It’s the beginning of a renaissance outdoors … inside state capitols.
Like an old bear awaking from hibernation, state officials in places like Utah and Washington are once again recognizing the value of outdoor recreation at higher levels. Well-known industry names like Mark "Roody" Rasmussen of Petzl and Dan Nordstrom of Outdoor Research, are getting a seat at the proverbial table next to Governors Gary Herbert of Utah and Jay Inslee of Washington, and even up to national level with U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Together these brands, retailers and politicos are discussing the significant economic potential of outdoor recreation, estimated at $646 billion in 2012 by the Outdoor Industry Association.
“This is where the power of a company is able to come in and say, ‘My company creates products that get Americans outside, and when they get outside they spend money,’” said I Ling Thompson, VP of marketing and communications with OIA.
OIA estimates show that for every dollar spent on a piece of outdoor equipment, four more dollars are spent on “creating the experience,” things like lodging, food and transportation. And that’s a low approximation.
Leading the way
Outdoor recreation has always been a player for many states, particularly out West, but several recent events have helped bring it to primetime status.
In Utah, a fight between the industry and state officials over using federal and state lands to bring in more energy dollars (highlighted by SNEWS in the 2012 Summer Market O.R. Daily) turned into a recognition of how much outdoor dollars those lands also bring in.
Even though Utah ranks 20th in the nation in terms of consumer spending on outdoor recreation, according to OIA, 61 percent of its land is federally owned. And whether in national parks, state parks, or Bureau of Land Management land, there’s still a lot of untapped potential to increase those outdoor dollars.
In less than a year, Utah and the industry went from fistacuffs to creating the nation’s first official state office Outdoor Recreation. It’s a move that isn’t without skepticism of political grandstanding — and the end results will tell the true story — but most agree, it gives outdoor proponents a greater voice in the debate.
Utah’s Office of Recreation is unique in that its sole purpose is growing the state’s outdoor economy, separate and in addition to the Office of Tourism. On a daily basis, Office of Outdoor Recreation Director Brad Petersen said he focuses on two key players: the outdoor products industry, “making sure we’ve created the business environment for them to be successful,” and outdoor services, “developing the recreation infrastructure around the state to make sure we’re capturing the dollars around those activities.”
These efforts aim to perpetuate “the circle of life” of the outdoor economy. Bringing in tourists necessitates that gear shops, guide services, lodging and dining are open to accommodate them. Those businesses employ people and pay taxes on their revenue, which sends money back to the state, providing dollars that can be repurposed into new outdoor tourism advertising campaigns to encourage more visitors.
And so far, it hasn’t just been just lip service to the outdoors. During this past fall’s government shutdown, Utah commendably recognized the negative consequences of its National Parks being closed. It was the first state (soon followed by Colorado, South Dakota, Arizona, New York and Tennessee) to spend its own state dollars to reopen its National Parks and federal recreation areas six days before the shutdown ended. It spent $1 million in state funds to do so, generating 153,400 visits and $9.9 in visitor spending, according to National Park officials. Not a bad payoff, and there’s a chance the federal government may reimburse the state in the near future.
“We know it was very painful for the gateway communities to be completely shut down in that way, and we don’t want to wait for that to happen again,” Petersen said.
Outdoor retailers can also benefit from the Office of Outdoor Recreation’s effort more directly. Businesses looking to either get started or improve somehow — e.g. by expanding their retail space — can apply for state and county grants that would help with the funding. Local brands and manufacturers have the opportunity to apply for similar monetary gifts. Petersen wants Utah outdoor companies to know, “We’re here to support you.”
Out-of-state companies have the opportunity to work with Utah county government bodies to plan events. Brands like SRAM and Kawasaki are already taking advantage of the excellent mountain biking and ATV trails that the state has to offer, coordinating with local governments to hammer out the “when and where” details of their events. With plenty of hiking, paddling and snowsports opportunities, Petersen said the list of outdoor industry brands that could take advantage of Utah’s hospitality is nearly endless.
Joining the club
The state of Washington also recently made headlines with political moves to highlight the benefits of its outdoor recreation. It created a blue-ribbon task force to address the issue, which recently named its members, including REI Director of Government Affairs Marc Berejka and Outdoor Research CEO Dan Nordstrom (see full list below.)
Initially inspired by a Big Tent Coalition of outdoor-oriented non-profits, user groups, small trade associations and REI, the task force will bring the potential of outdoor recreation to the forefront — and not just its economic benefits.
Berejka said the benefits of outdoor recreation are threefold: there’s the public health component, which involves encouraging people to play outside because it’s good for their bodies and minds; the community and economic health component, which takes into account research showing communities with parks are likely to attract more highly skilled workers and have lower crime rates; and an environmental health component, which assumes that individuals connected with the outdoors are more apt to do what they can to protect it.
Funded with a combination of public and private sector money, the task force cast is composed of individuals from both outdoor recreation and general business, environmental education organizations, local and federal recreation and tourism agencies, and outdoor enthusiasts.
“[We want to show that we’re] not taking outdoor recreation as a business for granted, but that we’re doing what we can to cultivate it,” Berejka said.
Although nothing is set in stone, he expects that the task force’s agenda items will include reinstating Washington’s official travel bureau — it didn’t survive budget cuts during the economic recession — and working to close the funding gaps in the state park system.
“Once [outdoor recreation] is on the top tier of economic drivers, it becomes so much easier to make the case for why we ought to have a well maintained recreation infrastructure,” Berejka said.
What brands and retailers can do
In order to really benefit from the steps that Utah and Washington are taking, brands and retailers need to step up to the plate and engage in the conversation. Utah’s Petersen wants to know, “What else can we be doing that we’re not doing? What is the best use of our public lands to monetize recreation?”
Both he and Berejka encourage those in the outdoor industry to take advantage of field hearings and public forums to tell officials what barriers they can break down and how best they can work to monetize recreation on public lands — even if they don’t live in Utah or Washington.
“The biggest thing is good lines of communication between the industry and policymakers at all levels,” Thompson at OIA said, “so they start to understand the industry and understand the reason that it’s important for us to invest in places for people to get outside and enjoy the outdoors.”
On March 27, the state of Washington named the members to its Blue Ribbon Task Force on Recreation, including quite a few names familiar to the outdoor industry:
Barb Chamberlain -- executive director, Washington Bikes
Doug Walker -- CEO, WRQ and The Wilderness Society
Marc Berejka -- director government and community affairs, REI
Joshua Brandon -- military organizer, Sierra Club Outdoors
Russ Cahill -- retired, Washington and California state parks manager
Dale Denney -- owner and outfitter, Bearpaw Outfitters
Patty Graf-Hoke -- executive director - Kitsap Peninsula Convention and Visitor's Bureau
George Harris -- CEO, Northwest Marine Trade Association
Connor Inslee -- COO and program director, Outdoors for All
Ben Klasky - chief executive officer, Islandwood
Noah McCord -- leader, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Youth Council
Dan Nordstrom – CEO, Outdoor Research
Spencer Olson -- communications hub director, Fuse
Tom Reeve -- chair, Trust for Public Land
Shiloh Schauer -- executive director, Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce
Louise Stanton-Masten -- executive director, Washington Tourism Alliance