This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Nathan Fey is the new director of the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.
Fey, who has served as acting director for the past month, is a sixth-generation Coloradan who spent 12 years as Colorado’s regional director for American Whitewater. He grew the national organization’s network of regional paddling groups to more than 20 from four and fostered the development of recreational water rights so communities could build whitewater parks.
Fey, an accomplished kayaker, replaces Luis Benitez, the climber who founded the state’s outdoor recreation office — the second in the nation — four years ago and helped build a growing coalition of state outdoor recreation offices across the country.
Here’s Fey riffing on changes, opportunities and challenges facing his outdoor recreation office:
On ferrying his river conservation background into the state recreation industry …
“Luis and I always joked that I’m the surf to his turf. I don’t see the work being all that different. I worked with communities all across Colorado on economic development, evaluating whether building a whitewater park makes sense. And how to manage the process of filing and securing a recreational water right through the adjudication process here. And opening up river access working with federal agencies like the Forest Service and the BLM.
“I’ve done that kind of work for the last 12 years all across Colorado. I’ve been at the table for a lot of these conversations that affect statewide economies, like funding the state water plan. How are we going to fill in the gap when it comes to supply and demand? I have a very full Rolodex of people who I’ve worked with and will continue to work with and that allows me to hit the ground running as we start to work in more rural communities.”
On economic diversification in rural Colorado …
“There are places I have deep connections to that are very much in the traditional economies like extraction or ag and are looking to diversify and looking to welcome recreation and tourism. Those conversations have been happening for the 20-plus years I’ve been working in the public lands and water policy world. So now we can move forward with new tools and new opportunities.”
On the opportunities for growing the outdoor recreation economy in Colorado …
“Here along the Front Range, in Larimer, Summit, Boulder, Gilpin, I see an opportunity to learn from how impacted those landscapes have been, particularly on the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests. We are in discussions with a big range of stakeholders to figure out how we can disperse that use, manage it better so that we are not having such a huge footprint on the land. So the opportunity is, one, correcting the mistake, and two, learning from that and being able to implement new strategies, and perhaps new tools, in other parts of the state that don’t have those issues yet, but are interested in growing their rec economy and will potentially have to address overuse or mismanagement in the future. So now we can stay in front of that one.
“On the development side, I look at communities like Nucla, Naturita and places like Craig; their identity and their economy has been one thing and they are on the cusp of transitioning into something new. They’ve got this incredible wealth of public lands and the Yampa River and the San Miguel River, BLM and Forest Service right out their backdoor. There’s an opportunity there to improve public access and safety and use of those places and create an amenity that draws visitors and more money and more investment.
“It’s about recognizing the diversity of landscapes and attributes we have in the state. Everybody thinks of Colorado as being mountains and ski resorts and what’s accessible from the Front Range. We have incredible opportunities in the San Luis Valley with the Great Sand Dunes, but beyond that, it’s climbing in Penitente Canyon and the trail system surrounding Del Norte and the investment that valley is making into improving river recreation. That just hasn’t been on people’s radar. It’s an example of what we are seeing around the state, where we’ve got really high-quality outdoor opportunities but I guess we just haven’t been marketing them or managing them appropriately.”
And on the challenges ahead …
“It’s all going to be easy. (Big laugh.) Challenges are things like infrastructure. You mentioned broadband. If we are doing this rural economic development piece, we need to make sure that these communities can compete fairly. That’s specific. I think funding is a huge challenge.”
About that funding, ready to talk pay-to-play, bike-and-boat licenses, a sales tax on equipment?
“Fortunately, I don’t have to have an answer for that right now. We are part of the group having those very conversations right now. It started with trying to address the $60 million backlog for Parks and Wildlife, but it’s grown. The conversation is all around. Whether the mountain biking community would support a sticker. Whether the human-powered boating community would be open to some sort of fee structure. They are not. But those are the conversations that we are having. It’s going to be a tough one to navigate. For me, as a sixth-generation Coloradan, I always think of Colorado’s brand as being these vast public lands and waters that should be accessible to anyone. And I worry that as we start to charge more fees, it becomes less available, it becomes cost prohibitive for some communities to have those opportunities I had as a kid and that my dad had and my grandfather had. That’s something I’m watching very carefully and I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I know it’s not disadvantaging populations so that they can’t get outside and play.”
