Capital-Star Q+A: Nathan Reigner, Pa.’s first Director of Out of doors Recreation

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In January 2022, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) announced that it had hired Dr. Nathan Reigner, a former Penn State researcher and consulting social scientist, to serve as the commonwealth’s first-ever Director of Outdoor Recreation. 

To learn more about him, the role, and the future of outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania, the Capital-Star joined Reigner on a hike in Weiser State Forest in northeastern Dauphin County.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Capital-Star: Is Pennsylvania looking at any other states, state programs, or any other inspiration for how to develop its own outdoor recreation programs and initiatives?

Nathan Reigner: Yes. 

C-S: Any states in particular?

Reigner: So there’s sort of a club when it comes to me and my position as director of outdoor recreation. There’s sort of a club of state directors and officers of outdoor recreation around the country. The club convenes in different formats. The National Governors Association has a group called the Outdoor Recreation Learning Network, which is about sharing experiences and best practices. 

Then there is a group out there called the Confluence of States, which are state offices of outdoor recreation that have signed the Confluence Accords, which is a set of pillars – workforce development, contribution and stewardship, health and well being and economic development – around which the states will collaborate. And while they’re doing their work individually, they’ll work for the community to the benefit of all states around these pillars, as well. There’s the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable and the Outdoor Industry Association, which are trade associations that are all interested in helping to support states, as states work on this effort. And so those are ways that the states collect around this issue. 

Now, there’s, let’s say about half the states, have been taking active steps around outdoor recreation, like we are here in Pennsylvania.

Let’s call that half of states 100 percent. Maybe 15 or 20 percent of those have sort of like their own model, one-off, a joint agreement or memorandum of understanding between two departments, a task force that brings together a bunch of entities in state government with sort of a commission, a special policy adviser and a governor’s office. 

Of that remaining 80 percent, about 50 — there’s about a 50-50 split — of officers or directors of outdoor recreation positioned in state Departments of Natural Resources – like we’ve done with ours here, and State Departments of Community and Economic Development. 

And within each of those groups, there’s various positions. So for some of the DNR kinds of focused groups you have standalone offices of outdoor recreation. You have some that have created divisions, or bureaus of outdoor recreation. Some house the effort within their state parks. We here in Pennsylvania – I’m executive staff to [DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn].

So, our department is organized by bureaus – Bureau of Administration, Bureau of Conservation, Technical Services, Bureau of Geologic Survey, Bureau of Forestry, Bureau of State Parks, Bureau for Facility Construction and Design. And then there’s the executive office with policy and planning, legislative relations, communications, [the] Governor’s Sportsman’s Advisory Council. And it’s that line of things where I fall in. 

Those that are in the Department of Economics, like the equivalent of our DCED [Department of Community and Economic Development], some are housed within tourism and marketing, some are housed within sort of the community development group, some are housed within the business development, entrepreneurial-incubator group, and some are in free-floating offices.

C-S: So there’s really no one way to do it?

Reigner: No, and in fact, I talked about this club – among the club – it’s often talked about, that every state has a process. 

You’ve had your process, Maryland had a commission, others have special studies. Every state has a process that leads towards establishment, every state that has an office of outdoor recreation has a process that led to the establishment. And those processes are tailored. When they’re done well, they’re defined by the needs of the state. They’re inclusive. And they ask the outdoor recreation industry, they ask communities, and they ask other state agencies, what should our scope be? What should our mission be? And how should we be structured?

And, I think we see, in states where outdoor recreation is largely driven by major manufacturing, we see the offices in sort of the business-supporting arm, and in states where outdoor recreation, where like, like a Colorado, with its major ski area, or, a Utah with all of the inflight to the national parks, then we frequently see them in more tourism-related roles. Although that’s a lie, because Utah’s is actually in their department of natural resources, so not the best example there. 

And so, the form, the scope, mission, and structure follows from this process, and when done well, are informed by the sector that the office is meant to serve. And so I have good working relationships with Maryland and Arkansas, both of which are new offices.

C-S: Was that strategic to seek out other states that had new offices?

