It would be easy to believe that Oregon's newly-created Office of Outdoor Recreation is a needless extravagance.
The state's snow-capped volcanoes and salmon-filled rivers already fuel a $10.8 billion tourism industry, support 141,000 jobs and host a population more likely to spend time outdoors than the national average.
But dig deeper into Oregon’s relationship with the outdoors and you’ll find some concerning trends, officials say.
The percentage of Oregonians who take part in outdoor recreation has actually declined in some cases, said Chris Havel with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
And the economic benefits from outdoor recreation, while booming in places like Bend and Portland, have lagged behind in other parts of the state.
"Why is that, and what can we do about it?" Havel said.
The goal, in a nutshell, is to take Oregon's recreation economy from good to great.
The state is currently recruiting for a director of the new unit, which will pay from $70,000 to $97,000 per year. The job will become part of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and was funded by legislation that allocated $218,000 to $250,000 per biennium.
The new office has seen plenty of support, but it's also been criticized as unnecessary and sparked concerns about what types of recreation are prioritized.
The new office will be tasked with a host of priorities, but Havel said they'll start with four goals.
- Improving access to outdoor recreation, whether through new trails or better facilities.
- Improving participation levels in outdoor recreation, especially in communities that don’t typically take part.
- Stewardship of resources, whether by moderating crowded areas, bolstering ecological quality or adapting to climate change.
- Sustainability of resources, so parks or campgrounds don’t fall into disrepair.
The job will also seek to address the statewide imbalance in tourism and recreation. While places such as the Columbia River Gorge and Bend area are often overcrowded, many places on Oregon's South Coast and Klamath-Siskiyou region are sparsely used.
"The goal is to see outdoor recreation reach its full potential through a unified strategy," Havel said.
Oregon is the fourth state to set up an office devoted to outdoor recreation, following in the footsteps of Utah, Washington, and Colorado.
In Utah, for example, the office awarded more than $400,000 to recreation projects that funded everything from trails systems to an archery range.
The office will face major challenges. As a state-level job, the office won't have direct power over the 53 percent of Oregon that's managed by the federal government.
And the office will face skepticism from communities wary of bureaucracy or the type of recreation being promoted.
The group that supported the creation of the office included businesses such as Keen Footwear and REI that primarily support recreation such as hiking, biking, and kayaking.
That makes groups that support hunting, fishing and motorized recreation nervous about being overlooked.
“Despite the fact that hunting is a longstanding and strong economic driver, Oregon's government continues to ignore it,” said Dominic Aiello, president of the Oregon Outdoor Council, which promotes hunting. “Travel Oregon, the state’s official tourism office, doesn't even list hunting under the ‘Things To Do’ for outdoor recreation in Oregon.
“It's beyond time that Oregon stops treating hunters like a black sheep and give us a seat at the outdoor recreation planning table.”
Havel said the office wouldn’t be beholden to any group and would seek to represent all recreation uses. He added that the advisory group to the office would seek to represent every type of recreation.
“We’re not going to draw a boundary around recreation,” he said.
Havel said he did understand the monumental challenge the office would face as it ventures to become a clearinghouse for an industry that spans such a wide array of locations and activities.
"The size of it is pretty terrifying, and we know it will be tough" Havel said. "The only comfort is there's a large community ready to help, and a hunger to find a better way forward."
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for nine years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
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