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Utah Breaks Ground With Office of Outdoor Recreation

Now a Model for 16 Other States

Amelia Nielson-Stowell | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Jul 1, 2019

Outdoor recreation contributes $412 billion to the country’s gross domestic product. It’s growing at a faster rate than the overall U.S. economy. But only one state had the foresight to see outdoor recreation as a boom for tourism, steward for the environment, source for recreation infrastructure, advocate for public policy and key for business recruitment: Utah.

Six years ago, Utah became the first state to form an Office of Outdoor Recreation. Today, eight states have followed Utah’s example and established similar offices and, by the end of 2019, that number could climb to 16.

“Utah is letting the nation know that recreation is incredibly important to our quality of life,” says Tom Adams, director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. “Our tourism numbers are increasing, our skier days are increasing, and now with the partnerships we’ve made through the office, the money invested into outdoor recreation is increasing.”

Woman standing on a paddleboard
Paddleboarding on Oquirrh Lake
indian ruins
Hovenweep National Monument
lots of hot air balloons
Hot air balloons near Kanab

Recreation Drives Tourism

Outdoor recreation is an economic powerhouse in Utah, contributing more than $12.3 billion to the state. Public lands cover nearly 70% of the state, and nearly 72% of Utahns say they recreate in the outdoors.

Multiple state and national agencies manage different aspects of recreation, like the National Park Service and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Every agency has a different role in managing public lands, and none have a statutory responsibility for recreation.

“We see the outdoor recreation offices as a convener, a way to cross those boundaries and help these divisions and state agencies work together for a shared goal,” says Bob Ratcliffe, National Park Service chief of conservation and outdoor recreation. He calls Utah’s recreation office “visionary,” adding: “Utah’s office has really been a model for other states to copy.”

Saving Infrastructure

Central to Utah’s recreation office are state grants it uses to build recreation infrastructure. Each year, the office invests $5 million in these grants. Since its inception in 2016, funding has aided 100 projects, including a ropes course at the National Ability Center in Park City, walkways and boat ramps along the Jordan River Trail, a bouldering park in Moab and a shooting range in Perry.

“A lot of people think outdoor recreation is what they see on YouTube videos of crazy mountain bikers and rock climbing,” Ratcliffe says. “But the beauty is in the incredible community trails — that’s outdoor recreation. It’s stuff people use every single day. It’s why people want to live in Salt Lake or Park City. Outdoor recreation is much more at the community level than big tourism.”

Consider that Zion National Park is the fourth most-visited national park in America with more than 4.3 million visitors annually. But 4.5 million people visit Salt Lake’s tri-canyon area each year — Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood and Millcreek canyons.

“We have some wonderful assets in Utah outside of the national parks, but there’s a lot of impact on infrastructure,” Adams says. “And if you’re not hunting or fishing, you don’t pay one penny of tax that goes back to conservation.”

sandstone rock formations in utah
Goblin Valley State Park

Attracting Business

Adams has a diverse view of the industry. He spent the last 20 years working for climbing brands. As a teen, he worked as an outfitter, ski instructor and climbing guide “before people realized outdoor recreation was an industry,” he says.

“Outdoor recreation continues to be one of the biggest tools for corporate recruitment,” he adds. In the last three years, 10 outdoor businesses moved to Utah, like the Snow Sports Industry of America and Black Diamond’s manufacturing operations.

“People want to be closer to the outdoor recreation they love,” he says. “Very few places in the world have Utah’s high caliber of recreation minutes from their cities. We are a mountain town with an international airport.”

Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation is hosting the Utah Outdoor Recreation Summit from Oct. 22-24 in St. George. The sixth annual conference features speakers, breakout sessions and outdoor activities highlighting Utah’s recreation.

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