Outside recreation in Pennsylvania simply bought a brand new champion

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This story is part of our Wild Pennsylvania series. Check out all of our stories here.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recently created a new position: Director of Outdoor Recreation. Nathan Rainer is the first to fill it.

Raised in rural Montgomery County, Reigner earned a Master of Science in Forestry from Virginia Tech and a PhD in Natural Resource Management from the University of Vermont. He has worked in national parks and was a professor in Penn State’s Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management Department.

You might have guessed it, he also has an interest in outdoor recreation himself, including skiing, bicycling in state forests, and hunting. Reigner said he’s often found that times when he’s outdoors are meaningful. “I was able to reflect and connect with myself and get a sense of how big and beautiful and wondrous the world is,” he said.

Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsoppel recently spoke to Reigner about his new role.

LISTEN to their conversation

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Kara Holsoppel: You are the first person to fill this position. What does the job entail?

Nathan Rainer: The job itself remains a bit of an unwritten book. We’re working hard here at DCNR and with all of our partners inside and outside of government across the state to understand what Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation sector needs from Harrisburg. How can I serve the outdoor leisure industry? We are certain that my role is an outward-facing role within the state government, so a liaison and liaison. What sets my role apart is that I’m primarily recreation.

Holsople: And is this inner recreation like the state’s public lands, public parks, and forests? Or is it recreation elsewhere in the state?

Ruler: When we talk about outdoor recreation, in terms of my role and in terms of the outdoor recreation sector in Pennsylvania, we’re talking very broadly.

I I was a professor once in my life, so here I give you a little Professor Nathan. There was a study from the 1960’s in which two scientists spoke to anglers about the question “Did you have a good time fishing?” These anglers came back to camp at night with no fish in their pots, and yet they said they had a good day fishing.

These scientists said, ‘How can this be?’ And the anglers said, ‘Well, this sunrise is beautiful and I saw a hawk. And you know, I had some tough things on my mind and I spent a day in the boat with my mate and we sorted them out. So we realize that outdoor recreation is about more than just the activity. Fishing is more than catching fish.

In my role as director of outdoor recreation, when we talk about outdoor recreation, we think about it systematically. Sure, outdoor recreation involves recreation itself, the activity that you do. It affects… the land and the waters and the infrastructure that uses them.

Outdoor recreation has been seen as gravy in a way. We understand that it is actually meat and potatoes.

It includes the law and politics and regulation as well as budgeting and management. It involves NGOs and stewardship activities. Industry, trade and manufacture as well as management and equipment services are involved. All this together makes outdoor recreation. If the Lorax speaks for the treesI speak for outdoor recreation.

Kara Holsoppel: Why was this position created now?

Ruler: Both in our state and across the country, there is a growing appreciation for the importance of outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation has been seen as gravy in a way. We understand that it is actually meat and potatoes.

Outdoor recreation has significant economic benefits. For example, it adds about $12 billion annually to the Pennsylvania economy. 150,000 jobs in the state of Pennsylvania are based solely on the outdoor recreation economy. So there are very real economic benefits.

We also understand that outdoor recreation opportunities and infrastructure improve people’s quality of life, and that quality of life translates into mental health. It is reflected in improved physical health. It is also noticeable in the economic development of communities.

Quality of life correlates more strongly with population growth and employment in small and medium-sized rural and industrial towns than, for example, the price of commercial real estate or prevailing wages

Kara Holsopple: In a 2020 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion study by the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society, nonwhite respondents reported feeling less welcome, less comfortable, and less included in local parks compared to white respondents. And a 2018 DCNR and Penn State phone and stock survey showed that white respondents reported more frequent visits to state parks compared to black, Hispanic, and Asian respondents.

What is your plan to make outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania accessible and inclusive?

Ruler: These statistics you quote are absolutely true and represent significant social and societal deficiencies that we need to focus on. I think the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is a leader in this area. Outdoor recreation for all is one of the state’s top priority areas Comprehensive outdoor recreation plan. Pennsylvania State Parks’ strategic plan is titled “Recreation for All.”

My role is to be someone within the department who liaises with all outdoor recreation users, current and potential future, new and experienced.

When I think of diversity, equity and inclusion issues related to outdoor recreation, I think of three broad areas. One is marginality. It has to do with the availability of resources, time, money and knowledge. One is institutional bias or discrimination. It has to do with both targeted but more often background or institutional discrimination. The third is cultural differences—the idea that our parks and forests or outdoor recreation system were established to provide specific types of recreational experiences associated with those in power at the time those institutions were established.

In my role as Director of Outdoor Recreation, issues of inclusion and equality are certainly central to my work. My role is to be someone within the department who liaises with all outdoor recreation users, current and potential future, new and experienced.

A focus of my work is to seek the perspectives of those who currently do not feel welcome in the outdoor leisure sector so that we can better meet their needs and help implement the plans the department already has to address these issues.

Kara Holsople: How do you see the growth and transformation of outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania over the next few years, or maybe even a couple of decades?

Ruler: Outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania will grow. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor recreation was on the rise in Pennsylvania. Participation in outdoor recreation had increased in Pennsylvania, as it did across the country.

I think we’re at a stage in our society where we value experience. We have the transportation, we have the information technology, and we have the gear and the equipment to go out and have those experiences. So I believe that Pennsylvanians and visitors to Pennsylvania will always be hungry for outdoor recreational experiences.

Our challenge is to help new users develop the skills and knowledge they need to have these experiences in a safe and responsible way. We also face the challenge of strengthening our management through investments in infrastructure and staff, as well as investments in research, to ensure we can continue to provide quality outdoor recreation experiences into the future.

Another trend I see for the future of outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania is the continued proliferation of ways we enjoy the outdoors and outdoor recreation. This is driven by both technology and creativity.

We see it in developments in skiing equipment, in developments in cycling equipment, in hunting and fishing equipment. The range of outdoor recreation experiences, the types of activities that people participate in, will not only increase in volume, but they will also be diversified in type.

Nathan Reigner is the director of outdoor recreation for Pa. DCNR.