[cs_content][cs_section parallax=”false” style=”margin: 0px;padding: 0px;”][cs_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”false” style=”margin: 0px auto;padding: 0px;”][cs_column fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px;”][cs_text]

By: JASON BLEVINS | jblevins@denverpost.com

[/cs_text][x_custom_headline level=”h2″ looks_like=”h2″ accent=”false”]Colorado emerging as a national leader in developing a recreational-based economy
[/x_custom_headline][x_custom_headline level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ accent=”false”]After languishing at the political kids’ table, outdoor recreation emerges as key driver of U.S. economy[/x_custom_headline][x_line style=”border-top-color: hsl(0, 0%, 0%);border-top-width: 6px;”][/cs_column][/cs_row][/cs_section][cs_section parallax=”false” style=”margin: 0px 100px;padding: 45px 0px 0px;”][cs_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”false” style=”margin: 0px auto;padding: 0px;”][cs_column fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px;”][x_video_embed no_container=”true” type=”16:9″][/x_video_embed][/cs_column][/cs_row][/cs_section][cs_section parallax=”false” style=”margin: 0px;padding: 30px 0px 45px;”][cs_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”false” style=”margin: 0px auto;padding: 0px;”][cs_column fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px;”][cs_text]

The common refrain among businesses along Colorado’s recreation-rich Interstate 70 mountain corridor over the past few years is “record breaking.”
Soaring numbers of visitors are swelling private and public coffers in both summer and winter. Tourist-generated tax revenues are reaching peaks. The recreation season now stretches for almost 12 months with more opportunities for year-round play than ever before.
While outdoor recreation has long been an economic keystone in Colorado, it is only now getting recognized as a major economic driver nationwide, with proposed federal legislation aiming to bolster the industry that has long languished at the fiscal kids’ table.
This is a period of amelioration for recreation — a time when gear companies, rafting outfitters, ski areas and advocacy groups join the grown-up table, alongside industrial stalwarts such as energy development, manufacturing and technology, in conversations about the nation’s economic development and public land policy.
“We are really getting to the point where I think the outdoor industry can save the world,” said Luis Benitez, the silver-tongued Everest climber who heads the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “We are so limited on things we all can look at and say this is good for our heritage, our education, our environment, our health and wellness and our economy. The outdoor industry is one of the few things everyone can recognize as vitally important.”
Benitez was the second person in the U.S. to lead such a state recreation office, following Utah. But expect another four or five states to establish offices of outdoor recreation soon, he said, as governors embrace the boon of outdoor play.
State leaders, Benitez said, are realizing it’s no longer about luring those 500-employee juggernaut companies. State leaders are pursuing outdoor companies with five to 20 employees — such as Pagosa Springs’ Voormi, Rifle’s The Whole Works, Steamboat Springs’ Big Agnes and Icelantic Skis in Denver — that can anchor a diversifying rural economy.
“And these are the guys who are starting to influence policy,” Benitez said. “This is literally the coming of age for this industry. It’s been considered an adolescent for many years and now it’s showing up with a bank account and a checkbook, and is a serious player in the conversation.”
Jessica Wahl, government affairs manager for the Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder, there have been major breakthroughs in Congress this year “with bills that are solely related to recreation. We used to see recreation just tacked onto something. Now it’s standing on its own.”
A pivotal piece of proposed legislation comes from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. His Recreation, Not Red Tape bill hopes to streamline convoluted public agency processes to expedite permitting while also creating National Recreation Area designation for highly treasured public playgrounds. The bill includes a clause that would allow individual forests, such as the White River National Forest, to keep ski-area fees generated in their boundaries — a huge deal for Colorado.
Sally Jewell, the former REI chief who now serves as secretary of the Interior, gave recreation another boost in April when she proposed an initiative that would require the federal government to include outdoor recreation as part of its annual Gross Domestic Product reports, right along with other major industries such as oil and gas, travel and tourism, and manufacturing. Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner this spring joined a bipartisan group of senators supporting the Recreation’s Economic Contributions Act, which would ensure that the Departments of Commerce and Labor annually measures recreation’s impact on the U.S. economy.
Jim Bedwell, who is in charge of recreation, lands and minerals for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region, said the annual national economic study “is really going to underscore how big an impact outdoor recreation is here in Colorado.”
That evidence, he said, should help spotlight his agency’s challenge to meet growing user demand while protecting the environment.
“I think there is a growing awareness in general on the impact of outdoor recreation and certainly in the Rocky Mountain region,” said Bedwell, whose job includes managing heritage and wilderness areas, protecting wild and scenic rivers, reviewing land exchanges and municipal water projects and oil, gas, coal and mining operations.
It wasn’t that long ago that recreation wasn’t able to stand with major industries when it came to lobbying for beneficial public land policies. Recreation was a secondary consideration, something to be protected, sure, but not necessarily something to augment or rely upon for revenue. That’s changing.
Of the Forest Service’s nine regions, the Rocky Mountain region — consisting of Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas — is the busiest, with 29.5 million visits a year and a population of about 9 million. The next busiest regions, the 13-state Southern Region and California, have exponentially larger populations.
“We are very much an attracter,” Bedwell said. “It’s part of a lifestyle of our residents, but we are a destination region. People come from all over to visit us.”
This sudden veneration of recreation as an economic force elevates Colorado as a national model for how state governments, land managers, businesses and public-private partnerships can bolster recreation while preserving resources and growing economies.
“I do think the rest of the world is watching and learning from the work Colorado has done,” said Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, pointing to recent federal recreation-influenced legislation that balances economic vitality, conservation and play in the Arkansas River Valley’s Browns’ Canyon, the natural gas-rich Roan Plateau, southern Colorado’s Hermosa Creek watershed and, soon, the Camp Hale region near Leadville.
More people than ever are flocking to the White River National Forest, central Colorado’s 2.3 million-acre swath of public land that takes in the nation’s busiest ski areas, eight wilderness areas and 10 fourteeners. The heavily used White River stands to gain the most from the clause in Wyden’s bill that would allow forests to retain ski area permit fees. For the last several decades, the White River has forwarded its resort rent checks to the U.S. Treasury. In 2014-15, the most heavily trafficked forest collected almost $18 million from 11 ski resorts that draw nearly three-quarters of all Colorado skiers. That’s more than the forest’s entire annual budget.
If the overburdened and underfunded White River could keep the money for work inside its boundaries, it would be easier to meet growing demand and decisions on trail and campground closures could be delayed.
White River supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has seen his budget dwindle by 40 percent since 2009 while visitation has soared. His roster of 120 employees who don’t fight fires is about 40 fewer than in the mid 2000s.
“Our budget is going one way. Our ability to respond to the public is going another way. And our visits are going up,” Fitzwilliams said. “We have awesome things to offer, but being able to keep up with demand is a challenge.”
While he can’t take an official position on pending legislation, Fitzwilliams is glad to see recreation become part of a national economic conversation. In his forest, he has multinational corporations such as Vail Resorts as well as mom-and-pop rafting companies. Each business and each visitor is an essential part of the evolving high-country economy.
“Colorado can become the national model for the recreation industry. It’s a matter of articulating the numbers … and communicating to the public and to stakeholders how important recreation is as an economic engine for many of these small communities,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s kind of an exciting time. It’s overwhelming, but it’s exciting.”

