Governors are acknowledging not only the economic power of outdoor recreation but its dependence on healthy landscapes.
Governors are acknowledging not only the economic power of outdoor recreation but its dependence on healthy landscapes. (Photo: Michael DeYoung/Tandem)

Outdoor Recreation Offices Are Popping Up Everywhere

Why the new crop of state recreation offices are about more than just outdoor sports

Governors are acknowledging not only the economic power of outdoor recreation but its dependence on healthy landscapes.

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In late October, five new states signed on to something called the Confluence Accords, joining a coalition of now 13 states that have created dedicated outdoor-recreation offices. Yawn, right? Who really cares about bureaucratic underlings shaking hands? In this case, we all should. The steam building behind state rec offices is a rare positive piece of political action. Governors are acknowledging not only the economic power of outdoor recreation—an $887 billion industry—but its dependence on healthy landscapes. They’re doing bipartisan work to shore up rural economies, like in solidly red Wyoming, where recreation is the second-biggest economy. And they’re formally committing to the physical and mental health benefits of recreating outside.

Utah governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, formed the first state recreation office, in 2013, to support the outdoor industry, which last year added more than $12 billion to the state’s economy. The office grew out of a point of conflict, when the Outdoor Retailer trade show first threatened to leave the state because of Utah’s friendliness to extractive industries. (In the end, OR did leave for Colorado, the next state to form a recreation bureau).

Over the following five years, six more states—Wyoming, Montana, Vermont, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington—formed similar offices, and in 2018, they developed the Confluence Accords, four voluntary tenets delineating how to promote conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, public health and wellness, and economic development. They considered those to be the pillars of best practices for the recreation industry. Now Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia have signed on. 

Nathan Fey, director of Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, says that the most powerful driver behind this momentum is plain math. In September, the Bureau of Economic Affairs released a report that found recreation is growing faster than the nation’s economy as a whole—3.9 percent in 2017, compared with 2.4 overall. “Recreation is 2.2 percent of the nation’s GDP,” Fey says. “That’s significant. Any state looking to diversify their economy would want a part of that pie.”

In total, 16 states now have some kind of recreation office or task force. Each functions slightly differently. Oregon’s is a subset of its state-parks department, for example, while Vermont’s commission is chaired by the state forester. They also have slightly different plans for threading together recreation and conservation. In Maine, state director Carolann Oulette is building up the workforce for the state’s heritage outdoor brands, like L.L.Bean and Sterling Ropes. The Utah office has worked with the BLM and recreation groups like Access Fund to defer drilling leases near Dinosaur National Monument and the town of Virgin. Tom Adams, director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, says there are still tension points with oil and gas, but they’ve been able to find places to compromise.

In 2018 in New Mexico, Democratic governor Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned in part on the economic value of outdoor recreation. Three months into her term, the state legislature created a state recreation office and a first-of-its-kind $100,000 Outdoor Equity Fund, which gives micro grants to nonprofits and tribal groups to get low-income youth outside. The idea is to make sure that small-scale financial barriers (not having boots, for instance) don’t keep kids from recreating.

That state-specific development approach is becoming increasingly important in rural areas struggling to retain residents. The research group Headwaters Economics found that rural areas with recreation options have both more people moving in and a faster earnings growth.

The bipartisan push behind recreation as an economic boon is framing complicated issues in ways that make sense for everyone.

Fey says that job creation, whether that means bringing outdoor brands to his state or building trails to create new recreation hubs, is a way to make issues that have become partisan—like protection for public lands—palatable to all sides. For instance, he says, he can’t come in hot from the Front Range and tell someone in Nucla, a western Colorado town reeling from a closed coal mine, that they should start a guiding business. The solution has to fit the scene. But he’s been spending time in rural counties that are already moving away from coal and other extractive industries. In Montrose, just 50 miles from Nucla, the city and state collaborated on a new outdoor-goods manufacturing campus.

Axie Navas, the director of New Mexico’s new Office of Outdoor Recreation (and a former Outside editor) says much of her initial focus is on connecting outdoor businesses—from rafting companies to gear manufacturers—to federal grant money, tax initiatives, and other funding sources. This has worked well in other states: Utah leveraged $10 million of rural grant money to build 155 trail and other infrastructure projects that brought in $78 million in economic gains. Those kinds of metrics give state recreation offices financial clout that could bubble up to the federal level despite the current congressional gridlock. “We have goals of elevating the industry’s voice to a level equal to that of tech or agriculture,” says Annelise Loevlie, the CEO of Colorado-based Icelantic skis, who is on the advisory council for Colorado’s outdoor-recreation office.

Fey says that could look like permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for protection of public resources through offshore drilling fees and royalties, or passing the bipartisan Recreation Not Red Tape Act, sponsored by Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop, which would mandate a recreation component for federal land management. 

So what sounds at first like more bureaucratic noise ends up being a lot of what’s missing from politics right now. The bipartisan push behind recreation as an economic boon is framing complicated issues in ways that make sense for everyone. It’s listening to locals and connecting their worries to big-picture policy. Most important, it’s thinking concretely about what we might have to prioritize to make economic growth sustainable, both financially and environmentally, while keeping communities healthy along the way.

“The question,” says Navas, “is how do we have a sustainable economy that does good for these places and doesn’t just use them up? Even recreation can be destructive. We have to protect them and hold this space. Otherwise, there’s no point.”