The state of Oregon recently hired a director for its new Office of Outdoor Recreation: Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, a graduate of Lewis and Clark College, nabbed the job.
O’Brien-Feeney brings what appears to be a strong resume to his new post: He’s worked in outdoor recreation for 15 years and has worked for the U.S. Forest Service and as a river guide in Idaho. Most recently, he worked for the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group that represents recreation-based businesses and promotes outdoor participation.
All that experience should dovetail nicely with the task facing the Office of Outdoor Recreation, which was created by the Legislature in 2017. The office’s charge is to build outdoor recreation into an economic powerhouse for the state.
Some of that already is occurring: The popularity of outdoor activities is growing. And regardless of your outdoor preference — whether it be camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, snow sports, trail sports, wheel sports, water sports, off-roading, motorcycling, wildlife viewing or what have you — these are activities that drive commerce: Many outdoor activities require gear and lead to travel spending.
According to a report released this year by the Outdoor Industry Association (yes, O’Brien-Feeney’s previous employer), American consumers spend more on outdoor recreation than on pharmaceuticals and fuel combined, a total of $887 billion annually. The spending supports 7.6 million jobs and generates $125 billion in tax revenue for federal, state and local government.
Oregon, with its wealth of natural resources, from the coast to the mountains to the high desert, is starting to cash in on that spending. But there’s no reason why the outdoor recreation couldn’t be even bigger business for the state. The primary function of the Office of Outdoors Recreation, then, is to make sure more of that $887 billion pie gets served up right here in the state.
To that end, the office is working with the state’s tourism bureau, Travel Oregon, as well as local and regional destination marketing organizations, such as the Albany Visitors Association, Visit Corvallis and the Willamette Valley Visitors Association.
As for Travel Oregon, it’s leading a collaborative effort through the Oregon Outdoor Recreation Initiative to expand outdoor recreation opportunities. And Gov. Kate Brown and first gentleman Dan Little have launched a complementary initiative, “Roadmap to the Outdoors,” aimed at increasing access to the outdoors. The nice idea behind the “Roadmap” project is to reach people who don’t typically venture out to Oregon’s beaches, trails, mountains and sand dunes. If that clicks, it could be a smart way to increase the size of that pie.
One of O’Brien-Feeney’s tasks in the months ahead will be determining where his new office fits in among all these moving pieces. Our sense now is that there’s enough room for all these entities, but there’s always a risk of needless duplication and agencies working not to cooperate, but to protect their own turf at whatever cost. It will take O’Brien-Feeney and his staffers some time to work out the lay of the land, so to speak, but we’re optimistic about the office and its potential.
A boost in outdoor recreation could be particularly helpful to Oregon’s rural areas, where the economic recovery has not been as vibrant as it has been in urban areas. But there’s an asterisk here, and that’s something we have to keep in mind: Outdoor recreation and tourism are not, by themselves, panaceas for rural economies. We still need to get people back to work in our forests, although the emphasis now needs to be on adding value to the natural resources harvested there.
But working to diversify the economies that support our rural communities is a step forward. Here’s hoping the Office of Outdoor Recreation can help with that important task.