Wisconsin Scores Midwest’s Second Office of Outdoor Recreation

The OREC movement is picking up steam, sweeping the middle of the country and bringing out states’ competitive streaks.

By Jill Sanford September 5, 2019

“Outdoor recreation is the number-one-reported reason people come to Wisconsin,” says the state’s Tourism Secretary, Sara Meaney. “We know that it isn’t just the residents that partake in it. Wisconsin actually has the third-largest number of nonresident fishing licenses in the country. People come from all over the place to fish in our rivers and streams and lakes.”

It’s also home to the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America and has the third-largest number of downhill ski areas of any state, according to Meaney. It borders two Great Lakes, a huge boreal forest, native prairies, 10,000 miles of navigable waterways, more than 10,000 lakes and the Mississippi River.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that, earlier this summer, Wisconsin became the 15th state to create an office of outdoor recreation, or OREC for short. And yet, it was a surprise — a pleasant one — to a lot of people who have been working hard to capitalize on the OREC movement that has so far swept the Rocky Mountain West and begun emerging on the East Coast.

“We saw a notable shift in 2019 in regard to OREC creation” says David Weinstein, OIA’s state and local policy director. “OIA, and our NGO and for-profit partners in the outdoor space have and continue to advocate for ORECs. But as states more readily understand the potential, and now track record, of these entities, and after National Governor Association’s launch of the Outdoor Recreation Learning Network, government officials who want to see offices created are approaching us if they need help or are going it alone. It can be hard to keep track of the interest and potential throughout the country, and that’s one of our favorite challenges.”

Read about Outdoor Recreation Learning Network

For Meaney, who will supervise Wisconsin’s new OREC director (an open position for which the state is currently seeking qualified applicants), this investment in outdoor recreation and tourism will have a rippling impact on the state’s local economy.

“In creating the vision for the Office of Outdoor Recreation, it isn’t just about having fun, it isn’t just about vacation,” she says. “Our slogan for tourism in Wisconsin may be, ‘we know fun,’ but what we’re doing in tourism is really economic development. The tourism industry in Wisconsin is the third-largest industry. That’s $21.6 billion dollars of economic impact in Wisconsin and 199,000 directly related to tourism.”

And the primary driver for both in- and out-of-state spending on Wisconsin tourism? Outdoor recreation, by a landslide.

According to OIA’s report, outdoor recreation is a $5.1 billion contributor to Wisconsin’s economy.

“Wisconsin’s outdoor rec economy is robust and growing,” says Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports and longtime outdoor recreation advocate in the state of Wisconsin. “Coasties dismiss Wisconsin as a ‘flyover state,’ but they’re missing so much. The diversity of our outdoor recreation opportunities is almost endless.”

Listen to Darren Bush on an episode of Audio Outdoorist talk about how Rutabaga has become a fixture in the community and helped to nurture Wisconsin’s outdoorist sentiment.

Home to retailers like Rutabaga and the world headquarters for major outdoor brands such as Trek Bikes and Wigwam, Wisconsin is no small fry in the outdoor industry. Meaney herself recently transitioned to her current position from a career in advertising for active lifestyle brands, having attended and also been a speaker at Outdoor Retailer in years past. Despite Meaney’s familiarity with the industry and all its benefits, however, the creation of this office came down to the facts and figures.

“As soon as we started looking into this, it just made sense. I was looking at competitors’ data,” says Meaney, referring to other states, with and without ORECS of their own. “I was looking at our own data and research, and the more I started talking about it and looking at it, I started asking, why are we not doing more with this? And now is a really great opportunity to start. Now is the time to start telling people about some of the things that maybe haven’t been talked about as much.”

Because, like many states, Wisconsin views outdoor recreation as one critical tool for revitalizing local economies whose traditional industries are no longer supporting the quality of life they once did.

Read more about how communities across the country are turning to outdoor recreation to revive and reinvent their local economies in our Health Communities, Healthy Economies series.

Minnesota’s approach to creating an OREC varied from Wisconsin’s. Legislation for a Minnesota OREC cleared a couple key committees in the statehouse, but ultimately fell short before the 2019 session ended. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Ever proposed the state OREC in his February budget bill. The legislature debated and amended pieces of the budget bill and approved the OREC, clearing the way for the governor to sign it into law. He did so on July 3, without much fanfare or media attention, making Wisconsin the second state in the Midwest, after Michigan this past May, to create an OREC. The new office was announced alongside the governor’s $1.5 million investment in the general marketing budget for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

“The upper Midwest provides a great case study for comparison of the mechanisms used to create these offices,” says Weinstein. “Establishing an office via executive order is faster and less politically messy than through the legislative process. Executive action, however, is tied to an executive who will be termed or voted out of office eventually, leaving the fate of an office in the hands of a new administration. Legislation to create offices is more time consuming, and often more difficult, but requires the imprimatur of two branches of government and becomes part of the permanent architecture of the state government.” Weinstein notes that no matter the manner of office creation, the process can remain dynamic: “One of the many reasons we’re excited about the establishment of NGA’s Outdoor Recreation Learning Network is the consolidation of information and best practices. Perhaps Wisconsin, and other states, will take a page out of Utah’s playbook, a state that began with an executive order before codifying their office with legislation.”

Weinstein notes the most important lesson to glean from all of this is that recreation is an increasingly critical element of any state’s tourism strategy. He notes that the work OIA has been and will continue doing, now with the Outdoor Recreation Learning Network, is exceedingly cooperative, with states supporting one another and sharing best practices. But, he says, a little healthy competition can’t hurt anything, especially if it creates urgency and pushes more states to prioritize ORECs and recreation policy in their efforts to expand their economies.

“Since I will be serving on the committee that advises the [OREC] office, I have a personal interest in driving economic activity to bring much-needed dollars to rural communities who may sit on the shores of a river but glean little benefit from those who use it,” says Bush. “We cannot take these cities and people for granted.”

Meaney agrees, pointing to economic development as a primary responsibility, priority and motivation for her team as they promote Wisconsin as a premier tourist destination.

“We know that research tells us that recreation strengthens communities. We know that it connects people. We know that it drives healthy lifestyles. We know that it creates jobs,” she says. “But we also know that it can help rural communities as much as, if not more than, urban communities. And Wisconsin, like so many states, has an interesting challenge ahead. We need to continue to build on the economy of rural communities that have more recently struggled because so many of them are agriculturally based. And farming, especially dairy farming, has been really challenging in recent years.”

To do this, Wisconsin’s OREC will strengthen local economies through four main focal points: promoting both local and out-of-state tourism through outdoor recreation attractions, putting money back in the pockets of small business owners and the communities where these activities take place, promoting active lifestyles for Wisconsin residents, and protecting public lands and waters to foster a sense of stewardship in all Wisconsinites.

“Outdoor recreation has always been a part of the story of Wisconsin. It hasn’t always been the primary story, nor does it have to become the only story,” says Meaney. “But the office of outdoor recreation can connect all of the stakeholders that drive the outdoor industry in our state to develop new initiatives, shared priorities, and potentially pool resources.”