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Policy & Government

The Dream Team

State outdoor recreation czars join forces to chart a course for the future.

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Playing outside is serious business. More and more state governments are getting organized to maximize their outdoor economies by establishing offices devoted to the business of recreation. As of this week, there are eight state offices and task forces: Utah, Colorado, Washington, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon. And for the first time, these individual leaders are all gathering together in the hopes of amplifying their impact.

It’s a new kind of cooperation. Even though some of those states might seem to be competing for the same visitors and money—like Oregon and Washington or Colorado and Utah—the leaders of these offices met yesterday with delegations of industry leaders from their states for the first-ever Outdoor Recreation Industry Confluence. They swapped best practices and identified common goals, hoping to benefit from an across-the-board interest in all things outdoors. The delegation heads to Washington, D.C. later this week to meet with their federal counterparts.

“This is a moment of gravity,” says Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s office of outdoor recreation, whose office organized this first summit. “It’s truly one of those historical things.”

Directors of these offices have worked to establish new education tracks at their state colleges and universities, align business and nonprofit leaders from different sectors of the industry, lobby and secure funding for maintenance of recreation assets, and recruit businesses to their states with outdoor recreation as the main draw. We asked them about their priorities, the significance of the Confluence, and where these offices fit in with the national conversation about the business of recreation.

Setting the Agenda

Jon Snyder, outdoor recreation and economic development policy advisor to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: It’s possible for people to really care deeply about some natural wild piece of land they’ve never been to, but it’s so much easier if someone has actually set foot on that land and recreated there. And that’s where recreation done right can have this great cycle where people do it, experience the benefits of being outdoors, and then they’re more interested in supporting it politically and financially. That creates opportunities for more jobs. It’s a nice, virtuous cycle if you get it right.”

Chris Havel, associate director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation within the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department: We want to establish the broadest possible purpose for convening an office of this sort, one that transcends economics and includes policy goals for access, public participation, resource stewardship, and long-range planning. We want it to lead to increasing the benefits of outdoor rec for individuals and communities—health and well-being, sense of family cohesion, improved economics, and quality of life for communities.

Jon Snyder: Public land is a big one. There are a lot of small policies and bills that have the potential for big impact, but public land, in general, is a big priority for us. In Washington State, we have not passed our capital budget from last year, which means about $150 million of outdoor recreation projects are hanging in the balance. Support for public land and national parks and monuments is really strong here, but how much money are we putting into that?

David Knight, director of North Carolina’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office:

It’s a little premature to figure out our goals [this is Knight’s first week on the job], but one of the first things I’d like to do is set up an advisory council. I want to figure out goals and metrics. We can certainly learn from what other states have done so far with their offices, and hear from experts and economic developers in the field, and get to know the folks working in this realm nationwide. Establishing this office shows a strong commitment by the state to really focus on supporting and expanding the current industry in North Carolina, as well as expanding with other businesses inside and out of the outdoor industry.

Identifying Challenges

Jon Snyder: Outdoor businesses have an eye to the future. Who’s going to be owning boats 20 years from now? Who’s going to be fly-fishing? Who’s going to be climbing and biking? They have concerns about that.

Michael Snyder, Commission of Vermont Forests, Parks, and Recreation: What no one’s arguing anymore is the need for us to take care of these places. We have an impact on them when we use them, and that conversation is huge. But we’ve got to build a structure that has a long-term funding mechanism for the environment. [Hunters and anglers pay excise taxes on gear to support fish and wildlife agencies, and hikers and campers don’t.] We have to talk about the elephants in the room, and this is one of them. Ten or 15 years ago, I don’t think “pay to play” would have worked. No way. But the conversation is being had now. I don’t think we’re ready to do it. It’s certainly part of the dialogue this fall.

Domenic Bravo, administrator of Wyoming’s Outdoor Recreation Office and State Parks: I think it’s going to be very critical that these offices figure out how to be multidisciplinary [and connect all the aspects of the industry, including hunting and shooting sports]. Perception is everything. I’m trying to make sure my office is attending various trade shows across the spectrum, including this show and SHOT Show.

Coming Together

Rachel VandeVoort, director of Montana’s Office of Outdoor Recreation: All of us meeting together really signifies a time when we’re standing up and verbalizing the needs of this economy. The creation of our state offices is just one more indicator that this economy is taking a step forward to be more nationally heard. For years, I don’t think our industry did a very good job of talking economically. Now, we’re all speaking in the same language of dollars and cents.

Jon Snyder: It’s sometimes easy to get in a bubble of your own city or your own state, and not have outside perspective. There are lots of smart people working on these issues, and [the Confluence] is a good opportunity to talk to them and bounce ideas back and forth. Sometimes, I feel like I have a part-time job consulting other states looking to start their own outdoor recreation offices.

Tom Adams, director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor
We have a super-strong industry. Look at OIA’s numbers—$887 billion each year. But this industry operates on a pretty slim margin compared to oil, gas, and pharmaceuticals. We need to show that we’re our own industry, that we definitely impact and influence pretty much every other business. [This industry] is where we live. Although Utah and Colorado in a lot of ways are competitive, Utah started the first outdoor recreation office and then the former director basically gave his playbook
to Luis [Benitez]. I’m glad we’re taking this first step toward becoming truly organized as group of
outdoor industry professionals and offices of outdoor recreation.

Benitez: Our hope is to create an overall platform for the industry, specific things we can agree upon. When we go forward at other future summits, and other states get added to the Confluence, this document will be ratified every single time. We won’t go back to the drawing board, but we’ll revise and ask what states see missing.

Michael Snyder: I think we could learn a lot from states who have more urban centers about how to make access to the outdoors more diverse. Equity is a raw issue here. Gear is expensive, travel is expensive. We’re serious about making this accessible to all kinds of folks.

This article was originally published in Day 1 of The Daily (winter 2018).