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Paddling forward: Nathan Fey is the new director of Colorado's OREC

Formerly with American Whitewater, Fey has worked behind the scenes with Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office since its inception in 2015.

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Nathan Fey, acting director of Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry
Nathan FeyLinkedIn

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office didn’t have to look far to replace Luis Benitez, after he announced in March that he was leaving for VF Corporation. Nathan Fey has had his nose underneath the office’s tent since its early days. He was a consultant, had a seat on the advisory council, and was hired as deputy director on March 1. Only three months later, he was promoted to director.

Before his full-time role with the office, Fey spent 12 years at American Whitewater as director of Colorado’s river programs. The avid kayaker and outdoorsman had his hands in fundraising, advising policy with the Outdoor Alliance in Washington, D.C., and coordinating with partners such as the Access Fund, International Mountain Bike Association, Winter Wildlands Association, and more—all connections that will buoy his future work for the Centennial State.

SNEWS caught up with Fey to talk plastic waste, rafting the Grand Canyon, and the challenges and momentum of the greater outdoor recreation movement.

Your office joined the Plastic Impact Alliance. What kind of impact do you think the outdoor industry could have by reducing their plastic waste?

Nathan Fey: Our industry has run up against challenges, such as recycling used kayaks. It’s outlived its lifetime of usefulness and now what do we do with it? We once had really good recycling programs in the kayak industry, but they weren’t viable because transportation costs were too expensive. The industry can really lean in on those opportunities a little bit more because we are large, we have a big footprint, but we also have a really strong ethic because we identify ourselves closely with public lands and waters and protecting those places. It’s not a reach for us to think critically around reducing our footprint. But we also don’t have to take it upon ourselves. We can find good partners in other industries to help incentivize programs. This is an issue that isn’t unique to the outdoor recreation industry—we just have a unique perspective on it.

At Outdoor Retailer, we can get in front of the issue by bringing our own reusable plastic water bottles. We can plan ahead and work with local distributors that have Colorado-sourced spring water and taps. We can make simple changes like that. We’re very innovative as an industry and we can think quick on our feet. We just need to keep doing that.

Graphic of states with outdoor recreation offices, as of May 22, 2019
The statuses of states in the outdoor recreation movementOutdoor Industry Association

Will every state eventually have an OREC office? Can you give us an update on the Confluence of States?

NF: I think it’s entirely possible. I think it’d be more than just the 50 states. Puerto Rico is working on an office. It’s a very bright future. The industry as a whole right now suffers from this patchwork of rules and regulations. Once we are organized, my hope is that we can streamline all of that and have really substantial resources for public health and wellness, and higher education and youth development programs. That way, we can improve the ability for everyone to spend more time outside because it’s good for their personal health and organizational health and wellbeing. It should just make us a better nation as a whole.

In the last couple of months, I’ve been working with Carolann Ouellette in Maine. The state is in a really good position to sign on [to the Confluence of States] in the next couple months. Similar conversations have been going on with Michigan and Nevada. They both have legislation working through their state governments.

What are the biggest hurdles to establishing offices?

NF: What we hear from every state working on developing an outdoor recreation office is that nobody wants to create an additional or unnecessary level of government. We can look at what happened with California. What was being proposed was duplicative of most of the work being done by existing governments under state government. The challenge is creating a new charter that is specific to supporting the outdoor recreation industry and figuring out how they do what they want to do, which is maybe coordinating and building on existing programs, then figuring out how OREC can be the lead on things like DEI, conservation and stewardship, and workforce development. 

Pink clouds over San Luis Valley in Colorado
The San Luis Valley is on Colorado’s Western Slope, the more rural part of the state. Efforts are underway to improve transportation and technology.Christian Collins via Flickr

How has Colorado benefitted from the office?

NF: Outdoor recreation is now about 10 percent of Colorado’s annual GDP and it employs almost a fifth of our workforce. We have an annual economic impact of $62 billion in the state. We had a $9-billion increase in consumer spending, $11.3-billion increase in wages and salaries, and an additional $7 billion in tax revenue. We’ve added over 280,000 outdoor recreation jobs. Data from Outdoor Industry Association and from the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan show that between 2015 and 2017, we’ve seen a 20-percent increase in the number of Coloradans recreating on public lands and waters. We’ve elevated the role that Colorado plays in the outdoor industry and the advantage that we have in natural capital, diverse landscapes, enterprise zones and opportunity zones, and rural areas. All of that has contributed to us celebrating and expanding this burgeoning economy. We are now the strongest state economy in the U.S.

Obviously, there’s lots of momentum. But what challenges do you see ahead?

NF: Infrastructure is a huge challenge. That’s not unique to the outdoor recreation industry. Rural parts of Colorado are still lacking in transportation and technology access, which means there are challenges in taking products out of the manufacturing space and getting them onto a more national or global market. I know rural economic work is a huge priority for the governor too. Rural areas of Colorado rely on singular-sector economies, such as oil and natural gas or mining. Those communities then suffer the highs and lows as that one sector changes. When there’s a boom, everyone is booming. When there’s a bust, everybody’s feeling the pain. Because of the finite nature of those resources as well as the direct and indirect environmental degradation, those communities require a shift toward something more sustainable.

What is being done to get people from diverse backgrounds outside?

NF: It is a huge topic in the industry. Specific to our office, we’ve had a youth ambassador program the last couple of years and that program is coming to an end. Yesica Chavez will summarize lessons learned and create a report on how we can engage more diverse, more minority, more disadvantaged communities in the industry. It’s not just building climbing walls and amenities and parks, but also making sure they have access to workforce development and the talent pipeline if they want to pursue a job or career in manufacturing or retail or conservation and stewardship. 

What are you doing to bring in new businesses and also support existing business?

NF: In the last couple weeks, we’ve made sure we’re coordinating with the other divisions within the Office of Economic Development—the small business center, the minority business office. We’ve been building a framework, a tool kit that other outdoor recreation offices can use to support startup companies or new companies looking to manufacture in the state. We now have a pretty comprehensive set of tools to work with outdoor industry members and implement wherever they are, like Pagosa Springs or Craig or the San Luis Valley. 

Nathan Fey in a raft
Nathan Fey worked for American Whitewater for 12 years before becoming director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.Courtesy

Last question. What’s your favorite mountain or river story?

NF: A handful of years ago, I took a group of inner city Latino youth down the Grand Canyon with a group called Nuestro Río. These were kids from Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Denver, and the Phoenix/Tucson area. The epic moment I had on this trip, aside from going down the canyon with a bunch of wide-eyed kids, was on the first night. It got dark and half the kids didn’t have flashlights. When I asked some kids why they didn’t pack one, they didn’t know why you’d need a flashlight at night because they never got out of the city. It’s always bright at night in the city. Once they got over the fear factor of the darkness, they started to turn their attention to the sky and look at stars that they’d never seen before. This was a first for them, along with running rapids, camping on the beach, seeing stars and bats. Not having a headlamp can seem like a little bit of a burden, but for these kids it was life changing.