Photo courtesy of Conor Hall
Hall, who took over as helm of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office last month, spoke to 5280 about the accessibility of the great outdoors, the struggles of the Centennial State’s mountain towns and the future of the government agency.
March 25, 2022
Last month, Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) introduced Conor Hall as its new director. The former director of conservation strategies for the Trust for Public Land is only the third person to lead the office since its inception in 2015, and a lot has changed since then. Similar initiatives have spread across the country, with 15 states as diverse as Maine, Michigan and Montana opening their own versions; the pandemic has turned the way we relax outside on its head; and the federal government estimated that outdoor recreation accounted for 1.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, or about $374 billion, in 2020.
OREC has also changed. What started out as a one-person show intended to serve as a central point of contact and liaison for Colorado’s outdoor industry, from nonprofits to outfitters to gear manufacturers, now has four staffers with enough funding to make real impact – soil change . After a little over a month of experience, we decided it was time to meet up with Hall to talk about where OREC was and where it’s headed next.
5280: How has growing up in Crestone, right next to the Pike-San Isabel National Forests and north of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, influenced your views on recreation and public lands?
room: This closeness to a truly incredible natural world gave me this deep love for almost every form of outdoor recreation. As I got older and worked in politics and conservation, I’ve become a firm believer that access to nature and outdoor recreation should be right, not privilege, and the reality is that well over a hundred million people – almost a third of the country – do not have this fair access. That’s a pretty high priority for us. For example, we support equipment libraries for underprivileged families and have partnerships with the US Forest Service to reach more children who may not have access to these natural spaces.
When OREC was formed in 2015, you were an advisor to Governor Hickenlooper’s staff. What needs should the office meet?
The outdoor industry was a sleeping giant, which the creation of state-level outdoor leisure industry offices has helped to awaken. It’s a $30 billion+ industry in Colorado that creates a lot of jobs, and we found that it was so decentralized that it just never really had a cohesive voice or an organized faction. There’s the business side: outfitters, manufacturers and retailers. They have a large non-profit sector. You have a higher education. We’re using the power of the governorship and the state as a unifying force to bring all the different, somewhat disparate groups and interests together to create greater overall change.
I think industry has continued to find its voice on important issues like climate change and protecting and growing our public lands.
Like when boycott companies forced the Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show to move from Salt Lake City to Denver?
Exactly. It was ironic that Utah established the first OREC office and left OR due to Utah’s public land policies, among other reasons. I’d be curious if that would have happened had it not been for the industry coming together a bit with the creation of this bureau event of more than 20 companies and Hall to speculate on Colorado creating its own rival event.)
The pandemic has led in part to record numbers in nature, but also to overcrowded trails and other problems. Do people who depend on outdoor recreation for a living want to keep this momentum going? Or do they need a break to catch their breath?
You know, 92 percent of Coloradans recover outdoors each year, and that number has likely increased during the pandemic. So we’re probably pretty close to almost all of the state being replicated outdoors in some way. We want to keep that momentum, but we also want to make sure we’re doing it in a sustainable way. As a state, we need to help everyone understand how to rebuild responsibly, care for the environment, and hold others accountable. For example, we will continue to work closely with the Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to manage visitor flow and hopefully build new parks to expand that capacity.
What about the other issues facing the outdoor industry, like housing shortages in Colorado’s mountain towns, struggle for living wages, and labor shortages?
This is the question that so many of us are grappling with right now, and there is no easy answer. I think OREC will certainly play a role in these talks and we will bring in all the resources we can from the state. Regarding the labor shortage, I would personally like to see if we can do something about the J-1 visa reform. [J-1 visas allow students, teachers, interns, au pairs, and others to work temporarily in the United States.] In terms of housing, that’s a bigger issue that we probably have less control over, but with this unprecedented amount of stimulus and potential infrastructure funding, I think there’s an opportunity to make real progress in this area.
To that end, OREC is preparing to award millions of dollars in grants funded by government stimulus programs. What does this mean for your office?
It’s kind of a new chapter. We’ve always had a variety of different initiatives and programs, but we’ve never really had the resources to support many of them. Most of the time we were just the draftsman. Now, with these grants, we will also be the funding force. There will likely be some bumps along the way as we figure out how to effectively and efficiently allocate these grants to drive positive economic change in terms of business support, support and job creation and all those different parts. But it’s really exciting. I think we’ll be able to make a pretty big impact.
When you leave the office, what is your wish for your legacy?
I’m all about community and building connectivity and I want us to really focus on that. All of these groups and all of these interests pulling together are much larger collectively than they are alone. Whenever my term ends, I want Colorado to continue to be viewed as a true leader in this area and to lead the prosecution in national affairs.