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Outdoors

Colorado was ready for California to join states with outdoor recreation offices, but its governor just vetoed it

11 other states have bet on dedicated offices using outdoor play to boost conservation, workforce training, public health and economic development.

A man standing on an ocean cliff
A hiker stops to admire the view from Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park. The park, made up of five islands off the coast of California, lures hardy tourists interested in primitive camping, kayaking, snorkeling and hiking. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)
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In the years since 2013, when Utah forged the first office championing outdoor recreation, a deluge of states has followed. Last year, the number of states with an outdoor-recreation office or task force doubled to 11, and more are forming, building momentum for an industry that is flexing its burgeoning economic and political might.

And the industry’s hopes for bolstering its legitimacy and muscle were pinned on California, home of the country’s largest economy and one of its most vibrant outdoor cultures. With an outdoor-recreation economy that generates $92 billion in consumer spending and 691,000 jobs, the California legislature in August unanimously passed a bill to create the Office of Sustainable Outdoor Recreation.

But California Gov. Jerry Brown this week vetoed the bill, noting in a letter to legislators that existing offices in the state were promoting the state’s outdoor-recreation economy and “a new bureaucracy is not needed to accomplish the goal.”

“My biggest feeling here? Surprise. We were really excited to have them at the table, and there were a lot of people looking forward to this,” said Colorado’s outdoor-industry chief Luis Benitez, who in 2015 joined Washington state in establishing the second and third state recreation offices.

Benitez this week left for Puerto Rico, where he was advising political leaders who want to promote outdoor recreation as an economic engine fueling the country’s recovery from the devastating 2017 hurricanes. While spreading his message that outdoor recreation can save the world, Benitez said he expects to hear more about Brown’s veto.

“This is going to be a story that we have to contend with,” he said, noting that Brown’s decision “doesn’t negate the effort or momentum at all. This is not federal, and every state needs to figure out why this is important. And they will.”

In July, Benitez capped a multiyear effort corraling directors from the first eight state outdoor-recreation offices to a common platform promoting outside play as a path toward conservation, workforce training, public health and economic development. The Confluence Accords is a constitution designed to enroll more states in the outdoor-recreation movement — and California was the next trophy.

Hikers stroll along the coastline of Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

Despite two years of work by lobbyists in California, the message seemed to never reach Brown.

California is leading the world with a plan to cut greenhouse gases, bolster renewable energy, cut gasoline use and curtail climate change. Failing to create an office of outdoor recreation to help carry that plan across the West “is a loss of a great opportunity,” said John Wentworth, the former mayor and now councilman of Mammoth Lakes, an influential resort community in Southern California.

“The outdoor-recreation community and culture is a source of political will that will make it possible to take California’s climate-change action plan and motivate all the other Western states to follow,” said Wentworth, who serves on the advisory council guiding California’s climate-change plan. “The Intermountain West is leading on the outdoor-recreation movement.

California is leading on climate change. We need to get everyone together and do the right thing.”

Brown will retire in January. And the effort to mint a California recreation office is already focusing on the candidates running to replace him: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and San Diego County businessman John Cox, a Republican.

“We are going to let the next governor know they can’t let this opportunity slip through their fingers again,” Wentworth said.