Outdoor Engagement State of Play Part IV: Offices of Outdoor Recreation
March 22, 2021
Backyard birders, sold-out bike shops, and busy national parks have been a clear side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and limitations on indoor gatherings. All of these activities, when done safely, can provide mental and physical health benefits associated with time outdoors. But they also generate a lot of economic activity–$788 billion in consumer spending to be exact, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The outdoor economy and potential conservation impacts has led a growing number of states to establish Offices of Outdoor Recreation to coordinate this work.
So far 17 states have established an office or have active Task Forces considering the issue. In the 2021 Legislative Session, at least four states have introduced bills to create a new office, including Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and West Virginia.
Each state has a unique approach to how they structure their outdoor leadership. Utah and Colorado have created an office inside of the Economic Development Department, Washington has an advisor in the Governor’s Office, and Oregon located the Office of Outdoor Recreation inside the Parks and Recreation Department. Each structure comes with unique advantages and disadvantages that can help other states create the most effective office possible for their situation.
The earliest offices were created with a central focus on economic development, but as the movement has expanded so has the focus. At least 13 states have now signed onto a unifying document called the Confluence Accords that seeks to broaden the impact of the offices beyond strictly economic activity. The four pillars are:
- Conservation & Stewardship
- Education & Workforce Training
- Economic Development
- Public Health & Wellness
The more inclusive mission has led to innovative state success such as Washington’s Senior Policy Advisor on Outdoor Recreation supporting the outdoor preschool licensure program, and New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division including an Outdoor Equity Fund to provide outdoor opportunities for underserved youth. The trend is continuing this year, with Nebraska’s proposed study committee focusing on both outdoor recreation and education.
States have also increased their focus on ensuring equity and access are central parts of outdoor engagement efforts. In Oregon, the top overarching strategy recommended by the Governor’s Task Force on the Outdoors is to “center efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion.” In Minnesota, the Outdoor Recreation Task Force’s draft recommendations include “Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity” as the first category. These conversations center around strategies such as providing access for all communities, developing a welcoming and safe environment, and ensuring inclusive marketing practices that reach across the state.
These outdoor offices have played an important role during the pandemic as they simultaneously work with outdoor businesses and communicate #RecreateResponsibly messages to the public. The sizable–and growing–outdoor industry and associated offices has the potential to be a bipartisan success that supports economic growth while prioritizing conservation, education, and equity in nature.