Utah blazed a trail when it established the Office of Outdoor Recreation in 2013. Since then, 10 other states around the country have followed suit and created entities to promote outdoor recreation. Brooke Sausser and Dr. Jordan Smith from the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University partnered with the National Park Service to conduct a study analyzing how state offices balance economic development and natural resource conservation when promoting outdoor recreation.
The study, communicated in a report titled “Elevating Recreation Together,” found state offices of outdoor recreation are tailored to the needs of their states. Offices vary widely in organizational structure, location within government and priorities. The origins of Utah’s office can be traced to 2003 when the Utah Governor’s Council on Balanced Natural Resources developed a statewide vision on outdoor recreation as well as an Outdoor Products and Recreation Cluster within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Ten years later, the outdoor recreation industry was given more influence over state policy through the creation of a formal office. Oregon, Washington and Wyoming followed that format of a multi-step gradual implementation. Other states, such as California, Montana and North Carolina took a more direct approach.
Regardless of their differences, the report concludes, “all state offices of outdoor recreation seek to further develop, promote, or enhance the outdoor economy – whether they define it as improving opportunities for outdoor recreation, increasing consumer spending, or expanding employment opportunities.” Moreover, the report claims state offices of outdoor recreation “universally recognize that their industry is fundamentally dependent on the health of, and access to, natural landscapes.” However, the report also notes, “Each state office is nuanced in how they perceive the connection between economic development, conservation, outdoor recreation, and its many other benefits and their role in providing them.”
Given those nuances, the report separates the state offices into three categories: “Industry FIRST, Industry AND Industry AFTER.” The distinction is based on whether state offices perceive outdoor recreation as a means to economic development or as an end in and of itself. Utah’s office was defined as “Industry AND,” which means the office takes a balanced approach by supporting “not just the outdoor economy but also conservation, education, or other benefits of outdoor recreation such as improved health or quality of life.” Notably, Utah has a larger percentage of public land, 70 percent, than any other state included in the report.
Tom Adams, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, agreed with Utah’s classification in the report. Adams, speaking with The Times-Independent during the Utah Outdoor Recreation Summit, discussed how Utah has been ahead of the national curve when it comes to outdoor recreation. He said the annual summit, which was held Sept. 4-6 at Zermatt Resort near Heber City this year, is the epitome of the office’s efforts to facilitate collaboration among the various stakeholders in outdoor recreation. Over 450 people registered for the 2018 conference, with public land managers, manufacturers, retailers, policy makers, economic development experts, health care specialists and many others involved with tourism and recreation in attendance. Adams noted that representatives from Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Oregon came to the summit to figure out how to implement a similar conference in their states. “People are watching what we’re doing,” he said.
Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation states its mission is “to ensure all Utahns can live an active and healthy lifestyle through outdoor recreation.” Yet the office also considers people from outside the state, since it posits outdoor recreation is the primary driver of tourism in Utah. At the outdoor recreation summit, Gov. Gary Herbert remarked that outdoor recreation contributes about $12 billion to Utah’s economy each year. Furthermore, outdoor recreation generates $737 million in local and state taxes while employing over 110,000 people and resulting in $3.9 billion in wages.
Adams talked about one of the office’s other major initiatives, its outdoor recreation grant program. The program seeks to help Utah communities build tourism through construction and expansion of outdoor recreation amenities. Herbert highlighted the program in his speech at the conference, noting how revenue generated by lodging taxes has been earmarked for local-level projects to improve trails, climbing areas, boat ramps and other outdoor amenities. To date, the program has funded 101 projects, two-thirds of which are in rural areas. Grand County has twice received a grant from that program, once for the bouldering park at Lions Park and more recently for the new horse corrals at the Courthouse Rock campground. Adams said $4.3 million was awarded to 58 different projects in 2018.
Attracting more businesses to Utah is another role of the office. Adams said they “work really strongly with corporate recruitment… to help businesses come here and to thrive here too.” As a branch of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation is always trying to develop partnerships with the private sector to benefit Utah’s economy, while still ensuring the preservation of the natural resources that make outdoor activities in the state so appealing, he said.
Utah’s stunning outdoor scenery, and the recreation opportunities it provides, is the state’s best asset to attract new businesses. Utah Outdoor Partners, a business coalition founded by Rep. Mia Love and her former election opponent Doug Owens, emphasizes the importance of Utah’s natural environment for its economic future. A survey commissioned by the group asked fast-growing firms why they came to Utah. The top three reasons all related to the outdoors. According to Owens, the ability to attract and retain a workforce, access to outdoor recreation, and Utah’s outdoor lifestyle ranked ahead of tax rates and regulatory environment. The close proximity to great skiing, hiking, camping and other outdoor activities has drawn tech firms to the Wasatch Front, which may have otherwise settled in Silicon Valley. “New jobs are coming to Utah because of the outdoors,” said Owens.
Herbert recognizes the importance of conserving outdoor areas to keep Utah’s dynamic economy healthy – at least in his speeches to the public. There has been some disconnect with state policy. Public policies promoting resource extraction and motorized access over preservation have led to the alienation of many outdoor-gear makers. In protest of state policy, the Outdoor Retailer Show, which brought millions to Utah’s economy each year, left Salt Lake City for Denver 18 months ago. Tensions had been brewing for years, but the final straw came when the Utah Legislature passed legislation urging the rescission of Bears Ears National Monument.
Herbert pointed to Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation as evidence of the state’s commitment to conservation. At his speech at the outdoor summit, Herbert said, “People like what they find in Utah and want to come here — economic opportunity, great quality of life and outdoor recreation that is unparalleled in America today. That fuels the growth that is my biggest challenge as governor. How do you accommodate the growth without diminution of the quality of life we appreciate and enjoy?”
The challenge Herbert refers to is the fact the Utah’s tourism sector has experienced double-digit growth each of the last four years. More visitors put more strain on the natural resources that attracted them in the first place. “How do we bring Mother Nature and civilization together in the appropriate balance and preserve the integrity of our wild public lands?” Herbert asked the audience. That is the question the Office of Outdoor Recreation is seeking to answer.
The Elevating Recreation Together report hopes to act as “a starting point for land management agencies, state and local governments, industry, nonprofits, and other partners to better understand the origins and missions of newly formed state offices of outdoor recreation.” The study’s authors hope understanding where each office fits within their classification system will help the NPS and other partners tailor their approach to collaboration with state offices. Cooperation between state offices and the stewards of public lands will be essential to enhance the economic, social and environmental benefits of outdoor recreation, claims the report.
Can steady economic growth be maintained while still conserving the environment? How that balance is struck in Utah may have repercussions across the West and even the entire country.