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Policy & Government

Round 2: Utah guv’s top advisers meet with OIA to discuss state’s outdoor strategy

A month after a somewhat contentious meeting with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, OIA met again with the governor's advisers last week to request a greater commitment by the administration to recognize and define the economic impact of Utah's public lands and outdoor businesses.

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One month after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert faced 90 minutes of tough questions from the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) board of directors about his state’s controversial public lands policies and strategies to accommodate the growing Outdoor Retailer show, the two sides are still talking.

In late August, a high-level delegation from Utah met with OIA executives in Boulder, Colo. to discuss plans to raise the profile of outdoor recreation in the state’s economy. The gathering came just before the expiration of the 30-day deadline set at the Aug. 1 board meeting to develop a new framework for Utah and the OIA to work together.

After these latest meetings, both sides seem satisfied by the progress. “The meeting was constructive and collegial, and they were pleased that we would make the flight over there to follow-up on the initial discussion,” said Alan Matheson, the governor’s top environmental advisor and a member of the delegation. “We presented to them a process for developing a vision for the Utah outdoor industry by the time of the winter trade show in Salt Lake City,” he added. Joining Matheson were Derek Miller, the governor’s chief of staff, and Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

While the question of whether Outdoor Retailer stays in Salt Lake City after its current contract expires in 2014 looms over the current conversation, the two sides are focused on a much broader topic, according to OIA president and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer. “During [Outdoor Retailer Summer Market] there was a lot of rhetoric about us giving Gov. Herbert an ultimatum about the future of the OR show,” he explained. “To be honest, that wasn’t an accurate reflection of what we discussed.”

Hugelmeyer told SNEWS the bigger issue for OIA is to push Utah and other states to recognize at the highest levels the importance of the outdoor industry to their economy and quality of life. “We are challenging Gov. Herbert to come up with a strong economic vision for recreation and public lands,” Hugelmeyer said. The OIA president wants Utah to develop an economic strategy for the outdoors on par with the state’s energy strategy. “Utah’s ten-year vision for energy development is featured on the governor’s website. It’s very impressive, detailed, and aggressive,” said Hugelmeyer. In contrast, he continued, outdoor recreation doesn’t have an equal vision and therefore lacks a seat at the table when issues like oil and gas development come up. “The fact is that [Gov. Herbert] has a vision for one, and not a vision for the other. Until he develops a strategy for outdoor recreation in Utah, he can’t talk about having a balanced vision.”

Matheson claims that Utah’s political leaders already understand that the outdoor industry and outdoor recreation are critical parts of Utah’s economy and quality of life. “What came out of the [Aug. 1] meeting was the question of whether it makes sense to have a formal outdoor recreation vision for the state,” he added. “The governor thought that’s a good idea.”

Matheson said that Utah will complete its new vision for Utah’s outdoor economy by the time Outdoor Retailer returns to Salt Lake City for Winter Market on January 22, 2013. He admits the timing is “accelerated” compared to the deliberative pace of government. “It’s quick, but it’s something we’re committed to.”

One contributing factor Matheson didn’t mention is that a decision about whether Outdoor Retailer stays in Salt Lake City or moves to another city like Denver, Las Vegas, or Anaheim is expected around the same time, according to earlier statements by Nielsen Expositions, the owner and operator of the trade show.

When it comes describing what the final product for Utah’s new outdoor vision will be, both sides are short on details. “Exactly what it looks like remains to be seen,” explained Matheson. “But it will be some kind of report that outlines the impact of outdoor recreation in the state, both economically and in terms of quality of life, and explores the assets that Utah has.” Matheson also suggested that the plan would resemble the state’s energy strategy in detail and scope.

No matter what it looks like, OIA’s Hugelmeyer is hopeful the outcome will raise the stature of the outdoor industry in Utah and serve as a model for other states. “If Utah succeeds in defining a vision that meets the values and expectations of its stakeholders, they will be trailblazers,” he said. “There isn’t a world-class economic vision for public lands or recreation in any state.” In most places, he claimed, strategies for outdoor recreation are rolled into tourism or another industry category rather than being recognized as a standalone economic driver. “If all of a sudden we can go from not being included in the conversation to having a ten-year vision, it will be a fundamental shift in how we’re going to be viewed,” he said.

As the governor’s office and the OIA get busy recruiting stakeholders and collecting data to craft Utah’s new outdoor vision, there is one cautionary tale to note of success and failure on a similar front.

Back in 2002-2003 when the outdoor industry and Utah politicians last tangled over public land policies and a cramped Salt Palace Convention Center, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and his successors, Gov. Olene Walker and Gov. Jon Huntsman, established and launched the Outdoor Recreation Task Force. While the task force’s stated goal was to highlight Utah’s recreational assets, it was also created to appease OIA’s demands and keep the OR show in Salt Lake City. Composed of members from state and county governments as well as the outdoor industry, the group met several times a year during the mid-2000s. In addition to successfully advocating for a convention center expansion and defining Utah’s recreational “Crown Jewels,” the task force pushed for the creation of full-time position inside the Governor’s Office of Economic Development devoted to Utah’s outdoor economy. That job, held since 2009 by Riley Cutler, the co-owner of Salt Lake-based Wasatch Touring Company, is tasked with promoting Utah’s Outdoor Products and Recreation cluster—one of eight clusters targeted by the state.

But despite the accomplishments of the Outdoor Recreation Task Force (preserved at an unmaintained website), and Cutler’s advocacy on behalf outdoor companies, OIA still claims the outdoor economy isn’t valued in Utah. “You can’t just say we have a sector and not support it,” Hugelmeyer said. “The vision process needs to go to a whole other level to be viewed as meaningful change.” Reminded about the neglected task force, the OIA president said the fate of the current project depends on the commitment of Utah’s political leaders. “Whether they succeed, or it turns in to another outdated website, remains to be seen,” Hugelmeyer said. “We’re going to do everything we can do see that this becomes a meaningful product.”

–Jason Stevenson