The Outdoor Retailer trade show moved from Utah to Colorado in protest of the Beehive State’s antagonism toward public lands. This you probably know. What you don’t probably know is that on the day before the first Denver OR began in late January, outdoor recreation leaders from Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming met in Denver to brainstorm on how to build, grow, and wield the economic and cultural might of the outdoor economy, which at last count generated $887 billion—that’s billion with a B—in the United States.
Each of the eight state reps brought a seven- to ten-person delegation for the closed-door session, and nearly 80 people helped create the first draft of what’s being called the Colorado Accords, a plan that will be published publicly this spring outlining outdoor recreation’s ability to drive economic development, conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, and public health and wellness.
“If we can come out of that room with some common principles and we continue to add more states and ratify those principles, then…what you have is the beginnings of a political infrastructure for our economy,” said Luis Benitez, director of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
Tom Adam’s, Utah’s outdoor recreation director, pointed to how quickly the fun hog industry can flip the economic tide. “There’s probably not a better story in Utah than a little town named Orangeville,” he said. “It’s historically an extraction community. You look at this place and it could seem like a dying town. But they are fully wrapping their arms around recreation. There are trail projects with The Access Fund, which incorporate the Forest Service and the BLM. There’s the Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival, which the local county commissioner has said is the best thing to ever happen to the town.”
Orangeville and Moab and Park City are all success stories, but Utah is not an outlier. Places like Grand Junction, Colorado, and Phillipsburg, Montana, have seen significant boosting by economy of the outdoors as well. Both Rachel VandeVoort of Montana and Dominic Bravo of Wyoming described how the outdoor industry adds to economies historically focused on the extraction industry. “This is not about the replacement of anything. This is economic diversification,” said VandeVoort. “This is about helping communities diversify their income streams, capitalize on the outdoors for short-term and long-term gain. It’s maximizing economic benefit.”
In addition to the economic portfolio of the outdoors, the Colorado Accords will highlight the quality of life that can help lure brands, businesses, and white-collar professionals to small mountain towns. Opening up a river rafting company is all well and good but if one of your guests bops their noodle and there’s no doctor in the county, your company might not last that long.
The summit also focused on the political picture—the industry’s ability to flex its muscles as a unified force on the federal level. The coalition will use the REC Act and the Outdoor Industry Association’s financial reports as the foundation on which to stand together. The OIA’s reports of the industry’s statewide economic impact and its impact on congressional districts (due to be published this spring), as well as the billions of dollars and millions of jobs outdoor recreation adds to the gross domestic product gives the coalition and the Colorado Accords solid bipartisan ammo.
“Any time you talk at the federal level as an individual state, that’s just it, you’re an individual,” said Luis Benitez. “We’re not going to agree on everything that happens from the state to the federal level. But the journey that we’re on right now is that, if we can continue to land in that common space, when we talk state and federal collectively, we are talking as a larger coalition. Rather than speaking for one, when we speak to the things we’ve agreed upon, then you can say with confidence ‘I’m speaking for eight states, their economies, their jobs, their ecosystem.’
“It’s our outdoor constitution. We are all pointed toward the same thing. There’s power in the collective.”