The new director of the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation has big plans to involve rural communities and underserved populations in the state’s $62.5 billion outdoor rec economy.
Created in 2015 with Luis Benitez serving as its first director, the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation represents an industry that generates $62.5 billion and employs 511,00 people in the state. A year ago, Benitez tapped Nathan Fey, who previously worked as American Whitewater’s regional stewardship director, to be his deputy director. It seems only natural then that when Benitez left to become VP of government relations and global impact at VF Corporation, Fey would ferry into his wake. A dedicated paddler and former guide with deep family roots in the San Luis Valley and northwest Colorado, Fey has barely had time to catch an eddy since (a new baby also kept him busy). We caught up with him to talk about his career change, his vision, and how the outdoors in Colorado can include more and varied people.
What’s your background? What qualified you for this position?
I was able to bring to the office a robust rolodex of contacts from across the state, on the policy side and certainly from the public lands and water community. For the first couple of years, the office was focused on branding at the state level, and Luis and I both thought that I could invest more time and focus in rural Colorado. I’ve lived in rural parts of Colorado and owned businesses there, so I bring depth of knowledge to this role. My job is to be a point of contact and advocate to provide critical resources to those communities—and all constituents in businesses and communities—that rely on the health of our outdoor economy.
What have you been up to since you took office?
We’re currently focused on four impact areas: conservation and stewardship of public lands and water, public health, wellness and safety. In the economic development office, we’ve been working with brands that are interested in developing new investment opportunities in rural parts of the state, and we’ve been focusing on education and workforce development.
What specifically are you doing in the realm of health and wellness?
Among several initiatives that aim to improve public health, we’re developing a project with the University of Colorado School of Public Health around the next phase of our Colorado Outdoor RX report. Through this partnership, we’re talking to businesses about how they can integrate more time outdoors as part of their culture with the aim of improving both workplace and personal health. Of course, getting people outside has all kinds of proven health benefits, including the impact on stress and stress-related disorders.
And what about changes you’re working on in education and workforce development?
We play various roles—from advisory to curriculum development, to offering fellowships—with our education partners offering degree programs that cater to the outdoor industry. Among these are CSU, Western, Fort Lewis and CU—and we’re in discussion with DU, Mesa State, and even Metro in Denver. We have a robust Youth Ambassador Program for 18-24 year olds. And we are exploring new industry engagement with elementary schools around the state to launch a “lifestyle assessment” curriculum with sixth-grade classes, giving them a carabiner, say, and helping them explore how its materials are sourced, manufactured and used—thereby assessing the full lifestyle of outdoor products—and asking the kids to come back with ideas for reducing the footprint of that product.
What big initiatives do you plan to tackle in the coming year?
The OREC Office is continuing to build a network of regional partnerships that will help grow rural economic structures through outdoor recreation and advance the priority goals of our office: conservation, health, and education. These partnerships include leaders from local businesses, outfitters and guides, advocacy groups, the education sector and our agency partners at the local, state and federal level. By convening these partnerships, we can have real conversations at an appropriate geographic scale around issues that affect local communities and scale these up into a strategy for all of Colorado. We are also framing up a new grant program to support this regional effort.
Does Colorado need to increase outdoor participation?
I think it depends on what part of the state we’re talking about. Along the Front Range and in larger urban areas along I-70 where we live the outdoor rec life, I hear communities say, “No more, we ‘ve reached capacity.” Meanwhile other places in Colorado are desperate to have the same challenges that come with a strong recreation and tourism economy.
Are we doing enough to engage underrepresented populations in outdoor rec?
No. But I will say we are making progress. Over the last couple months, my office has been creating fellowship programs for underrepresented individuals. There’s an MBA program at Western, and we offer two $5,000 scholarships—basically enough to open the door. We haven’t been announcing them too publicly, but we’re working with universities directly.