The politics of playing outside: Why we need more outdoor recreation offices

Across the country, an industry founded on fresh air is campaigning for state-level respect. Utah, Colorado, and Washington now have official government representation. Who will be next?
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THE OUTDOOR INDUSTRY IS FULL OF PASSIONATE PEOPLE, and passionate people have a lot to say. But as with any adolescent, the young industry has had trouble being heard.

Since 2013, local outdoor industries have been fighting for state-level recognition and a representative to bring their concerns to the legislative table. Utah’s was the first to achieve that goal, putting Brad Petersen at the helm of the first ever Office of Outdoor Recreation. Petersen's successor, athlete and industry veteran Tom Adams, has filled the position since January 2016.

Colorado followed suit with Luis Benitez in 2015, and Washington State hired on Jon Snyder to advise the governor on outdoor recreation as recently as this January.

Other states have shown interest in creating their own offices, and it’s the Outdoor Industry Association’s goal to see one in every single state. At the organization’s Capitol Summit event in Washington, D.C. last week, where dozens of industry executives and non-profit directors convened to lobby Congress on behalf of the industry, OIA members made it clear they want every state to have a stake in the outdoor recreation economy. OIA is advocating for more offices, and has been collaborating with existing state directors.

Tom Adams has been the director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation since 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Smith.

Tom Adams has been the director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation since 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Smith.

“Oregon is at the beginning of the process, but a lot of the ingredients are at a more mature state than when we started the process in Washington State,” said Marc Berejka, the director of government affairs for REI, who was deeply involved with advocacy work for the position in Washington.

Van Schoessler, president of the Oregon Outdoor Alliance in Bend, agreed.

“There are certain states that drive the industry, and we feel we’re one of those states,” he said.

For starters, Oregon is about 50 percent public land. That means the state is well-equipped to support a thriving outdoor recreation industry, which it does. However, that amount of property also necessitates frequent interactions between the state’s outdoor recreation industry and the federal government.

“We have to find an interface for that,” said Adam Baylor, Stewardship and Advocacy manager for the 120-year-old Portland-based mountaineering organization Mazama. “The systems we have are complicated. We really need a point person higher up to help organize that interface.”

All the moving pieces

Mazama has also been involved in organizing the Oregon Big Tent Recreation Coalition, similar to the Big Tent Coalition in Washington state, which was instrumental in securing state-level representation in Washington. Big Tent is just one component of the wider Oregon movement to strengthen the voice of the outdoor recreation sector.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden recently proposed the “Recreation, Not Red Tape” (RNR) bill to make the outdoors more accessible and to ensure the sustainability of that access. On the education side, Ruffwear, KEEN, Columbia, and a number of other Oregon-based companies have thrown their support to Outdoor School for All, a proposed ballot item that would fund week-long outdoor educational trips for elementary-aged children.

That’s a lot of turning gears.

“I think a state-level leadership position would bring all these energies together,” Baylor said. The net result? A stronger voice for the industry, and a coordinated look at the future.

“There are so many public health benefits and other advantages to being outdoors. It’s important to get more people outside but in a way that doesn’t hurt the land or natural resources. We need coordination to do that,” said Baylor.

Choosing the right vantage point
The natural resources and recreation industries that require representation vary with geography and therefore differ for every state. Washington and Oregon, for example, have beaches, islands, and a fishing industry to manage. Those come with challenges that have never crossed the minds of land-locked Colorado and Utah.

“[Given those differences] the biggest challenge for states that want to add this position is deciding where to put the office,” said Luis Benitez, Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, was appointed in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, was appointed in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

In Utah and Colorado, state-level outdoor recreation positions find their home in the Office of Economic Development, a division within the state government but separate from the Governor’s office.

Benitez said it’s been a good choice for Colorado, since the office provides him access to small business development groups and an understanding of existing businesses as well as how to attract new members of the outdoor industry.

On the other hand, having an advisory position in the Governor’s office itself would drop an outdoor representative closer to the heart of legislative decision-making, said Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, local recreation advocacy manager for OIA.

At the end of the day, the positions are likely to achieve the same effect, just from different angles, said Benitez.

“But these positions are all new, and we’re still learning,” he said.

A case study: Washington’s win
A state-level position can be established by a governor’s appointment or by legislation.

Though the position has to be created within the government, private companies and individuals still play a significant role in getting these offices established. Years before Washington’s Jon Snyder moved into his office, industry leaders were hard at work drumming up interest.

In 2012, a collection of outdoor organizations came together with the understanding that their voices would be louder together. The Big Tent Coalition, as they came to be called, included representatives from a wide variety of interest groups, including boating, fishing, hunting, bird watching and horse back riding.

“We wanted to collectively show our omnipresence to our legislators and hopefully get them to think of outdoor recreation as a must-have component of Washington State society and economy as opposed to a nice-to-have,” said Berejka.

Big Tent eventually wrote a letter to Governor Jay Inslee’s administration in fall of 2013.

“We made a point to say that outdoor recreation was an economic gem in plain sight,” said Berejka. In response to the letter, Inslee appointed an outdoor recreation task force, which made a series of recommendations, including the creation of a state-level advisory position. Shortly thereafter, an economic impact study was published, numbering Washington State outdoor recreation jobs at 200,000. An economic gem, indeed.

In January, Jon Snyder became Washington state government’s policy advisor on outdoor recreation and economic development. Photo: Heidi Arbogast

In January, Jon Snyder became Washington state government’s policy advisor on outdoor recreation and economic development. Photo: Heidi Arbogast

State legislators turned that recommendation into reality shortly after, bringing Jon Snyder on board as Policy Advisor for Outdoor Recreation and Economic Development.

