Image courtesy of the Utah Department of Outdoor Recreation
Outdoor recreation is not only one of humanity’s favorite activities, it can also be a source of economic impact for states throughout the country. When crowds converge on national, state, and city parks this summer, the revenue flow is as awe-inspiring and powerful as the waterfall vistas seen by visitors. The numbers speak for themselves – $862 billion in annual economic impact associated with outdoor recreation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
This means that outdoor recreation has a larger economic impact than several prominent industries, such as mining, utilities, farming and ranching, and chemical product manufacturing. A study from Headwaters Economics states that counties with an economy that focuses at least in part on outdoor recreation are “more likely to attract new residents with greater wealth and have faster-growing wages than their counterparts offering less outdoor recreation.”
Over the last decade state elected officials have not only taken notice, they’ve taken action by investing in resources to highlight and build upon their outdoor offerings. 18 states have funded new departments and agencies to boost economies related to biking, hiking, rafting, camping, and other activities in nature.
The first office of this kind was formed in Utah in 2013 when state legislators established the Outdoor Recreation Office. As stakeholders in other states began to see the benefit of creating an entity that could focus solely on outdoor recreation, they also wanted to break down silos and connect various agencies with similar interests. By bringing together all aspects of promoting activities in nature in your state, informed decisions can be made through policy and funding. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state outdoor recreation offices are typically created through “legislation, executive action, insertion into state budgets, or some combination of those measures.”
In some cases, states formed a task force composed of state outdoor recreation advocates to determine the most effective way of designing a department. Brad Garmon, executive director of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, lends insight into how his state’s office came about. “Our mission has always been to ‘grow and expand the outdoor recreation lifestyle economy, with the notion that a strong, organized, and diverse outdoor recreation industry that engaged and supported Michigan’s full outdoor recreation economy, from global outdoor brands like Merrell and Carhartt to small business like Stormy Kromer and Detroit Bikes, to all the local gear shops, outdoor destinations and ski resorts and non-profit conservation and nature centers and user groups – would be able to have a bigger and more measurable impact on things like health, access to the outdoors for underserved communities, and supporting greater investment in our resources and communities.”
Image courtesy of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance
The 18 states with outdoor recreation departments formed a coalition, the Confluence of States, to increase their influence. The CoS consider themselves stewards of the great outdoors and defines the crucial work these departments do in each of their home states. They are also able to share best practices, success stories and provide a platform to share information.
While each state has unique resources and needs, the CoS lists the duties of Offices of Outdoor Recreation as follows:
The offices bring together public and private outdoor recreation stakeholders to improve economies and steward natural resources. According to directors of such offices in Vermont, Utah, Maine, and Michigan, grant funding projects are the most common way these offices support municipalities.
In Utah, the office awarded $27 million in grants in 2022 – nearly half originating from the Utah Outdoor Recreation Grant, with the most significant project being City Bike Park. This 23,000-square-foot bike park is located in rural Sevier County.
“The awarding of grants to smaller communities can make a monumental difference to the outdoorsman, with funds supporting everything from trail signage to new trail systems to marketing,” said Utah’s Tara McKee, associate director of grants and planning for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Division of Outdoor Recreation (UDOR).
McKee’s office supports communities that do not have full-time staff members by selecting outdoor recreation planners to facilitate the process of developing new assets such as conceptual trail plans. Additionally, UDOR serves as both an advocate for outdoor recreation through presentations to state legislatures and as a designated educational resource to other stakeholders such as outdoor-related companies and outdoor enthusiasts.
Vermont established its outdoor recreation office in 2017. Director Jackie Dagger, the department’s only staff member, said her office has helped fund 33 outdoor recreation projects thus far. These projects bolster rural communities with investments of approximately $10 million in state funds and include building new assets, enhancing parks and greenspace, creating wayfinding and signage into trail assets, developing maps for visitors, and building parking lots to support use.
Garmon, is currently serving as chair of the Confluence of States and describes his role as a connector and translator to guide communities as they enhance their outdoor recreation economy.
“I work with local leaders in economic development and planning and marketing to really understand the different ways that the outdoor industry works and provide insight into trends and data about how the outdoors can be leveraged to help them with their local goals. Growing businesses, attracting talent, and connecting local trails and parks for a better quality of life and health for residents is the goal of many visionaries. I have helped several regional planning agencies on federal grants related to outdoors, and even helped one region launch a new signature gravel bike event to better showcase their natural amenities.”
Image courtesy of Tara McKee of the Utah Department of Outdoor Recreation
One common point of unity for these offices and their home states is to commit their resources and assets as a vehicle for economic growth. To fully capitalize on opportunities through public and private coordination and working with multiple organizations on any level. Anybody that witnesses the majestic rock formations of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah or spends a day on Lake Champlain in Vermont knows that their natural beauty draws visitors year after year. For communities that have a dedicated office on the outdoors in their state, it’s about putting all the pieces together to reap economic benefits of their spectacular natural beauty.”
“By coordinating efforts with public and private sector partners, nature and the economy work hand in hand,” said Carolann Ouellette, director of Maine’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. “Looking at conservation and stewardship, having a focus on the educational workforce, economic development, and public health; it’s the intersection of those things that make these offices so powerful and unique.”