As the executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable — a diverse coalition of 30 national outdoor trade associations that represent biking, fishing, hiking, park concessionaires and all forms of mechanized recreation — Jessica Wahl is the voice of the growing outdoor recreation industry.
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.
Representing more than 100,000 businesses in the recreation economy, the ORR has gathered the recreation community’s often disparate voices into a unified call for federal policies supporting the $887 billion industry.
The Colorado Sun caught up with Wahl — who worked for the Department of the Interior and the Outdoor Industry Association before joining ORR in late 2018 — during last week’s Outdoor Retailer Snow Show.
The Colorado Sun: What are some of the political and legislative hallmarks of the outdoor industry’s growth and maturation in the last year, year-and-a-half? I’ve heard many in the industry say this has been the best year ever for recreation at the federal level. True?
Jessica Wahl: Yes. The public lands package is one. I saw the industry come together in a way I have never seen. In the final months of things coming together there were things in there that motorized could have been really upset about. There were things that some non-motorized groups didn’t like. There was some access that was cut off, there were some trails that were moved, but … we all got behind it and I think that was instrumental to getting it passed. When (Wyoming’s U.S. Rep.) Liz Cheney hears ‘Oh wait the OHVers and motorcyclists think that, as a whole, this is good for recreation and so do the surfers and climbers and cyclists’ … that makes a difference. So we started the year with a win.
Also getting the BEA study funded. (The first-time analysis of recreation by the Bureau of Economic Analysis measured the industry’s contribution as 2.2% of the national GDP and last year was permanently funded as an annual review.) We had a lot of members working really hard on that, going into legislator offices saying the study is great, we need a line item, it needs to be annual. The only way we can really be peer-to-peer with other industries is if we get the annual data that they have (that allows them to) track and say, ‘Oh my gosh, oil and gas jobs are down.’ Well now we can say, ‘Oh my gosh, recreation jobs are up again. Let’s pay attention to that.’
Three years from now, when we look to see if these (China) tariffs had an impact, we will be able to look at the data and see it and relate it and we will be able to say ‘Look this is why we said we need a trade deal.’
Some of the smaller things include the Recreation Trails Program. For the first time, we got a study on that RTP, looking at infrastructure for all trails, horseback, motorized, non-motorized, hiking, everything. All the funding for RTP comes from a fuel tax on motorized vehicles and so we know the fuel tax coming in is much higher than what is going out to trails. This is the first time we got a study that is going to show the government how much is coming in, so then we have a number to fight for and say ‘Well actually, motorized guys are putting in $800 million and we are only getting $200 million into trails,’ that’s another way the industry is really coming together. You see the American Hiking Society next to the ATVers next to the horseback riders because they all care about this funding so much.
Recreation policy wise, we have the General Accountability Office study … that will be the first study ever looking at what the government puts into outdoor recreation.
Sun: And the government’s contributions in support of recreation are declining?
Wahl: We know that they are declining as a percentage of the budget and now we are going to show that they are declining and we are going to show the (return on investment) and we have the BEA numbers to say we have got to get to better parity and there has got to be more investment to continue at this level of output.
Sun: What do you see as the largest challenges on the horizon for outdoor recreation policy?
Wahl: Last year we had eight recreation hearings. It was the biggest year ever. We are coming into this year with so much momentum, and we are ready to have a recreation package where we packaged up all these recreation ideas and move as an entity, saying ‘Let’s just get our stuff in (as part of a single, recreation policy package), where everyone agrees on it and let’s just move it.’ And then there’s an impeachment trial. And then there’s starting off the year with a bunch of international crises, and it’s amazing how the momentum slows.
We heard a lot last year that recreation was first on the agenda … and now we are hearing ‘Well, impeachment.’ ‘Well, elections and we can’t give someone a win.’ I’m worried about that. I think lame duck would be an amazing opportunity for us, but the longer you wait with these things I think the longer other industries can nitpick about how this might affect them. So I worry that we came into this year so strong with eight recreation hearings and everyone singing ‘Kumbaya’ and now there is more opportunity for everybody to find issues and say why are you doing recreation issues when you should be doing the energy bill again.
Sun: In the past four, five years we’ve seen the outdoor industry set aside some very long-standing conflicts and come together on issues like sustainability, diversity, climate, participation and public lands … all the critical issues that rise above historic animosities. How have you worked to overcome those conflicts and get everyone on the same page and finding common ground when it comes to flexing political and economic muscle?
