Denver Post: Recreation’s diverse interests galvanize…

By JASON BLEVINS | | The Denver Post

Article reposted with permission:

BRECKENRIDGE — The recreation community is a fractured lot. Knobby tires versus skinny. Lure versus fly. Motorized versus human-powered. Wilderness versus multiple use. Over decades, the tribes of recreation have flourished as individual identities trumped the collective.

That’s changing. The threats and challenges emerging from outside the recreation community are eclipsing long-held internal conflicts. Efforts to change the nature of public lands as well as dwindling budgets for federal and state land managers are threatening the recreation way of life. Imperiled access and the mounting dangers facing wildlife, conservation and habitat protection are tearing down decades-old barriers between recreational cliques that are finding they can better protect lifestyles, businesses and natural resources if they band together.

Imagine wilderness advocates at the table with mountain bikers, who agree to consider a licensing program like motorcycles to help pay for land management, access and trails, which are maintained by a growing cadre of volunteer steward groups made up of hunters, anglers, conservationists, hikers, bikers, skiers and snowmobilers.

It’s a Utopian vision that requires a lot of cooperation among groups that have never united. And it’s a becoming a reality.

“This collaboration is a new progress point that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime in terms of different modalities of recreation coming together toward a common goal and cause,” says Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Office of Recreation Industry.

Benitez took the helm of the country’s second-ever state recreation office with a mission to unify Colorado’s broad outdoor interests in hopes of fostering an integrated recreation economy. His 22-member advisory committee is a rowdy blend of motorized users, shop owners, gear makers and conservationists. Their clarion call is unity, trying to set an example of how recreation’s notoriously fragmented clans can come together with a singular voice.

That push for solidarity comes as the U.S. Department of Commerce prepares a first-ever analysis and assessment of the outdoor recreationindustry’s impact to the nation’s GDP. It comes as myriad recreation and conservation groups, advocates and businesses mobilize to defend public lands under review by the Trump Administration. It comes as legislation to thwart a pending budget crisis at Colorado Parks and Wildlife failed to pass through the statehouse. It comes as Colorado’s population booms with a surge of newcomers eager to explore the state’s public lands, further stressing both financial and natural resources.

At the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s annual Partners in the Outdoors Conference in Breckenridge earlier this month, the theme was an increasingly urgent call for cooperation. If outdoor recreation — an expansive camp that includes basically everyone who plays outside — is going to be the political, social and economic powerhouse it aspires to be, the time for rallying under one big tent has come.

“It’s imperative for all these groups to understand they are not just playing for the same team, but they are playing for the same segment of that team,” said Dan Gates, the president of the Colorado Trappers and Predator Hunters Association who also leads the new coalition called Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management. Gates is enlisting the help of organizations beyond the insular hook-and-bullet fellowship by mustering water managers, land owners and species groups to protect the North American model of wildlife conservation.

“We are at a crossroads, resource and outdoor recreation-wise, where we need to be able to provide a legitimate level of outdoor recreation without compromising the resource of wildlife, water and habitats for now and future generations. We are only going to get one chance to get this right,” Gates says. “We need to get together. I don’t want to play for the Cleveland Browns.”

This isn’t a naively optimistic kumbaya moment, where sundry recreation brokers are embracing amnesty after decades of animosity. Right now, it’s a call-to-arms search for common ground.

“Look at that,” says Benitez, following a recent meeting of his advisory council, pointing at two men huddled in conversation.

The first member of his council, Don Riggle, who as the head of the Trails Preservation Alliance is dedicated to protecting motorcycle access to public lands, is talking with Jason Bertolacci, the former Colorado chief of the International Mountain Bike Association.

Those two groups are not friendly. A bike trail on public land that bans motorcycles — a trail that very likely was first forged by dirt bike riders — irks often ostracized motorized users. But there they are. Discussing how mountain bikers might be able to kick-in for trails, just like more than 170,000 off-road motorized users in Colorado do with their tags and licenses.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife legislation that just failed to reach the Colorado Senate would have given the state wildlife commission more ability to raise residential hunting and fishing fees as part of a plan to foil a looming budget mess that promises closures, lost access and fewer licenses. Part of that legislation required the study of “non-consumptive” users of division-managed lands — namely cyclists, paddlers and hikers. The hope is those other recreational users might be tapped — or even volunteer — to ease the financial burden long carried by sportsmen paying for licenses and fees. It’s part of a larger pay-to-play plan that, once hugely taboo, is gaining traction as federal and state land management budgets wither and recreational use multiplies and mutates.

“We know we need to do something with the funding issue and we know we are probably OK with it if the money is returned to trails,” says Bertolacci, a member of Benitez’s advisory committee, which plans to soon amplify its pay-to-play mission. “So let’s get to details. It’s time to start the conversation.”

Emerging from adolescence with growing brawn, fortitude and tenacity, the outdoor recreation industry is ready to sit at the grown-ups’ table when it comes to making policy and funding decisions. Financially, it deserves the seat. The Outdoor Industry Association’s recent economic impact report showed Americans spending as much as $887 billion a year on outdoor recreation gear and travel, more than spending on household utilities and pharmaceuticals combined.

But the divisive nature of the outdoor recreation industry is an obstacle. Categorical parceling weakens the collective voice. While timber, grazing and extractive energy interests speak with a singular, powerful roar when it comes to shaping land management policy and lobbying lawmakers, recreational land users offer a cacophony of similar yet diluted missives.

“I think we all have reached a frustration level where our little voice wasn’t really doing anything,” says David Leinweber, owner of the Angler’s Covey flyfishing shop in Colorado Springs who helped form the diverse Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, a collaboration that includes politicians, tourism promoters, land managers, gear makers, conservationists and outfitters.

It’s that cognizance of clout and commonality that is reconciling recreation’s cleft castes. The conflicts aren’t over but a shared appreciation of the outdoors is a place to start an accord.

“We are looking at how we begin the conversation that says, ‘Hey, there is a responsibility that comes with recreation in the woods. Part of the responsibility is being more accepting of a wider array of activities,’” says Scott Fitzwilliams, the seven-year boss of the White River National Forest, the most heavily recreated national forest in the country, with more than 12 million visitors a year.

Still, there’s some water that needs to pass under the bridge for a lot of these groups. Talk to hunters and motorized advocates long enough and they invariably turn to hot-button history that forever precludes a hug — or even a truce — with myriad other groups.

“Yes the silos are getting broken down but … there is some residual anger and it’s based in facts,” says Riggle, citing how off-road motorized access has dwindled across the state despite motorized users contributing $2.3 billion to the state’s economy, including more than $150 million in state and federal taxes. “Don’t go painting too rosy a picture. We’ve got a lot of hard work to do.”

You don’t even know, says Jim Bedwell, the 38-year Forest Service veteran whose legacy is a relentless fight to elevate recreation as one of the most sustainable uses of public lands.

“I appreciate this conversation is becoming more widespread but it’s a very complex conversation,” says Bedwell, the director of Recreation, Lands and Minerals for the U.S. Forest Service’s most trafficked Rocky Mountain region. “Don’t let your head explode. This is the kind of thing that takes years of dialogue.”

Then it’s time get busy, says Colorado Parks and Wildlife director Bob Broscheid.

“Let’s use what unites us and not what divides us. And what unites us is habitat and wildlife and open space and appropriate access to these areas,” he says. “Whether you are a hunter or angler or mountain biker or bird watcher, we have a common thread running through all of us. Once we find that united approach, all the other stuff starts to fall away and it gives us a much better focus on what’s most important.”