State Offices Are Changing the Conversation Around Outdoor Recreation

There are now 13 state offices aimed at improving access to wild spaces, encouraging conservation, bolstering the recreation economy and more. Here's a look at three of the newest state offices of outdoor recreation.

Last week, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed into law Assembly Bill 486, establishing a Division of Outdoor Recreation within the state’s Department of Conservation & Natural Resources. With Gov. Sisolak’s signature, Nevada became the 13th state to form an office or commission dedicated to improving outdoor recreation for its residents. 

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In establishing these offices, states say they are standing up for public lands, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities and encouraging stewardship and conservation. They’re also working to promote the benefits of time outdoors as a tool for public health and child development. And they’re looking to cultivate the outdoor economy: Recreation currently drives $887 billion in annual consumer spending and is responsible for more than 7 million jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

As Americans spend more time outdoors, the offices are likely to play a key role in improving access and shaping the conversation around our natural environment, both for the current generation and the next wave of would-be stewards. Here’s a look at three of the newest offices—and the impacts they’re set to make.

New Mexico Invests in the Future.

Gabe Vasquez’s first outdoor adventure couldn’t have gone worse: At 8 years old, growing up in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, he recalls legally crossing the United States-Mexico border and fishing with his father and brother along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. A few agents with the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish approached his father that day to see his fishing license.

Vasquez’s father didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the agents, so they called U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose own agents promptly took Vasquez’s father to a nearby sheriff’s station so they could verify his identity. All the while, Vasquez sat crying in the waiting room, unsure of what was happening.

Once the matter got sorted out, Vasquez recalls his dad telling him, “The Río Bravo [Mexico’s name for the Rio Grande] is our river. That, for years, has been our river—and nothing is going to stop us from enjoying it.”

Soon after, Vasquez’s father acquired the appropriate license, and the family returned to the river. “From there on, I fell in love,” Vasquez says. “Every weekend that we could get our dad to bring us to the river, we’d be out there fishing with him. I was lucky that I had a dad who showed me those things.”

This experience is in part why Vasquez, who serves as the New Mexico deputy director for The Wilderness Society, spent two years advocating alongside legislators, nonprofits and other groups for the creation of an outdoor recreation office in the state. Those efforts paid off in April 2019, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law, establishing an Outdoor Recreation Division to promote and improve access to New Mexico’s public lands.

The bill simultaneously created a first-of-its-kind outdoor equity grant program and fund, which provides $100,000 in annual state funds to help nonprofits and community organizations improve access and outdoor opportunities for low-income families, Native American communities and other marginalized groups. The program will also look to leverage private-sector matching funds (REI Co-op has pledged $25,000 to the first year’s effort.)

For Vasquez, inspiring the next generation of conservation leaders starts with getting them outside. “You have to love a resource to take care of it,” he says. “And the first experience a young person has outside and how they associate with the outdoors is going to be important to their development as a caretaker and as a steward.”

Michigan Focuses on Access, Economic Opportunity.

Outdoor access and economic opportunity were the driving forces behind the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry established in Michigan last month. Jonathan Jarosz, the executive director for the Heart of the Lakes conservation group, cited the state’s history as an automotive giant as evidence it can become an economic player in another growing industry. “If you can manufacture seat belts, you can manufacture climbing harnesses,” he says. “Our manufacturing history is so rooted in vehicles, we haven’t thought about how we can look differently in coming years.”

Jarosz thinks it’s vital to connect the next generation of stewards with Michigan’s waterways and forests. “The adventurers of today have the [ability] to be the fiercest defenders of wild and open spaces tomorrow,” he says.

First things first, though: In the coming months, the office will connect with the state’s outdoor enthusiasts to understand how they enjoy recreation opportunities and find ways to nurture their love for the outdoors.

Listening sessions and surveys will help identify opportunities and set priorities. And the office will partner with the state’s existing Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council to help guide the work. “When we think about what’s next and maintaining relevance, it becomes key to recognize and celebrate all the ways people get outside, and—long-term—look for ways for those users to become advocates for the lands they love,” Jarosz says.

Nevada Zeroes in on Growth.

In Nevada, where the population has grown by more than 12 percent since 2010, promoting access is also a key initiative. Per Mauricia Baca, executive director for Get Outdoors Nevada, an uptick in outdoor adventure has accompanied that population growth.

When Baca moved to Nevada in early 2005, she noticed a striking difference in how two of the state’s most populated cities approached outdoor recreation: In Reno, her neighbors spent their weekends rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking, while her colleagues in Las Vegas knew their city more for its casinos and neon lights. “The outdoors have been one of our best, least-highlighted resources, until recently,” she says.

Now, Baca is seeing a growing passion for the outdoors: “Bit by bit, when I’m out in the community, more and more people I talk to are really starting to understand that we have an outdoors—and that it’s really great,” she says. She’s hopeful that Nevada’s new division focused on outdoor recreation will foster a love of wild places among newly minted enthusiasts, especially.

Nevada’s office will also advocate on behalf of conservation, bolster tourism, promote outdoor access for Nevada youth and help facilitate coordination among agencies at the local, state and federal levels. The new division will consult with a complementary advisory board, comprising several state departments, including the Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, the Office of Economic Development and the Nevada Indian Commission.

“This division helps underscore that Nevada is committed to outdoor recreation and is willing to invest in this office to publicize the fact that we have incredible places to recreate,” Baca says.

Outdoor Offices Tap Into “Kaleidoscope of Benefits.”

David Weinstein, state and local policy director with the Outdoor Industry Association, takes a holistic view of the offices and points to what he calls the “kaleidoscope of benefits” afforded by improved access and stewardship of green spaces, waters and public lands.

The way Weinstein sees it, outdoor recreation touches almost every aspect of state government and, by extension, the lives of residents. Pass and permit fees generate revenue for state agencies, visitors spend money in rural communities (and, in many states, pay sales or lodging taxes) and outdoor access improves public health, to name a few examples.

And he points out that those benefits give the offices a seat at the table in determining legislative and administrative priorities at the state level. “We’ve really expanded the conversation, and these offices play a unique role in busting down silos in state governments and serving as partners in the industry,” he says. “They’re an avenue to touch all these different components that make up that kaleidoscope.”

More Offices On the Way?

Nevada may not be the newest state with an office of outdoor recreation for long. Per Marc Berejka, the director of community and government affairs for REI Co-op, New Hampshire and Wisconsin are considering forming offices through budget appropriations. Efforts are underway in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota and a handful of other states, too. In all, between 15 and 20 states might have offices or commissions by the end of 2019, with more in the works for 2020.

With the creation of an office in Nevada, following on the heels of Michigan and New Mexico, the momentum seems obvious. As Berejka points out, “In America, when you have 13 states moving in one direction, you’ve got the makings of a revolution.”

State Offices of Outdoor Recreation by the Year

  • Washington stands up a Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation. It calls for an office. In 2015, legislation creates a Policy Advisor for Outdoor Recreation and Economic Development.
  • Wyoming forms a task force to study the states recreation needs. The study recommends the creation of an office, and in 2017 the Outdoor Recreation Office is established.
  • New Mexico creates its Outdoor Recreation Division and Outdoor Equity Fund.
  • Nevada establishes its Division of Outdoor Recreation.