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March 28, 2023

Offices of Outdoor Recreation Deliver Big

By: By PeopleForBikes’ Rachel Fussell, eMTB policy and program manager, and Noa Banayan, director of federal affairs

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Eighteen states house OREC offices, which can help guide investments toward bicycle infrastructure, programming, and other pertinent resources.

Playing outside isn’t just for kids. Access to safe and enjoyable outdoor recreation — like biking, camping, boating, skiing, and more — is vital to our collective well-being and national economic growth. Communities in rural areas, especially those transitioning from older industries into new revenue streams, stand to benefit the most from strategic and targeted investments in recreation planning. 

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), outdoor recreation is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, contributing $862 billion (1.9%) to the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021. The BEA estimates that bicycling added $3.28 billion to the GDP in 2021, and even more telling is that from 2020 to 2021, the outdoor recreation economy grew more than three times (nearly 19%) faster than the overall U.S. economy. 

As the popularity of outdoor recreation continues to spread across all demographics, states with Offices of Outdoor Recreation (OREC) are best prepared to meet the growing demand. Eighteen states now house OREC offices, which help guide investments toward infrastructure, programming, and other resources that support outdoor recreation. 

2013: Utah

2018: Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wyoming

2019: Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, Wisconsin

2022: Arkansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota

This map was last updated before Massachusetts created its state OREC Office in December 2022.

What is an OREC Office?

OREC offices elevate recreation experts to state-level cabinet or department leadership positions, ensuring that a strategy for outdoor recreation is a key component of their state’s economic growth and development. Before Utah started the first OREC office in 2013, most states relied on (or continue to rely on) wider-ranging tourism boards and commerce departments to invest in resources that get people outside. These entities often focus on larger-dollar, tourism-focused projects, such as ports for cruise ships, casinos, big resorts, airports, etc. 

OREC offices allow states to focus federal and state investments on trails, campsites, partnerships with public land management agencies, local outdoor industries, community-level recreation planning, and more. While these are often lower-dollar projects, they tend to offer a better return on investment for smaller, more rural communities than investments that only touch tourism-heavy cities or regions. It makes for a more balanced approach to state investment in outdoor recreation and tourism.

The Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, of which PeopleForBikes is a member, brings together outdoor industries, from bikes to boats to RVs, to advocate for all user groups holistically. The group outlined the value of state OREC offices in this 2021 report.

OREC offices are also charged with incentivizing outdoor industries to invest in their states. PeopleForBikes hosted the Michigan and Arkansas OREC directors, Brad Garmon and Katherine Andrews, respectively, at our SHIFT‘22 conference in Bentonville, Arkansas, in October 2022. On stage, they pushed bike companies to invest in manufacturing, retail, events, and the workforce in their states. With incentives and support from ORECs, the bike industry and states stand to gain lucrative partnership opportunities to grow the culture of biking and recreation in their backyard.

Looking at PeopleForBikes annual City Ratings program, more than half of the top ten highest-ranking cities for biking are in states without an OREC office. This leaves a massive unmet potential for increasing outdoor recreation. City Ratings identifies communities that embrace the bicycle as a tool for mobility, economic growth, and recreation, and state ORECs can build on these cities’ successes by supporting and stimulating the outdoor recreation economy through bicycling in surrounding towns and communities. 

As a generally newer concept in state government, OREC offices come together under the Confluence of States to learn from and support each other in navigating their respective arenas. To further this effort, the Confluence just released the first-ever Guidebook on Developing Offices of Outdoor Recreation

As the title suggests, the guidebook includes best practices and strategies sourced from existing OREC state directors to develop new offices — it also offers guidance for future OREC staff regarding what works and what doesn’t. The guide builds on the knowledge of those currently working for various states and their success in expanding outdoor recreation.

Some of the best practices for OREC offices include:

  • Operationalizing the office through:
    — Learning the lay-of-the-land and understanding the context of your office
    — Strategic planning and developing goals for an office
  • Building support through:
    — Partnerships and developing relationships with stakeholders
    — Communications and outreach, creating a plan for meaningful engagement
  • Focusing on strategic initiatives, such as:
    — Conservation and natural resources
    — Economic development
    — Grant management
    — Tourism

The momentum for recreation is only going to continue to grow, bringing individuals, families, and communities together in and around the outdoors. With this new guidebook from the Confluence of States, along with a focus on bicycling infrastructure for both recreation and active transportation, PeopleForBikes is proud and excited to partner with OREC offices in our mission to make America the best place to ride a bike in the world. However, we also need continued support from communities and individuals to advocate for increased recreation access and opportunities at every level to amplify our message. 

We urge you to keep up to date on the important progress of recreation and OREC offices across the nation by signing up for the Confluence of States monthly newsletter here.

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