With signatories from five U.S. states committing last week to “Confluence Principles,” the number of U.S. states with official outdoor recreation offices and department could skyrocket over the next few years. The offices are instrumental in helping draft public policies and budgets for each state’s recreational activities, including boating, as well as usage on state lands and parks used for boating.
The Confluence Accords include 12 principles contained in four pillars of conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, economic development, and public health and wellness, said Jessica Wahl, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable. “They were developed in 2018 by the Confluence of States, a bipartisan group of eight trailblazing states, to promote and advance best practices for all states to consider,” she said.
In 2020, there could be as many as 24 state recreational offices, either attached to governors’ offices or as independent state agencies.
“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth in the last two years with the current 16 state offices,” said Nicole Vasilaros, NMMA senior vice president of government relations and legal affairs. “They bring outdoor recreation to a higher profile in those states, which creates a lot of buzz about outdoor recreation, and that helps boating.”
Vasilaros said the quick growth of outdoor recreation offices — from two or three just three years ago to 16 now — helps boating not only in coastal states, but also for inland states with large lakes in state parks and on rivers.
Having a “point person” in each state, Vasilaros said, helps coordinate the issues that impact boating and fishing, such as fisheries management, law enforcement and boat-usage laws. “In certain states, these are sometimes handled by different people and agencies,” she said. “The heading of outdoor recreation brings it to a higher level and allows for direct control, or at least access, by just one office. We’re finding that it’s the most efficient way to move.”
The economics behind these offices are also critical to the boating and other outdoor recreation industries. The Bureau of Economic Analysis last year released data about the economic impact of outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation — led by fishing and boating — has a $887 billion annual impact, higher than such industries as mining and pharmaceuticals, according to the BEA analysis. This year, it released economic data at the state level.
Vasilaros said the NMMA and other outdoor industry associations founded the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable several years ago to show state and federal governments how big outdoor recreation is across the country. Once-closed doors have opened in many government offices that saw boating as a small pastime.
“In some states, our group can show that outdoor recreation has a huge, if not the largest, economic impact of any industry,” Vasilaros said. “As a result, we’ve seen a lot of value at the state and federal levels in the last few years.”
That value should increase now that Frank Hugelmeyer, former president of the Outdoor Industry Association, is NMMA president. “He has a very good understanding of outdoor recreation,” Vasilaros said. Hugelmeyer also was instrumental in helping form the first state office of outdoor recreation, in Utah, more than a decade ago.
Wahl says the decision by the National Governor’s Association to be a conduit between ORR, the outdoor recreation industry and the governors’ offices in the states with outdoor recreation offices also has helped speed up the process.
“We honestly hadn’t expected it to move this fast,” Wahl said, regarding adoption by the 16 states. “There are coastal states like Florida that are interested, but now we’re seeing states like Missouri, Alaska and Alabama are at the table. They may not seem to have much in common, but they all have thriving recreational economies and many similar businesses that face the same issues. There is a wonderful connectivity there.”
The politics of governors supporting the new offices also are very different. Wahl said establishing one of those offices is a “bit more complicated” than issuing an executive order. “They have to decide how to fund it, where you put the resources, whether it’s attached to the governor’s office or a separate department,” she said. “Some don’t even realize that they have recreational economies.”
Ultimately, Wahl believes that the new government offices are proving “what our industry has always talked about,” in terms of the impact of outdoor recreation on state economies. “These could be really good incubators at the federal level,” she said. “After all, governors become national departmental secretaries and even presidents. Really good ideas often come from the states.”