Wahl: One of the things the business community can uniquely say is that our users might have conflicts at a trailhead or a boat put-in, but the industry has to come together to break through on the national dialogue. Every other industry has coalesced to say ‘I don’t care if it’s ranchers or farmers or wheat or corn, here’s our goals.’ We have never come together and said ‘Hey if you fix the (National Parks) maintenance backlog and you pass Land and Water Conservation Fund and do some of these streamlining things and if you look at participation we are all going to benefit and it resonates so strongly. The meetings we are getting now are meetings I’d never imagine we could get — (like) an hour with Sen. (Chuck) Schumer. These are people who would maybe shake the hand of a single member of one of our industries, but when we are all together you can’t ignore us as a constituency. Another reason the industry has come together so urgently is because the consumer is changing. The consumer is driving this. The consumers are collecting these diverse experiences, and they are doing many different things. If we, as an industry, are not keeping pace with that … we are not going to be doing the consumer any service, and they are going to be looking elsewhere.
Sun: But those internal conflicts aren’t necessarily fading away. A disproportionate number of hunters and anglers, for example, are carrying a heavy load when it comes to conservation. The same could be said for the motorized folks. How can you work to alleviate some of those long-simmering issues between different groups in this outdoor industry?
Wahl: I think the issues, when we sit around the room, are who pays and who doesn’t. We have decided not to make, as ORR, any decisions around that right now, for a couple of reasons. Like the Recreation Trails Program and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These are programs that are not wholly funded by the government. So before we create another funding mechanism, can you make sure you are delivering on the things that we are putting money into? So there’s a little mistrust of Congress and the administration, any administration, that there are all these pools of money that have been paid into and then we don’t see the output for recreation, so why create another pool of money for the government?
Look, we all want scenic, great outdoor experiences, and I think we want them differently and that can cause tension. But we are only working on the things that we can all agree on. That is the beauty here. If there is some trail issue or conflict on the ground we can kind of rise up and say well what is actually the problem? Is it the permitting process? Is the problem that there’s not enough access? Is the problem visitation data? Let’s figure out why the problem is being created instead of blaming it on other users. There is enough land for everyone.
Sun: It seems those are great issues for individual state recreation offices to address, right? And there are, what, 17 of those now right? How are those state offices helping on a national scale?
Wahl: Indiana passed its resolution today (Thursday, Jan. 30) to put in an office. We testified on that, and this will make it 18. Maryland and Indiana look so different from Colorado and Montana — different approaches and different associations. Like the Outdoor Industry Association has done such an amazing job with states where OIA brands show up and I think the RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association) has done an amazing job in Indiana where RVs are built. The boating industry has done a great job in North Carolina where they build boats. So I think these state offices can look into things and say ‘Oh this is the disconnect, let’s help.’ I think we are getting there, and the business voice has a different opportunity to come together than the user community does.
Sun: How is Colorado a model for other states? Colorado was second to establish that outdoor recreation office. Colorado landed the Outdoor Retailer shows and the state is working to support outdoor businesses and obviously we recreate a lot around here. Are other states looking at Colorado for direction?
Wahl: This is one of the first states that’s had an administration changeover and continued to prioritize the office of outdoor recreation, just because you’ve been in it for so long. There is a bill that creates the outdoor recreation office into perpetuity that will be introduced today. We walked the legislators around the show. It was huge to say ‘We never want this to go away.’
And Colorado’s rural development piece is vital. That’s the focus that (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office executive director) Nathan Fey has right now. That’s where this industry can make the biggest difference. We are already doing it but we are not doing it intentionally. It’s just happening. We have been working with state directors for about six months on this as the private partner for the federal agencies, and we are going to help fund technical assistance in rural communities that want help developing their recreational infrastructure. Ten communities have already been funded. The problem is that 170 communities applied for this so there are 160 communities that raised their hand and asked for help … and got turned down for funding. They are all saying ‘Not only do we want recreation but we want it sustainably and thoughtfully’ and they want to be really intentional about what they create. So we, the ORR, are trying to fundraise to roll out a larger program to help with that rural development.
I think recreation can be the future for rural economies in so many places and we just want to make sure that it’s a good future for them and it’s not boom and bust. That’s where Colorado is way ahead on the rural development stuff. You have awesome programs already in place for developing a workforce in these rural areas, so with a little support and support from local business, Colorado could be at the forefront of that.