Reigner: Yeah, we’re going through the same experience right now. And we do not have an office in Pennsylvania, we have a director. And we’re embarking on a process to figure out if we were to have an office, what would it be? What would it do? And, you know, the more mature states, so to speak, are very supportive with their lessons learned. And you know, quite frankly, ways that they’ve had to adjust to better serve their states on an ongoing basis.

Weiser State Forest from the Iron Mine Trail (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

C-S: We’ve seen, especially during the pandemic when people flocked outdoors, that outdoor recreation can — and does —  have an impact on conservation and preservation efforts. In your view, are the two mutually exclusive or can a state have a booming outdoor recreation industry and take meaningful action to protect public lands?

Reigner: Absolutely. I think a well-engaged and active outdoor recreation community is essential to achieve our conservation and preservation goals. For a couple of reasons, one: because tech and nature, without human use, becomes irrelevant to the vast majority of citizens. It may not actually be irrelevant, but it feels like it is. 

And so, anybody who wants to protect land ought to find as many ways as possible — land, animals, resources, whatever — ought to find as many ways to engage the public as possible. 

Two, is the old outdoor recreation to conservationists transition. We talk a lot about this, you know, I’m a trained social scientist and not just a trained social scientist, I’m a practiced social scientist. And what I’ll tell you is the evidence — if you go looking at the academic journals you are not going to find the evidence that, that like, I attended our environmental education programs, I did a bunch of hiking and I became a conservationist, you won’t find that evidence in literature. Where you will find it is in your own experiences and the experiences with your family and friends. That’s the kind of thing that does not lend itself well to statistical analysis.

C-S: Does that make your job more difficult? Because it’s hard to really quantify some of that?

Reigner: No, because it’s felt. Because we feel it so clearly, we know it in ourselves. Lynn Westfall is a U.S. Forest Service researcher based in Philadelphia, and she quipped to me a little while ago – something like “data without story is dust.” In other words, like everybody’s got numbers. You need the feel of it. And we are fortunate in outdoor recreation that we are a feel-rich social phenomenon, with feel-rich efforts. We touch people’s lives in ways that let’s say, tax policy doesn’t.

The third point is more theoretical. When I was at Penn State, and when I was at the University of Vermont, when I was a consultant, and I was teaching, we were discussing how recreation impacts carrying capacity, how much is too much kinds of concepts. We go to the use-impact curve that you got use on the x-axis, impact on the y-axis, and as use increases, impact increases. Or, in reality, we don’t care about impact, what we care about is quality. Impact is the negative of quality, as use increases, quality decreases. 

Our goal is to preserve quality, not reduce impact. Like, let’s look at this, and how do we get what we want? Rather than how do we avoid what we don’t want? And this is like the narrative of the environmental movement these days, we see it in leave no trace, we see it in discussions about climate change.

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And I’m not saying it’s not true. I’m not saying that it’s wrong. What I’m saying is that it paints us into a corner. When we phrase — when we frame our being in these places, our using these places, our being animals walking this earth as an inherently destructive force, how the heck are we going to live constructively into the future? If me being in these woods is damaging, the only solution is I don’t go into the woods.

And that is unacceptable, right? Because I gotta go somewhere, right. And so instead, what we do is we use all of our strategies and all of our practices to try and mitigate the impacts, to try and preserve quality, as much as we can. And we understand the value of the benefits we derive. And that’s like, that’s how I think we addressed this, and there’s a heck of a lot we can do.

So my old adviser used to layout four strategies for managing outdoor recreation and six practices. What I hear in this question is we have to reduce demand. But we can also increase supply. Yeah, we got to reduce the demand we place on these places, we can increase the supply of these places — that can be in time and space, we can change the place to be more resistant to — or resilient in the face of — impacts, we can change our behaviors to be less impactful. 

And we can accomplish those goals with zoning, with law, policy and regulation, with enforcement, with information and education, with rationing and allocation, and with facility and site design. 

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And so, instead of thinking, ‘we’ve got to limit demand.’ Let’s think about all of this four-times-six suite of tools that we have, and get as many people deriving as many benefits as possible, within the constraints within the very real, economic, environmental, administrative, cultural, social constraints that exist. 

And by investing in any one of those, we can address the constraints of any other. If we invest in modern and better trail design, we can have many more users on a trail at the same or less impact, then, with our legacy, poorly designed trails. If we invest in environmental educators, in rangers doing programs in our state parks, we can accommodate many more visitors with less impact than we could with just a limit.

