From 1936-41, workers enlisted as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped construct and open to the public Colorado’s famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

One of the most popular of all New Deal programs, the CCC provided 3 million jobs for young men challenged to find employment during the Great Depression. It improved workers’ physical condition, morale and employability while contributing to the enhancement and care of natural resources.

While it’s still too early to predict long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Colorado’s economy, at Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), we see an opportunity. Perhaps our state could prove that, once again, economic resilience can be found in job creation in the hard-working outdoor sector.

Chris Castilian. (Photo by Evan Semón Photography)

The idea is gaining momentum on the national scale with several acts pending. This week, the House is expected to approve the Great American Outdoors Act, which passed in the Senate in June and would invest nearly $2 billion per year in the outdoors, including investments in a fund to support deferred maintenance on federal lands.

In addition, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado has unveiled the 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act, ambitious legislation that aims to help economies recover from the pandemic while addressing conservation, forest management and wildfire and natural disaster mitigation on public lands.

Separately, a bipartisan group of senators has proposed the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act, which would double AmeriCorps positions available this year to 150,000 and provide 600,000 service opportunities nationwide.

Funding for conservation and outdoor recreation is a powerful economic lever. In its 27 years, GOCO has funded more than 5,300 outdoor projects with Colorado Lottery proceeds, and in the coming fiscal year, will receive as much as $71 million from the Lottery to invest.

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GOCO funding supports the on-the-ground projects of people working in local governments’ park and recreation and open space departments, at nonprofits that protect land, and at Colorado Parks and Wildlife — all integral pieces of our outdoor infrastructure and economy. 

The projects, from the creation of natural areas and land conservation to park and trail development and management, protect Coloradans’ shared values. They contribute to our health and well-being. They safeguard our land, air and water for people and wildlife and contribute to critically needed climate resilience. They build up and revitalize communities, and they attract a whole host of new people to this state whether as visitors or new residents. 

While protecting and enhancing the outdoors certainly have economic advantages, increased visitation and use bring a greater need for caring for and restoring these spaces.

Colorado’s great outdoors faced a significant maintenance backlog before the pandemic, and now with more people heading outside, the need to manage the outdoors is even greater.

MORE: See Colorado Sun outdoors coverage

The Colorado Outdoor Partnership council determined Colorado’s public trails alone require $89 million in backlogged maintenance. But this is part of our opportunity.

GOCO will embark on a new strategic plan next year, but first we’re focused on helping Colorado recover from COVID-19 impacts. Our board earmarked $15 million for a Resilient Communities program to help partners advance outdoor projects.

This program will augment core capacity and operations for conservation and recreation work, fund critical land acquisitions and support natural resource stewardship efforts.

In addition, this year GOCO will double its investment in Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA) to $1 million. CYCA is a statewide coalition of eight accredited conservation service corps that employ and train youth, young adults and veterans on needed recreation and restoration projects, from trail building to wildland fire training.

These service corps offer an incredible opportunity for Coloradans to acquire trade skills, providing employment for 1,700 people annually while helping Colorado accomplish tangible stewardship goals. The additional funding means more people employed and more work completed.

Met Wilder yet? GOCO has invested nearly $30 million over the last few years in Generation Wild, a program supporting 15 community-driven coalitions launching outdoor programs and ensuring equitable access to the outdoors for youth and families.

In each community, GOCO invests in the people and positions needed to direct, manage and administer programs at the local level. As of March 2020, the coalitions had offered 2,025 volunteer, internship and job opportunities; 85% of the jobs and internships were paid.

As part of our new plan, GOCO will expand into additional communities while continuing to support existing coalitions with $2.8 million in the next year. 

In these unprecedented times, Colorado’s great outdoors provides a sense of freedom, relief and needed physical release. All the while, our outdoor spaces help us thrive in a different way — providing meaningful livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people. We’re proud to support our state’s outdoor identity and economy. 

Let’s get to work, Colorado.

Chris Castilian is Executive Director of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO).

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