Changes he’s planning for the outdoor recreation office or its advisory council …
“I’m reaching out to some individuals who could provide a valuable perspective that is missing on our council right now. I’m certainly looking to add more expertise in education and public health.”
On the four pillars of the outdoor recreation office: Economic development, conservation and stewardship public health and wellness and workforce training and education …
“The two that need a little more attention are education and workforce development and the public health and wellness sector. We have a great opportunity to build off the Outdoor RX report that was released by this office last year … but we do not have a loud voice on the advisory council to address health and wellness. And I think we are missing that 18- to 24-year-old population — and certainly the under-18. There is room for this office to grow that youth component.”
On getting kids outdoors …
“There’s a big difference being in a classroom and being in the field when you are talking about ecology and geology and getting a better sense of place of where you are in Colorado and just how diverse the landscapes are. You and I have always talked about that concept that you can’t protect what you don’t know. Recreation has always been the easy bridge between the public participating in outdoor activities and then developing an ethic of stewardship and taking care of the places where we play. But we’ve got to develop a stewardship ethic through other means. And so education and workforce development and public health and wellness are prime pathways that we just need to broaden.”
Other changes we might see at the outdoor recreation office …
“I want to take this office and redirect our energies toward the care and feeding of the industry in Colorado. We have done a really fantastic job up to now on the recruitment, on the branding of the state in the outdoor recreation space with things like Outdoor Retailer, with VF Corp. and recruiting large-industry partners. We have a really diverse economy in the state and I want to make sure this office is dedicating resources toward supporting rural economic growth, supporting small start-up businesses … and making sure that we have the ability to offer resources when these rural communities are reaching out for assistance and guidance.”
A push to expand regional outdoor coalitions across the state …
“We’ve got the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Council. We have the Grand Junction outdoor recreation group, we have a group in the southwest based out of Durango. Those are all prime outdoor recreation focus points in the state and now we are talking with groups in Moffat County, in Pagosa Springs, in the San Luis Valley, that all have great natural capital and fantastic outdoor rec attributes and are just wondering … how can they elevate their economies and the assets they have out their back door to draw tourism and to draw investment and more visitation. We want to help them with that.”
On working with other bosses in the Office of Economic Development and International Trade …
“One of the first things that I did as acting director was to meet with all the other division directors under OEDIT and try to figure out how the outdoor rec office can work with global business development: How do we work with the small business center, how do we work with the Colorado Tourism Office? There is clearly a lot of opportunity and a lot of cross-pollination. We share resources and we share information, so I’m trying … to strengthen those relationships across the OEDIT office. That allows my office to help the outdoor industry start up businesses or help communities navigate what state funding incentives are available. We don’t have those incentives in the outdoor rec office, but we do have them in OEDIT. So it’s a priority of this office to connect the outdoor industry with those programs.
“And also to expand brands and manufacturing to international markets — clearly something this office can do, but not alone. We get to do that in partnership with global business development, as an example. And our work with CTO continues to ramp up. Leave No Trace has always been a strong partner of the outdoor rec office and CTO has really embraced the ethics of Leave No Trace and incorporated those into its website and they’ve been incorporated through (Department of Natural Resources) into the COTREX (Colorado Trail Explorer) app. All these marketing pathways that are coming out of the state are equally marketing how do you play by the rules in Colorado when it comes to minimizing the impact we have on our public lands and wildlife. It’s complementary. Hit them from all sides.”
“It’s going to be tough to navigate and it’s going to require bringing a lot of stakeholders to the table. I think this office can play a role in convening those discussion and my hope is that we can come up with good strategies that address these conflicts. Because right now it’s not well organized and I don’t think there’s a path forward.
I think one of the advantages is that now we have the Confluence of States and all the other outdoor rec office directors. There are lessons to be learned from this resource we have created in the national coalition of (now 12) outdoor rec offices. I only say that because we have these conflicts in Colorado and we know the stakeholders that need to come together to work on a strategy, but now we have access to new tools and different strategies that we haven’t thought of in Colorado.
We have lessons we can learn from Montana and Oregon and Vermont and North Carolina and Utah, just to name a few. We need to just come together and start having those conversations. It starts with building a foundation first that lays out our shared interests and gets past this very divisive place … We need to come together first with what we share in common and then work to address these smaller areas where we do have conflicts.”