C-S: In Norwegian, there’s this concept of the freedom to roam ‘friluftsliv’ or, in Finland and Sweden, allemansrätten, those are concepts that are culturally built in. And I know that things like behavior and attitudes take time to change. How do you get Pennsylvanians not necessarily to embrace the freedom to roam per-se, but to move in a direction that is, like you said, less impactful but still allows everybody to enjoy the outdoors the way they want to?

Reigner: Yep, so I do think we have friluftsliv here. I do think that Pennsylvanians, by and large, enjoy being outside, enjoy Pennsylvania’s nature and understand the value. Ninety-three percent of Pennsylvanians engage in outdoor recreation every year. Allemansrätten, that’s about law policy and regulation. Our land use, our land law here in Pennsylvania — and in the United States — is different than it is in Europe. And some would say it was a reaction to what was happening over there. Certainly to what was happening in England in the precolonial period. 

Now, we here in Pennsylvania, are graced with four-or-five million acres of public land. So our state forest system, our state game lands, state parks, national forest, and all of our other protected areas — we’ve got a lot of them. They’re good. And many of them are very recreation-oriented.

So 2.2 million acres of the state forests, while they’re managed for dispersed and primitive recreation, they’re managed in a very permissive way. They are open, unless closed. And I take heart in that, that we’ve set our forests aside recognizing that outdoor recreation is a natural resource like timber, like stormwater control, like wildlife. 

We also have a diversity of outdoor recreation missions. So, we have our state parks, which deliver a lot of high-quality, concentrated, developed, accessible outdoor recreation. We have our state forests, primitive and dispersed, permissive, outdoor recreation. 

We’ve got our waterways – managed by Fish & Boat – for water-based recreation and sport fishing. We’ve got game lands, for wildlife-based outdoor recreation. That’s an acknowledgment that the state is trying to provide a full-spectrum of opportunities. 

There are ways that we can enhance that. Some other states have looked into different types of easements around outdoor recreation. I know our Bureau of Forestry is interested in further developing its forest easement program. And providing outdoor recreation, opening private lands under forest easements and providing public access for recreation, is one of the key factors in those easement agreements. 

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Other states have considered recreational use taxation. So right now, right, you get your land taxed. By default, it’s taxed at full development value. If you’re operating a farm, if you’re conducting forestry operations, if you have a conservation easement on your land, your taxation rate is effectively decreased in accordance with the development value of your land in the future. 

You commit to having it being farmed, that restricts the way the land can be developed, that reduces the value of the land on the open market, although I would say it increases the value of the land to our society, as long as it’s as long as it’s done in a considered way. 

And the landowner then receives that economic benefit. There are states that have considered those kinds of use-tax programs for private landowners who open their lands for public recreation. So, on the policy side of things, there are ways that we can further recognize the value of outdoor recreation, particularly on private lands, and expand opportunities.

Weiser State Forest’s Haldeman Tract is located in northeastern Dauphin County.

C-S: The pandemic drew many people, including Pennsylvanians to outdoor areas and activities. How much of that pandemic experience is going to shape the work you and others at DCNR do in coming years?

Reigner: I think it’s best to think about the increase in outdoor recreation during the COVID 19 pandemic, as a burst on top of a long-term trend of growth.

C-S: Okay, so it’s not like an isolated thing that suddenly is just going ballistic?

Reigner: Absolutely not. It’s part of a decade-long increase in growth and participation in outdoor recreation. What it did, was introduced a whole bunch of people — it did two things — One, it introduced a whole bunch of people to outdoor recreation. It got a whole bunch of people outside. And two, it highlighted that outdoor recreation is essential. 

What were the three things — like when we were at the height of the lockdown — what were the three things that people were doing? Getting groceries, getting their medicine, getting out for a walk. 

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And that, I think, is the lesson that we’re going to take from it. And we can use that lesson and remind ourselves of the conversations we were having — that those of us in the professional sphere — we’re having for this, about all the capacity challenges, and position ourselves for long term, steady growth, and making sure that outdoor recreation is there for us whenever the next crisis occurs.

