Fifteen states have now established offices or task forces to study the growing outdoor recreation economy, promote outdoor opportunities and improve access to the outdoors for their residents and visitors alike.
In 2019 alone, four states have created new divisions—with two offices established in July—and this week the nonpartisan National Governors Association (NGA) announced the creation of its Outdoor Recreation Learning Network (ORLN), designed to facilitate communication among all 50 states, encourage the sharing of best practices and shape multistate strategies to bolster recreation.
Marc Berejka, the director of community and government affairs for REI Co-op, says states are entering a new era in how they engage with the outdoor sector. “As the state-by-state movement has gained momentum, it’s become increasingly clear that all involved could benefit from a nationwide forum for developing policy ideas and sharing lessons learned,” he says. “NGA is stepping in to create that forum.” (REI is one of three initial nongovernmental sponsors of the learning network.)
Four states create outdoor recreation offices in 2019.
With many states’ legislative sessions winding down around the country, two states have added offices of outdoor recreation in recent weeks.
In early July, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers created the state’s office of outdoor recreation when he approved the state budget. The newly minted office will partner with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and the Department of Natural Resources to promote the state as a year-round outdoor destination and emphasize conservation and preservation.
Most recently, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the commonwealth’s own office of outdoor recreation, designed to drive economic development and promote access to its 38 state parks, 22 national park sites, more than 1 million acres of national forests and nearly 200 lakes and rivers.
“Outdoor recreation not only improves the growth potential of our communities, but it also aligns with our goals on land conservation, workforce development and public health,” Northam said in a statement announcing the office.
The states followed New Mexico and Nevada, which established their own divisions by legislation earlier in 2019, and Michigan, which in May formed an Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry to be overseen by its existing Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council.
David Weinstein, state and local policy director with the Outdoor Industry Association, says the growing number of states with outdoor recreation offices shows that governors and legislatures are taking outdoor issues more seriously than ever.
“We’ve reached this critical mass point,” he says. “States are talking with other states. The current directors and new, incoming directors?—they’re still the best ambassadors for this work, and they’ve been doing a great job for a number of years now.”
New network encourages partnerships, collaboration.
This time last year, the first eight states to create outdoor recreation offices signed onto a set of pro-recreation principles known as the Confluence Accords. In them, the states articulated their shared commitment to conservation and stewardship; health and wellness; economic development; and education and workforce.
As more states created their own offices, the need for an enduring, nationwide home for such multistate conversations became clear. That’s where the all-new Outdoor Recreation Learning Network comes into play, says Sue Gander, director of energy, infrastructure and environment for the National Governor’s Association.
Gander says that a few state representatives reached out to the NGA more than a year ago to ask about improving organization and strengthening coordination among the offices. “They saw the future and saw that this was bigger than the original six or eight states that had come together,” she says.
So the NGA created an official learning network—one of roughly a dozen such networks under the NGA’s purview, each focusing on a different topic or policy—in partnership with several governors and state outdoor recreation directors. The office was officially unveiled to governors at the NGA’s summer meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, this week.
Gander says the new network gives states the chance to come together, learn from each other, exchange ideas, share best practices and strategize in a more formal setting. In turn, the states can use that to build and strengthen their own offices.
“This is an issue that covers commerce, natural resources and public health—it’s a cross-cutting challenge that states can help each other learn from,” she says.
Jessica Wahl, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable coalition, agrees. She thinks the impact of these offices is only starting to be felt. “We’re not just creating these offices to create them,” she says. “We’re also giving them the tools, resources and support to be successful in perpetuity.”