Democrat Doug Owens twice lost races to U.S. Rep. Mia Love. But they joined forces Monday to unveil a group they say seeks to take the politics out of public lands in Utah.
The new Utah Outdoor Partners, a business coalition, is conducting research about the role outdoor recreation plays in the state’s economy — not just involving tourism but also in recruiting new companies and workers.
They said political fights over public lands have hurt Utah’s economy, such as when battles to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument and shift control of federal public lands to the state chased away the lucrative annual Outdoor Retailer conventions.
“That’s exactly one of the reasons we are in this,” Owens said, adding that shifting a focus to economics may help solve some of the entrenched political fights. This new group doesn’t intend to advocate for a policy position, only to provide data.
Love added, “This is not about Democratic or Republican politics, this is about getting data and doing what is best for the state of Utah.”
This launch comes, however, in a campaign year when Love is in a tight race against Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.
The new group, which Owens said formed about nine months ago, made its public debut with a news conference to show data collected in a survey it commissioned of 50 large or high-tech Utah companies. The survey was conducted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
“Utah’s outdoor lifestyle and access to outdoor recreation opportunities were among the most frequently cited factors when deciding to locate or expand their business in Utah,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the policy institute.
In fact, she said, they trailed only “the ability to attract and maintain a workforce” in importance, topping factors such as taxes and utility costs. And the outdoors were listed as a top factor in firms’ ability to attract and maintain employees.
The survey included some open-ended questions about how the outdoors may help business opportunities. Citing one comment that was similar to many, Gochnour said, “Our access to outdoor recreation attracts a strong, talented and diverse workforce. Without it, we are North Dakota or Mississippi.”
Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Utah, which seeks to attract new businesses, said, “Companies want to be where talent is,” and many talented people are drawn to Utah because of its outdoors.
With the new study, “access to outdoor recreation is now a quantifiable asset to companies that are considering expanding in Utah,” she said. “So it’s important that we remember that investment in our outdoor places, and investment in access to them, really does tie back to the state’s economic development efforts.”
John Harrison, director of engineering at Lucid, said his high-tech company is in stiff national competition for new engineers, so it recruits people who list an interest in the outdoors on resumes.
“Beyond what we do with software, we’re also selling a lifestyle and work-life balance,” he said. “Easy access to skiing, mountain biking, camping, climbing is a big contrast to Silicon Valley.”
Owens said focusing on such economic benefits could help find ways, for example, to bring back the Outdoor Retailer convention, which had generated an estimated $45 million a year. The group left protesting that Utah leaders were hostile to outdoor recreation.
“What we can do is lay a groundwork that will facilitate them coming back,” Owens said. “The governor is working on outdoor recreation. We want to bring some additional strength and friends to his effors to build that.”
Gov. Gary Herbert sent a letter supporting the new group’s “important, nonpartisan approach” to “further promote the broad economic value of Utah’s outdoors as we work with business and community leaders to realize the state’s outdoor recreation vision.”
Owens and Love joked that while they have long disagreed about many things, they do agree about the importance of the outdoors to Utah and its economic future.
“This is all of us getting away from the politics of it, away from the right or left, and focusing on what is good for Utah, and what works for us,” Love said.
“That hits it on the head,” Owens said. “I think all of those fights” over Bears Ears and shifting federal lands to the state “are exactly the reason to focus on economics, and what can be done to build outdoor recreation as a pillar for the economy.”
Owens said his work with Love is not meant to give her political cover with a chance to claim bipartisanship in her race with McAdams, but rather is “a huge opportunity to develop outdoor recreation. That’s one of the reasons I ran for Congress.”
He added, “I couldn’t see a better way to show that it isn’t a political issue — if people who disagree enough with each other to run for Congress against each other twice could see that this is common ground.”
Owens added, “I haven’t endorsed Mia Love. We’re just working with each other on this one issue.” Owens said McAdams has not sought his endorsement but noted he has donated money to him. “He’s an old friend.”