Utah’s groundbreaking outdoor recreation office becomes a model for new national network

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Naui Zambrano cools off in a waterfall on the Sulphur Creek trail, a 5-mile slot canyon hike in Capitol Reef National Park, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015.

A new Outdoor Recreation Learning Network — launched this week by the National Governors Association — will help states leverage their outdoor resources to promote economic development.

The network is modeled after a program Utah started six years ago.

“Utah launched the first state outdoor recreation office in 2013 to focus on recreation management, support recreation businesses and ensure that our state’s cherished natural assets can sustain economic growth for years to come,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in a news release.

The NGA Outdoor Recreation Learning Network is intended to help other states replicate Utah’s success while tailoring it to their own circumstances and needs.

Since Utah’s action, more than a dozen states have created outdoor recreation offices, the release states. Additional states are creating task forces, councils or taking other steps to promote the outdoor recreation economy.

Through peer-to-peer exchanges, the statement explains, the national network will spotlight strategies states can use to advance outdoor recreation. It will focus on conservation, stewardship, education, workforce training, economic development, infrastructure, public health, equity and wellness.

The network will be sponsored by REI Co-op, the Outdoor Industry Association and the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.

The move comes two years after the Outdoor Industry Association famously yanked its Outdoor Retailer trade shows — and the economic riches they bring — from Utah in a dispute over the state’s policies toward public lands. The shows are now held in Denver.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that the outdoors industry employed more than 4.5 million people nationally in 2016 and generated more than $730 billion in economic impact.

Outdoor recreation kicks in $12.3 billion toward the Utah economy and employs more than 110,000 people.

Governors launched the network during their annual summer meeting, being held this week in Salt Lake City. During the event — which ends Friday — state leaders share best practices and hear from experts in various fields.

This year’s participants include governor’s from Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont as well as outdoor recreation directors from many states.

The launch was held Wednesday at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s Rio Tinto Center at the University of Utah and included a guided walk in nearby Red Butte Garden. It was lead by U. professor David Strayer, a leading researcher in the cognitive benefits of outdoor recreation.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the first meeting of the nation’s governors at the White House to discuss conserving America’s natural resources, said Nikki Guilford, NGA interim executive director and chief of staff. “This effort hearkens back to the founding of the organization."

After that inaugural meeting, governors decided to form an association so could come together to discuss mutual concerns and act collectively.

“We have seen states with offices of outdoor recreation take great steps forward promoting and bolstering outdoor recreation," David Weinstein, state and local policy director for Outdoor Industry Association, said in the release, “bringing more jobs and revenue to rural and gateway communities and coordinating amongst government agencies while helping to get more children and families outside and into healthier lifestyles.”

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