[/cs_text][/cs_column][/cs_row][cs_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”false” style=”margin: 0px auto;padding: 0px;”][cs_column fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px;”][x_line style=”border-top-width: 1px;”][/cs_column][/cs_row][cs_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”false” style=”margin: 0px auto;padding: 0px;”][cs_column fade=”false” fade_animation=”in” fade_animation_offset=”45px” fade_duration=”750″ type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px;”][cs_text]

While there is an increase in participation, the recent rise of recreation has to do with the economy. The Outdoor Industry Association’s 2012 economic impact report — a follow-up to its first report in 2006 — showed outdoor recreation employing 6.1 million Americans and stirring $646 billion in direct consumer spending a year. That study sparked the push for a national study, which will detail how rural communities close to recreation are thriving with new businesses, young families and growing budgets that support things such as bike trails and whitewater parks.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last week cited the report when she presented her goal to double the size of the outdoor economy within the next decade, adding $700 million in new economic activity while expanding access to public lands currently closed for hunting, fishing and other activities.
“You are really seeing policymakers, from the state level up to the federal level, recognizing outdoor recreation can add balance to traditional economic drivers like mining, timber and energy development,” said Alex Boian, senior director of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association. “When you infuse communities with a more balanced portfolio that includes outdoor recreation, you see better balance in their economies. Communities that have invested in outdoor recreation are getting a significant return on that investment.”
When Wahl and Boian talk with a senator or representative about supporting outdoor recreation, they don’t have to worry about an ingrained bias against recreation or another group coming in behind them blasting the outdoor industry.
“It’s not an either-or scenario,” Wahl said. “It’s not recreation or development. That bipartisan appeal is becoming more important.”
Especially when recreation can be painted as a business investment.
“When things are not getting done at a macro level and people think Congress isn’t working, that opens up opportunities for groups like us to come in and have beneficial conversations on the Hill,” Wahl said.
Ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are coming together to embrace the outdoor industry, the industry itself remains fractured with different groups pursuing similar directions but not side-by-side.
Bedwell hopes the economic study that will clearly quantify the role of outdoor recreation and the outdoor industry will serve as a “unifier” for the various tribes within the outdoor realm. Those tribes — hikers and mountain bikers, for example — often clash, while extractive uses such as oil, gas and mining have a unified voice when it comes to lobbying for beneficial policies.
“There is a lot at stake here, and this can bring them all together,” Bedwell said. “I see these economic studies being the unifier of the recreation folk.”
Now it’s on the industry to galvanize and drop the fight to protect a small space and join forces to fight for a larger position, Benitez said.
“Right now, we need to focus on coalition building inside the recreation industry and getting all sides to see how this can be an integrated community,” Benitez said.
It’s happening right now in Colorado Springs, Boulder and Lyons, Grand Junction, Buena Vista and Denver, as regional groups coalesce around a larger, national vision.
“When we combine all these regional coalitions,” Benitez said, “we are showing up as a collective voice like any other segment of our economy in the state, sitting next to aerospace, advanced manufacturing and energy development and we have a focused message.”

[/cs_text][x_share title=”Share this Post” share_title=”” facebook=”true” twitter=”true” google_plus=”true” linkedin=”true” pinterest=”true” reddit=”true” email=”true” email_subject=”Hey, thought you might enjoy this! Check it out when you have a chance:”][x_button size=”global” block=”true” circle=”false” icon_only=”false” href=”http://www.denverpost.com/2016/06/05/after-languishing-at-the-political-kids-table-outdoor-recreation-emerges-as-a-key-driver-of-the-u-s-economy/” title=”” target=”blank” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover” info_content=””]View Source Article![/x_button][/cs_column][/cs_row][/cs_section][/cs_content]