers, a nonprofit that has been introducing Washingtonians to the outdoors for 110 years. The volunteer-based organization has had to scale back its program offerings due to changing permit requirements on federal lands.

“The most important thing the governor’s office and Jon can do in that role is figure how can we start having more interagency communication and support on this,” says Hollis, who serves on a federally focused Outdoor Access Working Group. “We have to be getting people outdoors for them to care about these places. What conservation is going to look like 50 or 100 years from now depends on who has connection to these places.”

Nordstrom agrees that access is a key issue. “These state offices have a master role to play in representing the average state citizen’s interest in how to gain access and how to participate in the federal land within their state,” he says.

States have an opportunity to work together to share ideas and potentially elevate issues to the federal level. “We all agree that there are things that we’re going to have to stand together on,” says Benitez.

The growing voice of outdoor recreation seems to be waking up policymakers to the benefits of outdoor recreation—for citizens, communities, health, the economy, and the environment.

“It’s becoming a political issue. It’s not a nice-to-have anymore, it’s a must-have—for the economy and for quality of life and for a lot of other reasons. And if it’s a must-have, there need to be people working on it and thinking about it every day,” says Jessica Wahl, OIA’s recreation policy advisor in Washington, D.C.

“We stand for healthy people, healthy places, and a healthy planet. And along the way, we generate over 6 million jobs nationwide, so we’re good for the economy,” says Berejka. “I can’t think of another sector that does more.”

“We stand for healthy people, healthy places, and a healthy planet. And along the way, we generate over 6 million jobs nationwide, so we’re good for the economy. I can’t think of another sector that does more.”—Mark Berejka, director of government and community affairs for REI.

With Washington stepping up, the jury is out on what state will be next. “This is a third in what I hope is 50 states coming on board showing the value that recreation plays in their state,” says Wahl.

“I call this a friendly arms race among the Western states to see who can put more resources into outdoor recreation. I like our position in it and I hope that it encourages other states to ratchet it up and challenge us back,” says Snyder.

Idaho, Oregon, California, Montana—the heat is on.

And, says O’Brien-Feeney, OIA is looking at other states such as North Carolina and those in the Northeast, to tap into their strong recreation economies to raise the bar for states outside the Mountain West.

Click here to learn more about what Outdoor Industry Association is doing to support states like Washington improve close-to-home recreation policy.