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The Western Slope’s outdoor recreation economy had everything but a bachelor’s degree. Colorado Mesa is changing that.

Bonsai Designs boss Sarah Shrader sparked development of a new outdoor recreation industry studies program to help create the next generation of business leaders.

Nine-year-old Boone Rosencutter catches some air at the Lunch Loops recreation area near Grand Junction on Sept. 18, 2019. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Sarah Shrader, the co-owner of the Grand Junction-based international zipline course developer and builder Bonsai Design, in November gathered a team of Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry executives. She had a simple question: What do they need from the next generation of outdoor industry leaders? 

The answers they gave — a robust grasp of the outdoor industry as well as legislation and policy issues, the ability to read a financial statement and build a budget, and professional communication skills — became the basis for a unique, multi-disciplinary outdoor recreation industry studies program announced this week at Colorado Mesa University. 

“The outdoor recreation industry is such a large part of the Colorado GDP and it has a profound impact on rural communities,” said Shrader, the program director for the new CMU studies program. She also founded and leads the local Outdoor Recreation Coalition, which gathers local residents and businesses to promote outdoor recreation as an economic engine and path to a healthier community. “The outdoor recreation economy can be the lifeline for rural communities trying to reinvent themselves.” 

The Grand Valley economy is growing despite a slowdown in the region’s dominant oil and gas industry. Sales tax collections in Mesa County topped $38.5 million in 2019, up from $36.1 million in 2018. The county’s unemployment rate is dropping and the number of jobs is increasing even as oil and gas drilling contracts and major energy employers, like Halliburton, lay off workers

Sarah Shrader, co-owner of the Grand Junction-based international zipline course developer and builder Bonsai Design. (Handout)

“The economy is really turning around as we become a more diversified, sustainable, recreation-based economy,” Shrader said. “As the diversification continues, we will see poverty drop, unemployment drop, graduation rates go up, suicide rates go down and community health go up. It’s been an honor to be a part of this.”

Dan Gibbs, the head of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, toured the Grand Valley on Wednesday, visiting with local leaders, including Shrader and CMU President Tim Foster, to learn more about the program and the explosive growth of the outdoor recreation economy in the Grand Valley. 

“I was absolutely blown away,” said Gibbs, who studied outdoor recreation and sociology at Western Colorado University in Gunnison back when it was called Western State. “The fact that Sarah is going to have the leadership from the outdoor recreation world at her fingertips for the students to get inside the industry, especially the business side, is truly amazing.”

Gibbs said the union of political leaders — like Grand Junction Mayor Rick Taggart, who moved to the Grand Valley in the ’80s to manage Marmot Mountain Works — with businesses, educators and nonprofits makes the Grand Valley an ideal candidate for state assistance “to help them accomplish their goals.”

“There is a great nexus for what state resources can bring to the table and assist them in really having Grand Junction become the epicenter of outdoor recreation,” Gibbs said. 

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

The CMU outdoor industry curriculum will range across disciplines. Technical field classes will teach outdoor leadership and professional guiding. There will be courses covering business, policy, environmental science, biology, communications and finance.

“It’s going to be a very well-rounded degree that prepares students to be experts in the outdoor recreation industry, whether they are business product developers, entrepreneurs or service providers,” Shrader said. “The idea is to have these students get not only comprehensive business skills but knowledge of public policy, risk management and technical outdoor skills.”

The likely will be approved by trustees in spring and students will be able to enroll beginning with the fall 2020 semester.

As word of the program has spread across the community, Shrader said she has heard from all sorts of businesses that want to participate. The county health department, for example, hopes to help instruct a class on the intersection of community health and outdoor recreation, exploring how outdoor activities can boost physical and mental health.

“We have made the successful transition to an outdoor recreation-based economy, and that doesn’t just mean tourism and recreation manufacturers like my company, but it’s this idea that you can move here to experience the promise of Colorado,” Shrader said. “You want a mountain bike trail outside your door. You want skiing 45 minutes away and you want to find quiet places to hunt and fish. We have built an economy that is thriving because we are focused on outdoor recreation. That’s drawing outdoor companies that are moving here and they need a workforce and CMU is reacting to that.”

The undergraduate program joins the first-in-the-nation outdoor recreation industry MBA program at Western Colorado University’s business school as yet another formalized program for students of recreation. The two programs represent a maturing industry that has outgrown its climber-in-a-van roots and is using higher education to prepare the next generation of leaders.  

Peter Sherman, dean of the college of business at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, thought six, maybe 10, students would enroll last year in the inaugural class of his school’s outdoor industry MBA. In the end, 23 students signed up for the program, the first offered by an American university. The students came from many different career paths, but all are looking to become leaders in the outdoor economy, which accounts for $887 billion in annual spending. They were photographed in January 2019 at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in Denver, where they networked for future employment. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gibbs also was impressed to see the new Monument Road trail. The 2.5-mile, $2.5 million paved path connecting downtown Grand Junction and the new Las Colonias outdoor business park on the Colorado River with the Lunch Loops trail network opens officially next week.

“And they told me that 100,000 people are already using it and it hasn’t even officially opened,” Gibbs said. “I can’t wait to get back there and bring my mountain bike and trail-running shoes.”


CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7:24 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2020 to correct an editing error. The new outdoor recreation industry bachelor’s degree at Colorado Mesa University is expected to be approved by trustees in spring and available to students in the fall semester.