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Policy & Government

Outdoor recreation advocates hone in on California

In a state with a diverse set of stakeholders, the outdoors is common ground and momentum grows around the creation of an office of outdoor recreation.

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“California has the granite walls of Yosemite, we have the Sierra, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the Shasta-Cascade region, the Redwoods and our pristine coastline,” said Katie Hawkins, an advocate for outdoor recreation in the Golden State.

So why is it taking so long for California to establish an official office of outdoor recreation, like 13 other states have done?

“In every corner of the state we have a natural landmark worth preserving and we also have an outdoor industry that both supports and is supported by these outdoor icons. We have a larger recreation economy than any other state in the country, but we also have the highest population, and it’s our job to make sure all those moving pieces, the land, the economy and the people, continue to thrive,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins is the membership manager for the California Outdoor Recreation Partnership (CORP), a growing coalition of 60 outdoor industry brands, nonprofit partners, and affiliated organizations that are rallying support for recreation on a legislative level in the state’s capitol.

CORP might have been formed by businesses—think of it as California’s own Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)—but their policy objectives and legislative priorities are more holistically centered around the future of the recreation, access, and natural resource management in the state.

What’s on California’s to-do list?

Their top policy asks for 2019 include SB 45, which is also known as the Wildfire, Drought, and Flood Protection Bond Act of 2020 and will likely end up as a four to five-billion-dollar bond measure around climate resiliency on Californian’s ballots next year. Another important piece of pending legislation CORP is backing is AB 209, the California Outdoor Equity Act. According to Hawkins, this would require the state’s Natural Resources Agency to develop and implement a community access program focused on engagement programs, technical assistance, or facilities that maximize safe and equitable physical admittance, especially for low-income and disadvantaged communities.

But the number one priority for CORP is seeing AB 1111 pass the finish line this year. This bill would establish an Office of Outdoor Recreation (OREC, for short) in California—something that other states including Utah, Colorado, and most recently, Maine and New Mexico have already created to prioritize outdoor recreation as an economic and environmental driver.

“An office of outdoor recreation would be a great way to sort of rally our government resources and combine them with our private industry resources to effect these policies,” said Matt Lyon, president of Hydrapak and CORP board chair. “This office is a very interesting concept and we’re pursuing it because the Outdoor Industry Association has introduced it in several other states and found that its effective.”

ORECs throughout the country have been successful in establishing environmental grants funded by transient occupancy taxes, investing in trails and other outdoor recreation infrastructure, and increasing equitable access to the outdoors for all.

Statistics on California show that the state is a force in the outdoor recreation industry.Outdoor Industry Association

California, with its thriving economy and high population, contributes $92 billion in consumer spending on outdoor experiences each year, according to OIA. Only 56 percent of Californians get outside on a regular basis, however, something that an office of outdoor recreation could change by creating more opportunities for all Californians to get outside.

“Most cities and states will face this eventually, but California is definitely on the front edge of the challenge of urbanization and the increasing inequality that accompanies it,” Lyon said. “Coming out are statistics that show the participation rate of youth in the outdoors is dropping, especially in urban locations. We’re finding that increasingly, access to the outdoor space and natural resources is an issue.”

Equitable access to the outdoors as well as climate resiliency and natural resource management will remain top priorities for CORP while they continue to lobby on behalf of AB 1111, which is currently being reviewed by the state’s Appropriations committee. Throughout the rest of year, CORP will work alongside legislators to garner support for state’s office of outdoor recreation, including the author of AB 1111, Assembly member Laura Friedman from Glendale.

Last year, a bill to create an office of outdoor recreation in California passed through state legislature only to be vetoed by the outgoing governor. But this year, local as well as national advocates for the bill are optimistic about its chances to pass thanks to a growing awareness of state offices of recreation, lessons they’ve learned over the last year and a new governor with outdoor roots.

“It’s certainly apples and oranges when you’re comparing administrations, but we’ve been led to believe that [Governor] Gavin Newsom is more of a recreationist and is more favorable to the idea of an office of outdoor recreation for the state of California, so we’re very hopeful that the new administration alone will be able overcome any challenges we faced last year,” David Weinstein, OIA’s state and local policy director, said. OIA has had an active role in seeing other states’ ORECs established and continues to support CORP’s efforts in California.

But despite this growing momentum around outdoor recreation policy and CORP, California’s size and diverse set of challenges mean that it’s not as straightforward of a process as in other states with smaller legislatures or fewer interest groups.

“We have a lot of different stakeholders and we want to make sure we’re doing it right,” Hawkins said of the legislative process. “That means we’re playing the long game. And it just takes time. CORP has only recently formed within the last two years, but today we have the most organization, collaboration, and momentum than ever before to push our priorities through to the finish line.”