Power Players' Lounge: Outdoor recreation's role in a shifting economy

Back in the day, people viewed conservation issues through a "jobs versus the environment" lens. Thankfully, in many areas -- particularly the rural West -- those days are gone. Throughout the West, communities that once depended on logging, mining, oil and gas development, and other traditional extractive industries are now meccas for outdoor recreation and home to retirees with nest eggs drawn to mountain skylines, whitewater rivers and open spaces.
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In January 2009, SNEWS® named the industry's first class of outdoor industry Power Players (click here to read).

"Insight and inspiration provide an edge that everybody can use in these economic times," SNEWS reported when it announced the Power Players. "Both can be found by listening to people who have become business leaders. And that is the driving force behind the launch of the SNEWS Power Players -- an honor that will acknowledge outdoor industry leaders for varied accomplishments in different industry sectors."

To acknowledge the honor of being chosen as the first class of Power Players, the group wanted to collectively give back to the outdoor industry. Today, the 2009 SNEWS Power Players' Lounge opens in SNEWS.

Each week, through the end of October 2009, a new column will be posted to the Power Players' Lounge. It's intended to be a place where our industry friends can gather to read and hopefully discuss ideas for improving business -- especially important during these challenging economic times.

We encourage you to interact with others while hanging out in the Power Players' Lounge, and it's our hope their columns will inspire imagination and debate. Use the comments button at the top and bottom of each article to post your own remarks and observations, and to engage in discussion.

Power Players' Lounge columnists include: Bill Gamber, Joe Hyer, Jennifer Mull, Brad Werntz, Kristin Carpenter-Ogden, John Sterling, Josh Guyot, Mike Wallenfels, Beaver Theodosakis, and Sally Grimes.

This column was written by John Sterling, executive director of The Conservation Alliance (john@conservationalliance.com).

Back in the day, people viewed conservation issues through a "jobs versus the environment" lens. Protecting forests meant putting loggers out of work, and halting a mine was great for the mountain, but wreaked havoc on the local economy. Thankfully, in many areas -- particularly the rural West -- those days are gone.

Throughout the West, communities that once depended on logging, mining, oil and gas development, and other traditional extractive industries are now meccas for outdoor recreation and home to retirees with nest eggs drawn to mountain skylines, whitewater rivers and open spaces. In my hometown of Bend, Ore., the old lumber mill has been converted to a shopping mall with an REI store as the anchor tenant. Young, outdoorsy REI employees now sell climbing gear and backpacks in the same building where a previous generation milled logs.

Though old-timers in these communities grumble about change and long for the way things used to be, most folks welcome the shift from an extraction-based economy to one that depends on preserving lands for their recreation, habitat and open space values. The "Prosperity in the 21st Century West" study by the Sonoran Institute, said, "Wilderness, National Parks, National Monuments, and other protected public lands, set aside for their wild land characteristics, can and do play an important role in stimulating economic growth -- and the more protected, the better."

The study determined what many of us in the outdoor industry have known for a long time. Our wild landscapes have greater value intact than ravaged for the two-by-fours or natural gas deposits they hold. Extractive industries are notorious for their boom/bust cycles, while a more diverse economy dependent on high-end service industries grows faster and is more resistant to downturns.

I'm not an economic think tank, but I have been coming to Bend regularly for the past 40 years, and have lived here since 2002. Back in the 1970s, when the mills were humming along, Bend was a backwater. My friends in Portland wondered why the heck our family always hauled over to Bend for trips when Mount Hood was a short jaunt from the city, and there was a perfectly good ocean just a stone's throw to the west. The answer was simple: My parents loved the arid landscape, fishing the Deschutes and Metolius rivers, and the uncrowded adventures offered by the Three Sisters Wilderness. Other than outdoor recreation, there wasn't much to do here. No foreign films or sushi, but the adventures were plentiful. 

After the Ronald Reagan-led logging boom of the 1980s, Bend went into a near-depression. Timber-related jobs dried up. Shops in downtown Bend shuttered. Real estate was dirt cheap. People who lived there full time through that era called Bend "poverty with a view." But it was that view that saved Bend.

Gradually, people -- like my parents 20 years earlier -- discovered that Bend had a lot to offer. Outdoor sports became more popular. Nearby Smith Rock boomed as a climbing destination. More people discovered kayaking, mountain biking and all variations of snow sports. And in the summer, there was golf. By the turn of the millennium, Bend's lost timber economy was all-but forgotten, replaced by outdoor recreation, financial services and real estate (to support all those newcomers with retirement funds), and health care to tend to the ailments of a decidedly older demographic.

Bend's economy is now much more stable -- despite the impacts of the recent real estate bust. Conservation is no longer a political wedge here. Congress recently designated two new Wilderness areas near Bend. Our local developers, real estate agents and major employers all endorsed the designations. They argued that -- just as the Sonoran Institute (www.sonoraninstitute.org) study showed -- protected lands added to the quality of life here; made it easier to sell houses and attract new employees.

I'm sure variations of the Bend story can be told about Durango, Colo.; Bozeman, Mont.; Telluride, Colo.; Moab, Utah; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Asheville, N.C.; Bishop, Calif.; and other towns.

The outdoor industry plays an integral role in this shift from an extractive economy hostile to conservation, to a recreation economy that benefits from conservation. The industry builds the gear and clothing that helps people enjoy the outdoors. When that enjoyment leads to a passionate commitment to protecting nature, those people become advocates for conservation.

The jobs versus the environment mantra will never totally die, but it is increasingly relegated to the shadows of conservative talk radio, and to regions of the country under intense pressure to access energy resources on private lands, as with the coal deposits in the Southeast. The fight of the future will likely shift to the growing battle between non-motorized and motorized recreation. But that's a topic for another day. For now, I choose to enjoy the new and enlightened view that a protected environment creates jobs.

Nominate the next class of Power Players!– It's time for another set of outdoor industry Power Players to step forward in 2010. We're looking for nominations from you of the obvious, the up-and-comers or the under-the-radar leaders in any channel. This is a person who has power and makes a difference...and may not even know it. Do you know somebody like that? If so, SNEWS wants you to speak up, tap into our survey and name them by clicking here. Please respond by the evening of Oct. 1 to have your voice counted.

We have made this article public access, to ensure all may be able to read it. If you like what you are reading, and want to be able to fully participate in the discussions and view articles and expert corner columns in our archives, you’ll need your own SNEWS® subscription, which we’ve made really easy -- the SNEWS Freebie. Click here to activate your own SNEWS access today and become part of the strongest and most interactive outdoor and fitness industry community on the web today.

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