Utah: A window on the West

Travelling through the Beehive state last week, I was struck by the two tales of Utah being told.  On Saturday, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led a group of angry protesters, many of them armed, on an illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon. As they attempted to exploit the spirit of the Old West to their advantage, they grabbed more than a fair share of media attention for such a small group, and one that does not represent the larger community of responsible ATV riders, at all. But with Cliven Bundy’s son Ryan on hand, plenty of the reporting tried to weave the Recapture story into a larger “movement” drama that opened a few weeks ago with the attempted cattle roundup on the Bundy ranch in Nevada.

But the real movement in Utah was on the march two days earlier, 300 miles to the north in Salt Lake City.  On May 8th, Governor Herbert hosted the first annual Outdoor Recreation Summit, an event whose “focus is simple: explore and share new ways to responsibly grow, promote, and enhance Utah’s flourishing recreation economy.”

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I was there on behalf of mountain bikers, hikers, backcountry skiers, rock climbers, paddlers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts that the Outdoor Alliance works for, to promote conservation and access to places to get out and play on public lands.  There were folks from across the public/private spectrum: outdoor manufacturers and retailers, user groups, sportsmen, state and federal land managers, county commissioners and more.  We all came together in the spirit of collaboration, and in pursuit of a bright and balanced future for economic development, recreation and conservation in Utah.

The summit itself was as much about planning for the future as it was a celebration of the fact that this approach is already paying dividends.  The Outdoor Industry Association calculates that outdoor recreation generates $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs for Utah’s economy annually.  And Utahans are working it.  They deploy savvy marketing to bring skiers to the “Greatest Snow on Earth” and all sorts of hikers, campers and sightseers to “The Mighty Five” National Parks in southern Utah’s red rock country (Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches & Canyonlands), as well as to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which enjoys more yearly visitors than all five Parks – combined.  Utah is investing in outdoor recreation. People are investing in Utah.

This is a story that is playing out across the West, where state governments and the business community are turning their attention to the multiple economic benefits that come with a strong foundation of high quality outdoor recreation.  In Idaho, the Idaho Outdoor Business Council has coalesced to provide “a strong voice on behalf of sustainable recreation and of the benefits of healthy lands and waters to Idaho’s important outdoor recreation economy.”  In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee has commissioned a blue ribbon task force to help him grow the outdoor recreation economy.

In a recent poll of Montana business owners, 70 percent said “the Montana outdoor lifestyle” was a factor in deciding to locate or expand their business in Montana.  This topped the list of factors, outranking tax rates, access to raw materials, utility costs, quality health care, access to high speed internet, and airline service.  And in Arizona, the Sonoran Institute conducted qualitative research with hiring managers and employees from some of the state’s leading companies.  Their findings indicate that outdoor recreation on protected public lands plays a key role in recruiting the highly skilled workers needed to drive Arizona’s knowledge economy forward.

So while the Cliven Bundy and Phil Lyman soap operas make convenient fodder for hungry news cycles, they don't represent the West.  Those of us who live, work and play out here know the real story.  It is a story focused on common ground, not conflict.  It honors the past, but drives toward the future.  And it has the confidence and creativity to balance economic development, recreation and conservation in response to the challenges and demands brought on by growth and change in today’s American West.

Flynn is the regional director of the DC-based Outdoor Alliance.  He lives in Boise, ID.