Colorado Outdoor Recreation director: Efforts paying off for Fremont County

State official praises FAR for its work to promote area activities

By Carie Canterbury, The Daily Record

Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, center, takes part in a tour of the area Friday with Kalem Lenard, Assistant Field Manager for the Bureau of Land Management Royal Gorge Field Office; Brian LeDoux, Fremont Adventure Recreation; Will Colon, Colorado Jeep Tours (who provided the tour); and Lisa Hyams, Cañon City Chamber of Commerce. (Ashlee Sack / Special to the Daily Record)

Dedicated citizens and committed volunteer groups, such as the Fremont Adventure Recreation, steadily have been working in recent years to create and build trails and to promote a culture of community and healthy living, and their efforts were saluted Friday by a man who perhaps is one of the most experienced and respected professional mountain guides in the world.

Luis Benitez, 44, the state’s first director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry, an office created in 2016 by Gov. John Hickenlooper, was the keynote speaker during the 129th annual Chamber Banquet at the Abbey Events Center.

His message to the more than 220 attendees mostly focused on how the outdoor industry drives the local and global economy.

Benitez said he has spent time in Fremont County, climbing often at Shelf Road and mountain biking in the area, but really what he noticed during a tour of the area Friday is the focused conversation that is starting to connect the dots of all the outdoor recreational activities the region has to offer.

He said FAR’s work is paying off.

“Not only because of the infrastructure and the ecosystem that they are creating, but also because, frankly, that is going to be a driver to bring people here, to keep people here — people could potentially choose to move here because of that,” he said. “I think understanding the importance of that value helps drive that awareness, and you need people that are champions of that process to figure that out, and that’s definitely that group, without a doubt.”

Through Colorado’s outdoor industry in 2014, more than $34 billion was generated in consumer spending across the state; more than 350,000 direct jobs were created; more than $994 million was generated in state and local state revenue; and than $4 billion was generated in wages and salaries.

“That is not a small industry,” Benitez said. “The hypothesis is, that potentially, the outdoor industry in total could be worth more than auto industry and the pharmaceutical industry combined.”

He said if this proves to be true, this can be a significant economic engine for the country.

Officials should get answers in the near future.

President Barack Obama in recent weeks signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact of 2016, also known as the Outdoor REC Act, that moves to count the country’s entire outdoor industry, including jobs and revenue, toward the Gross Domestic Product.

Local leaders already know the benefit outdoor recreation can have on Cañon City businesses.

“Outdoor recreation will bring people to our community where our other businesses will benefit,” said Lisa Hyams, director of the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce. “We need to realize that our community will benefit as we strive to be an excellent community for the visitors who come here.”

Chamber President Dan Brown’s written message to banquet attendees states Cañon City and Fremont County are being discovered by the rest of Colorado, as well as the rest of the country, and the community doesn’t need to reinvent anything to be great.

“We just need to capitalize on what we are and what we have to offer to locals and outsiders, as well,” he said.

Having Benitez visit the area Friday was a significant opportunity for Cañon City and the Royal Gorge Region to truly validate what FAR has been trying to do with its mission, FAR member Kristyn Econome said.

“It’s quality of life, it’s economic development and it’s really good for everybody involved,” she said.

Benitez lived in Eagle, where he served as a town councilman before moving to Morrison to serve in his current position 18 months ago.

Previously, he ran an international guiding company for a decade and climbed Mount Everest six times. He said his job now is his current “Everest expedition.”

“Doing this is really what I am focused on,” he said, adding that his past experiences have prepared him for this role.

Following Utah’s lead, Colorado was the second state to appoint a director of outdoor recreation so the state would have some oversight to the outdoor industry.

Washington state came next and Wyoming and Montana are slated to be the next two states to have this office, Benitez said.

“In total, there are 11 states interested in this role,” he said. “The outdoor industry in the United States represents over $646 billion in consumer spending. That’s a significant portion of our national economy.”

Benitez’ office focuses on economic development, conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training and capturing outdoor industry innovations.

Some Facts

— Colorado’s population is projected to continue its rapid growth, topping 7.1 million people by 2040.

— Increased growth in urban and rural areas will present challenges in managing wildlife and outdoor recreation resources, but also opportunities to engage new users.

— More than 80 percent of Coloradans participate in trail-related activities, making them the most popular forms of outdoor recreation.

Information provided by Luis Benitez, Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office

Carie Canterbury: 719-276-7643,