State offers plan to help towns grow outdoor recreation — without turning into Moab

Division of Outdoor Recreation looks to give communities funds, data and a blueprint to expand their trails and access with the help of new strategic document.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Mounted Posse for the Salt Lake County Sheriffs Office arrives to celebrate the ribbon cutting of Butterfield Trailhead Regional Park on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. Open to multiple users—hikers, equestrians, trail runners, and mountain bikers—the new park in the Oquirrhs offers 14 miles of trail with plans for expansion south of the Kennecott mine.

The glossy, full-color brochure advertising Utah’s strategy to further transform itself into a hub of outdoor recreation came packaged in a supple, saddle brown, stitched-pleather folder.

Yet during the unveiling of the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation’s inaugural Outdoor Recreation Strategic Plan at the state Capitol Wednesday, Gov. Spencer Cox insisted the beauty of the document isn’t in its presentation. Rather, it’s in its purpose.

“This is not something that is going to sit on a shelf and look pretty,” Cox said. “This is actually something that will be a working document that we will continue to drive towards and make changes when necessary.”

Two years in the making, the plan, created in collaboration with the Outdoor Adventure Commission, sets out a four-point strategy to expand and support outdoor recreation in the state. Those points include building a collaborative process, improving awareness about how to recreate safely and responsibly, increasing access to recreation opportunities while protecting landscapes and increasing economic and health benefits.

At its core, it’s a road map for communities that want to tap into their trails, canyons, lakes and other natural “assets” as economic drivers without becoming the next Moab. It also outlines tactics to reduce the impact of tourism on some of the state’s most well-loved natural attractions.

As the chair of the Outdoor Adventure Commission, Rep. Jeff Stenquist oversaw the project. Also the chair of the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee, Stenquist said the strategic plan “absolutely” indicates that the state sees outdoor recreation as a pillar of its economy moving forward, especially as it slowly moves away from industries like mining and petroleum production.

Outdoor recreation went from adding $6.1 billion in value to Utah’s economy in 2022 to $8.1 billion last year, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. It also accounts for 3.2% of Utah’s GDP. According to the commission’s report, an estimated 75% of Utahns participate in outdoor recreation each year.

“It is really important for many of our rural communities, a lot of communities that are looking to diversify their economies as things change,” Stenquist said. He added, “We can certainly help support them if that’s the vision that they have.”

And the commission isn’t wasting any time in putting its strategy into play. Stenquist said it met last week to prioritize specific projects to suggest for appropriations during this legislative session.

Those projects include planning for mountain biking trails and campgrounds in Sardine Canyon, the better-known name for Wellsville Canyon, which brackets Highway 89 between Brigham City and Logan. Another priority is creating better trail access in Moab, Stenquist said.

It will ultimately be up to the lawmakers to approve funding for those projects. However Stenquist, who said he modeled the Outdoor Adventure Commission after the Utah Transportation Commission, said he believes the Legislature will accept most of its recommendations.

“People,” Stenquist said, “are going to see money flowing into projects, you know, now.”

Perhaps more impactful than the funding, the plan sets out to provide a support system for communities wanting to expand their outdoor offerings. Jason Curry, the director of the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation, likened increasing outdoor offerings without a strategy to creating a social hiking or biking trail instead of a planned one.

“Along with those unplanned trails, you have things like erosion and sensitive species impacts and other things that were just unintended,” he said. “We want to avoid those unintended consequences and we want to give Utah a very purposeful plan.”

The commission created its new strategic plan and a toolkit for communities after holding 14 workshops across the state. There, planners, managers and elected officials drew missing trails on state maps as part of an effort to create a state database of outdoor recreation “assets.” The commission also collected data about where funds for recreation and tourism in the state come from and how that money is spent. Other tools include a projection of areas where it expects outdoor recreation to swell and to ebb and a comparison of Utah’s initiatives to those of other states.

Those tools are just the beginning, Stenquist said. Phase 2 of the strategic plan, he said, includes creating regional councils that could include local political leaders as well as representatives from hiking, biking, off-highway vehicle and other user or special-interest groups.

Eventually, he said, the idea is to bring some relief to gateway communities like Springdale, Moab and Park City while spreading out crowds to lesser-known areas in central and northern Utah. But that won’t happen if the community leaders stick that glossy brochure on a shelf.

“I’m hoping that 10 years from now, this plan will be utilized and updated …,” Stenquist said. “And we’ll have new [outdoor areas] as well as better management of areas that are already here.”

Correction, Jan. 18, 2024, 10:25 pm.: Rep. Jeff Stenquist modeled the Utah Adventure Commission after the Utah Transportation Commission.