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An exclusive interview with Oregon's newly-hired outdoor recreation leader

As Outdoor Industry Association's state and local policy manager, Cailin O’Brien-Feeney helped states and local communities advocate for outdoor rec opportunities. Now he's diving deep into one.

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Cailin O'Brien Feeney portrait
Cailin O’Brien-Feeney is moving on from OIA to lead Oregon’s outdoor recreation office.Courtesy

When Cailin O’Brien-Feeney attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, more than a decade ago, he was introduced to backcountry skiing, went on his first overnight rafting trip on the Rogue River, and explored the wonders of the redwood forests and Sierra Nevada mountains. He went on to work stints with the U.S. Forest Service and as a river guide in Idaho, and has been the state and local policy manager for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) since 2015, helping communities advocate for outdoor recreation. 

Last fall, O’Brien-Feeney considered it a huge victory when Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed legislation into law creating the state’s very own OREC office. And now he’s going to be the office’s leader under the direction of the Parks and Recreation Office. In an exclusive interview with O’Brien-Feeney on Monday, we asked him about his priorities and if he’ll continue to bike to work.

Fill us in on what you’ve been doing with OIA.

Cailin O’Brien-Feeney: I joined OIA in 2015 to start what we’ve called the Close-to-Home Program. While the industry has shown up and always should show up in Washington D.C., there’s also a lot of decisions and potential at the state level with state legislatures and governors’ offices, and at the local level through county commissioners and at the ballot box. When we started, the idea was really to help support OIA members, and the groups that they work with, advocate for better access, funding, or new opportunities for close-to-home outdoor recreation. We’ve done that by helping pass bills, working with other elected officials, and also supporting ballot initiatives.

I’ve seen the number of states supporting outdoor recreation grow from three to 11. It’s been really exciting to see this idea not just grow in the west, but across the country with states and communities recognizing the multiple benefits of outdoor recreation to individuals’ health and wellbeing, to the economy, to communities. I’m thrilled to be able to take the next chapter and do the real work of that in one place.

In this new role, is it going to be all business or are you going to have some fun?

COF: As a first order of business, I certainly hope that I’ll still be biking to work. That’s a big priority for me. And I’m equally comfortable in a suit or a GORE-TEX suit. I want to make a lot of initial connections with folks through shared experience outside—one of my favorite things to do. I’m hoping people in Oregon will show me around the backyard that they know so well. At the same time, I do have experience in government, in industry, and in nonprofits, and it’ll be exciting to me in a more of a policymaker-type role. But it still is about outdoor recreation and it should be fun. I hope to continue to balance my personal interests and my professional interests in the outdoors. I don’t foresee any challenges doing that.

What does Oregon need and what are they already doing well?

COF: It’s easy to start with what they’re doing well because Oregon has amazing natural resources. There’s high desert, volcanoes, an entirely public coastline, pretty good stream access laws, the opportunity for every fifth grader in the state to get a week of outdoor education (passed on the ballot in 2016), state parks, and Business Oregon and Travel Oregon working together on some really important stuff. There’s a really well established non-profit community. The higher education world is looking at outdoor recreation education opportunities and new degree programs. And of course there’s a very well established industry with great legacy brands and also new up and comers.

There is a lot of energy, but I think as a state, we don’t know who isn’t participating that might want to and what their barriers are. Is it time, cost, transportation, or other things? I think my first order of business will be to listen and understand where there might be an opportunity to fill in the gaps. Some of the first things that I’ll be working on are: The formation of a formal advisory group to solicit some of that input and help the projects that are already underway. A statewide economic study that drills down into the details, which is something I worked on at OIA. Then, there’s big picture questions. What are the laws and policies and programs that don’t currently exist that could help all Oregonians enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation? Equity and inclusion are going to be a big focus of mine.

What are some places in Oregon that you’re stoked to explore or revisit?

COF: One of my favorite spots is this really little ski area in Eastern Oregon called Anthony Lakes. It has a single chair lift and it’s pretty close to Boise, Idaho, where I used to live. I also did a yurt trip up in the Wallowa Mountains, and climbed and skied Mt. Hood. I’m really excited to get reacquainted with the coast and explore the Umpqua River. I’ve gotten more into mountain biking living in Boulder and there’s some really famous trails and a lot of good community-based trail building that’s happened in the 10 or so years since I’ve lived in Oregon. There’s no shortage of things I’m excited to do.