C-S: So, I don’t know if you saw this poll or not. It was a Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation poll. I believe it was done in February. Susquehanna polling did it for them. But they found that 63 percent of the respondents traveled more than 30 minutes to participate in outdoor recreation activity, or activities, I should say, is that a number DCNR would like to see lowered?

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Reigner: We want a park within a 10-minute walk of everybody’s house, and a trail and water access within a 10-minute drive of everybody’s house. Oftentimes, the barriers to accomplishing those times don’t have to do with proximity as the crow flies, but about connectivity — particularly for the 10-minute walk – of our bicycle and pedestrian transportation network, which are, I will highlight, outdoor recreation activities.

We’ve got a lot of great resources. Travel, go see the fantastic places, go have the fantastic experiences that we have. But we want everybody to have access to fantastic experiences right at their homes, in their communities. And we don’t want any transportation barriers to getting in the way of people experiencing new places, deriving the benefits. Those of us who face transportation barriers, those of us who have fewer resources to access these places, in some ways need them the most.

C-S: So the same poll found that 80 percent of respondents said they haven’t tried a new outdoor recreation activity in the last 12 months. How do you change that number and get Pennsylvanians to try new things? Is that a particular area of focus for you?

Reigner: Yes, it is. We get it by lowering barriers to access. Those barriers include, like information and knowledge, how do I do it? Where do I go to do it? They include concepts of bias and discrimination. And yes, there’s the racial and ethnic and language, kinds of bias and discrimination that are both institutionalized in our system, and that are overt, and none, none of which, do we want. 

Outdoor recreation is incredibly normative. The whole environmental domain is incredibly normative. 

There is, oftentimes, a sort of an implicit feeling that there is a right way to do something. You need the right equipment to do it. You need to look the part. You need to act a certain way. And I think those are often specialist norms, norms that are developed by people with power in this sphere, and we’ve got to work on breaking those down and making our places and communities more welcoming and have a broader concept of who is an outdoor recreationist? And what is an outdoor recreation activity? 

And there’s like there’s just — when it comes to the gear stuff, like Yeah, okay, you’re going camping, you need a sleeping bag and a tent and a sleeping pad and a stove — or something that does serve those functions. And that’s expensive. I think that we can do a lot more with gear libraries, with lending programs, with first-time camper programs. There are nonprofits working on gear libraries. We have had first-time camper programs in our state parks in the past. And there are organizations that are subsidizing gear purchases. Product developers are trying to develop more accessible product lines for people. And so, we can’t look down at somebody hiking in sneakers, because it’s better to hike and a pair of sneakers than not hike because you don’t have boots.

And we need to find ways to get boots into the hands of people who either can’t afford them, or it just doesn’t make sense. I go camping once a year. Why do I have to have my own tent? And like I use boots, I use tents as an example, but they’re simply examples for more universal concepts. 

C-S: So since assuming your role in January, what has been the reception of your role by interest groups and other organizations that you’ve been working with? To your position?

Reigner: Yes, there’s been interest. There’s been universal interest. There’s been broad support. Whenever anybody tells me like, ‘we’re so excited that you have your job, that your job was created.’ I always ask why? And the response is, ‘we need this. It’s been so long coming. We see how important outdoor recreation is. Everybody’s doing a really great job. We need a champion at the state level. We need somebody who’s building relationships all across the state. We need somebody whose sole focus is to think about the big picture of outdoor recreation and think about it systematically and help all of the pieces that exist, connect.’

C-S: You mentioned in your formal introduction that your “mission is to help Pennsylvania fully realize the benefits of outdoor recreation.” Since you’ve been with DCNR, have any of your own priorities for the role shifted? What about the ways in which you address that mission? 

Reigner: My job is to expand and ensure the benefits of outdoor recreation for all Pennsylvanians as individuals, communities, and a commonwealth. That’s my tagline.

That remains the goal. I continue to expand my understanding of the many dimensions of achieving that goal. And I continue to be astonished by the number of partners I have to help accomplish that goal. 

The efforts being done at municipal, county, regional, state levels, around trail development, greenway planning, the partnerships we have, the funding programs that are in place, the businesses that are out there, the organizations that are working on this. 

There’s 10 times more there than then I knew about or would have imagined, and the ways that this work can be impactful to Pennsylvanians and communities is much broader than I realized.