Protecting the land protecting the industry
Like Washington, Oregon has a strong outdoor economy. There, outdoor recreation generates over $12 billion and employs over 100,000 people.

“Public lands have historically been oftentimes viewed as just a revenue generator for mining, timber, livestock, and, more recently, energy extraction,” said Kirstin Blackburn with Portland-based KEEN Footwear. Outdoor recreation provides an alternative – a way to use natural resources in a way that’s as sustainable as it is lucrative. KEEN’s Live Monumental campaign, launched in July of 2015, utilizes the company’s business voice to advocate for new National Monument designation across the United States. The campaign has helped generate conversation about the role conservation plays in the health of the outdoor industry and vice versa.

KEEN’s Live Monumental campaign is one example of the industry-conservation interface. Raising awareness of the economic power of the outdoors can lead to conservation and public access wins. Photo: Courtesy of KEEN

KEEN’s Live Monumental campaign is one example of the industry-conservation interface. Raising awareness of the economic power of the outdoors can lead to conservation and public access wins. Photo: Courtesy of KEEN

“We want to keep the backbone of the industry healthy and strong, which means protecting and preserving public lands,” said Blackburn.

With a state-level position, members of the industry are able to combine their voices, growing louder in matters of conservation and public land access. It’s a unity the industry never quite had before, said Benitez. Traveling throughout the state in outreach initiatives, Benitez has found that different sectors within the outdoor industry don’t always interact.

“The motorized community doesn’t interact with the mountain bikers, who don’t interact with the folks that fish or hunt,” Benitez said. “Trying to get all those people at the table to talk about collective issues in the state has so far been really powerful.”

Those issues range from recreation access to conservation issues. Having a cohesive outdoor industry ecosystem should benefit the entire system, but, Benitez says, small businesses especially stand to benefit.

“For a small specialty retailer, you now have a tremendous opportunity to plug into that larger ecosystem in a really effective way,” said Benitez. The result is a strong network of retailers that sweeps small businesses up in the tide of united forward progress and growth.

Progress report
Though his position is young at only 11 months old, Benitez said he’s already received positive feedback.

“The industry is excited to have a voice at a state level," he said. I think for the first time people feel they’re taken seriously as an economic engine of the state and a component of the cultural lifestyle and value proposition of what it means to live here."

Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation 2015 Annual Report was similarly triumphant. The state has approved an updated Search and Rescue Assistance funding plan, seen Vista Outdoor, Armada Skis, and Osprey Packs move or expand operations to Utah, executed two successfully Outdoor Recreation Summits, and extended the Outdoor Retailer trade show Salt Lake City contract until 2018.

Right now, Oregon’s own voice is coalescing, but they’re still in the grassroots stages of getting their own state representative, said Berejka.

Van Schoessler, president of the Bend-based Oregon Outdoor Alliance, said the one thing Oregon hasn’t quite achieved is a unified partnership between different outdoor industry centers across the state.

“We need to get buy-in from both the agencies and the business side — all the people who are going to be affected by this and helped by this [state-level position],” he said.

Graphic by Corey Buhay.

Graphic by Corey Buhay.

Other states, including Rhode Island, Alaska, Montana, and Vermont might not be far behind, according to Berejka and O’Brien-Feeney.

Yet it's not an easy task. Drew Simmons, president/founder of Pale Morning Media and one of the organizers of an event in Vermont last month to get the ball rolling with his state's legislators, called it an uphill climb and part of a long-term process. "Some of the ideas we’re presenting are entirely new to the legislators that we’ve interacted with so far," he said.

Forty members of the outdoor industry convened in Montpelier to present statistics on the outdoor recreation economy and request an Outdoor Recreation Director role in Vermont state government.

Bill Supples of Mammut and Drew Simmons of Pale Morning Media lobbied for creating a dedicated outdoor rec office in Vermont last year. //  Photo: Alan Hurwitz

Bill Supple, CEO of Mammut USA and Drew Simmons, Founder/President of Pale Morning Media, recently presented their case for creating an Outdoor Recreation Director role within the Vermont state government. Photo: Alan Hurwitz

"Guests and legislators at the event definitely embraced and understood the 'outdoor recreation' part of our presentation … they get the need and importance of access to water, trails and mountains," said Simmons. "What they don’t seem to immediately grasp, however, is the scope and value of this economic sector. It’s more than just Vermont as a four-season destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s about the businesses that call Vermont home for 12 months a year."

For Vermont, it amounts to $2.5 billion in annual consumer spending and 34,000 jobs, according to OIA stats.

In January of 2016, Rhode Island established the Rhode Island Outdoor Recreation Council, a task force similar to Washington’s, charged with advising the governor on ways to promote outdoor recreation and tourism. Alaska, the state with the highest per-capita outdoor recreation spending, will host a Summit on the Outdoors for industry stakeholders in June, 2016.

Thanks to lobbying from industry leaders, it’s not just states that are catching onto the economic value of outdoor recreation. Just last month, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the federal government will be measuring the outdoor industry as part of GDP for the first time ever.

Right now, the measurement is just part of a pilot study. To make outdoor recreation a permanent fixture on the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s list of accounts, contact your state representatives about passing the Recreation’s Economic Contributions (REC) Act, which both the Senate and House of Representatives are currently considering.

Interested in a state-level representative? Ask your governor to appoint an outdoor recreation director or task force, but, perhaps more importantly, reach out to your neighbors and peers in the industry. Regardless of company or discipline, partnership is vital, says Scoessler. Ask your friends and competitors alike to stand with you, enter the conversation about the value of outdoor recreation, and make the industry’s voice a little louder.

Corey Buhay is a Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer. She spent 10 days investigating Oregon’s outdoor retail scene in February, 2016, and has been following the state’s industry news ever since.

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