Reigner Reigns, over the Outside: Pennsylvania welcomes its first-ever director of outside recreation

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Nathan Rainer

Are you seeing an increase in “OOO” messages these days? With more Pennsylvanians enjoying the outdoors and spending time “out of the office,” the state has created a new office—outdoor recreation—to do just that.

“We often think that recreation — literally anything we do with our free time — is frivolous or unnecessary,” said Nathan Reigner, 42, Pennsylvania’s first director of outdoor recreation. “But recently we’ve all realized that it’s not gravy — it’s actually meat and potatoes.”

The stats back it up: $11.8 billion in value added to the state economy plus $6.4 billion in wages for 146,000 Pennsylvanians, making it the sixth-largest outdoor recreation economy in the country, according to the US Department of Commerce.

“We need the office to recognize, advance and govern that outdoor recreation is a significant economic sector in the state of Pennsylvania,” Reigner said. “Put simply, my mission is to expand and ensure the benefits of outdoor recreation for all Pennsylvanians as individuals, communities and the polity.”

While it may mark the beginning of a new era in government administration, the boon in the great outdoors has lasted a decade. The surge in hiking, cycling, and recreational activities began before the pandemic. But, Reigner said, the COVID-19 era has definitely put an exclamation mark on the value of nature.

“With the pandemic – and the way we as individuals and as a society have sought recreational opportunities for safety, community time, rejuvenation – this burst of outdoor recreation participation, adding to what has already been a remarkable decade of Growth was outdoor recreation, made clear the importance of the sector to us as a society,” Reigner said.

rec resources

The establishment of outdoor leisure offices is in vogue nationwide. Pennsylvania, “Penn’s Woods,” is the latest state to complete an inventory of its recreational facilities. And Reigner has a lot to do.

“We have an incredible land base – bodies of water, mountains and valleys, rivers and forests,” Reigner said. “We have more than 4 million acres of protected public land.”

This award includes one of the nation’s largest state park systems and “an incredible network of trails.”

“Trails are like the backbone, the veins of outdoor recreation,” Reigner said.

This trail system includes two National Scenic Trails – the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the North Country Trail, many additional hiking trails, nationally renowned mountain bike trails, and more designated or named railroad routes than any other state.

Technology and creativity expand the Rec range well beyond traditional hiking and camping to include gravel cycling — the fastest growing segment of the bike market, Reigner said — as well as electric snowmobiles and ATVs, even something called “extreme tree climbing.” .

With the upswing of recovery comes upkeep.

“We also have a $1.5 billion backlog for essential maintenance at our state parks and forests,” Reigner said.

recreation vision

The maintenance is part of a balancing act – a feat of collaboration – in Reigner’s new position.

While the position is based within the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Reigner will coordinate with state agencies that interface with recreational activities — the Department of Health, PennDOT, the PA Game Commission, the PA Fish and Boat Commission, and the Conservation and community development groups, chambers of commerce, municipalities, counties and federal partners.

Reigner is just getting his feet wet, so to speak, by meeting with these partners to determine the office’s mission, priorities and structure in a “not top-down” but “collaborative” way.

He sees his role, fittingly within Keystone State, as a “connector” whose efforts will connect the great outdoors with a better quality of life.

“Outdoor recreation is at the core of Pennsylvanian health,” Reigner said. “We found that quality of life that comes from access to natural and cultural heritage and amenities is a better driver for economic development and community development in small and medium-sized rural and industrial communities than tax incentives or regulatory facilitation. ”

His career laid the foundation for this pioneering position. A native of the Philadelphia area, he describes a “happy and free” childhood spent playing in the woods, boy scouts, hiking, and camping. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Gettysburg College, he worked in agricultural policy in Washington, DC

But volunteering with the Potomac AT Club gave him an aha moment. Ironically, he found his calling when he got lost in the woods (he jokingly calls it “turning around in the woods”).

“What stuck in my mind from that experience was simultaneously feeling like I was in the wilderness – that no one had ever been there…while also intellectually understanding all the effort, management, administration, volunteering, budgeting and humanity.” that went into those places,” Reigner said. “And that kind of blew me away — that I could have those two experiences inside me at the same time, and that’s where I decided I wanted to dedicate my career, my life’s work, to managing outdoor recreation.”

After grad school and receiving his master’s degree in forestry from Virginia Tech and his doctorate in natural resource management from the University of Vermont, Reigner returned to his home state. A Penn State-based researcher, he was about to move to Greenland when Pennsylvania’s new position was called an outdoor record.

“[This position] will bring someone with Nathan’s passion and understanding of outdoor recreation to fulfill this mission,” said Wesley Robinson, spokesman for DCNR. “That passion, combined with academic knowledge and a personal interest in all things outdoors, helped set Nathan apart from the great candidates. We look forward to seeing the impact he will have.”

As he sets the bar for Pennsylvania’s newest office, Reigner explores off-office recreation opportunities in the Harrisburg area.

“When I’m not in the office, you’ll find me in the Greenbelt,” Reigner said. “There’s nothing quite like a sunset over the Susquehanna River, I gotta tell you.”

For more information on outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania, visit dcnr.pa.gov. And to learn more about Reigner’s new position, tune in to TheBurg Podcast’s April episode, out April 8.

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