A proposal to create a new office of outdoor recreation gained traction last week in the Oregon Legislature.
If House Bill 3350 passes, the State Parks and Recreation Department would gain a new administrator who would be tasked with coordinating policy around outdoor recreation and promoting an industry that claims to drive $12.8 billion in annual spending in Oregon.
The bill is a priority for the Outdoor Industry Association, which represents retailers such as REI and outdoor gear manufacturers and marketers, including Bend-based companies Hydro Flask and Ruffwear. Although 80 percent of the $12.8 billion spent on outdoor recreation is associated with travel, the industry recognizes that people playing in the outdoors drive purchases of its gear.
“A big part of that is making sure people are having high-quality experiences in the outdoors,” said Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, state and local policy manager at the Outdoor Industry Association, based in Boulder, Colorado.
The outdoor industry, which has flexed its lobbying muscle over issues such as the Trump administration’s treatment of national monuments, is also making inroads with state governments. The association would like to see every state dedicate a staff position or office to outdoor recreation. Utah and Colorado have state offices, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has an outdoor recreation policy adviser. In June, North Carolina created a position in its commerce department to promote the outdoor recreation economy and recruit new businesses.
Oregon, where more than 60 percent of people surveyed in 2016 said they participated in at least one activity such as hiking, camping or hunting in the past 12 months, may seem the last place that needs to promote outdoor recreation. However, many rural communities are trying to live up to their potential for recreation-driven tourism, said Kristin Dahl, vice president of destination development at Travel Oregon.
“Almost every rural area we’ve worked with has prioritized outdoor recreation… to improve their economy,” she said.
The Oregon Office of Outdoor Recreation would be required to take in feedback from the recreation industry, environmental and natural resource groups and state, local and regional governments.
House Bill 3350, whose chief sponsors include Republican Reps. Mark Johnson of Hood River and Knute Buehler of Bend, passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday on a 21-2 vote. The bill allocates $218,894 from the general fund to cover the office’s expenses over the next two years.
It also creates the Outdoor Recreation Fund, which could receive gifts or grants to pay the office’s administrative expenses or fund outdoor recreation programs.
Supporters of the bill include Oregon Wild, Trailkeepers of Oregon, the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club and The Mazamas, a Portland mountaineering organization. The Outdoor Industry Association hired lobbyist Jim Gardner.
O’Brien-Feeney said he was glad to see the bill pass out of committee on a favorable vote, but he recognizes the challenge of passing anything with a spending component, given Oregon’s budget deficit.
Bend City Councilor Sally Russell said she supports creating a new state office because it could work on developing the outdoor products industry, which has a huge presence in Bend.
“Outdoor recreation is not just about putting heads in beds and boots on trails,” Russell said.
Outdoor recreation in Oregon is like the state’s disparate climate zones: thirsty for visitors or inundated with people. The north coast, Hood River and Bend are dealing with crowds while the south coast, Wallowa County, John Day River and Klamath Basin would like to raise their profiles, Dahl said.
Travel Oregon began working four years ago on an outdoor recreation initiative to help rural communities overcome common barriers to developing that segment of their local economies, Dahl said.
“Many of those hurdles relate to federal policy or state policy,” Dahl said. “They’re just having a hard time working individually.”
The initiative, which has involved the State Parks and Recreation Department as well as local leaders like Russell, calls for improving the business climate by easing special-use permitting in national forests and changing Oregon’s liability law in favor of adventure-oriented businesses. Russell said she wanted to make sure Central Oregon had a say in any statewide campaign after observing Travel Oregon’s Seven Wonders campaign and following stories of “over-success.” Bend has different priorities than under-visited areas when it comes to outdoor recreation. With the Deschutes National Forest expecting 4 million visitors this year, Russell said everyone is recognizing the need to improve transportation and make sure outdoor destinations can sustain the type of experience that built their reputations.
The U.S. Forest Service communicates with other agencies and not-for-profit organizations through programs like the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, which seeks input on forest restoration, and the fledgling Deschutes Trails Collaborative. Russell said those efforts help make the case for state-level collaboration and coordination. “There’s value in going through a central place.”
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