I had the opportunity on Monday, October 16, to attend the very first Oregon Outdoor Recreation Summit at Oregon State University (OSU). The summit is a result of House Bill (HB) 3350, which passed the Oregon Legislature and which Governor Brown signed into legislation, that created the Oregon Outdoor Recreation Initiative. The goal of the summit is to rally businesses, agencies, land managers, conservationists, and outdoor recreationists around the goal of “expanding access to outdoor recreation and increasing the economic impact and sustainability of Oregon’s outdoor recreation economy.”
Oregon is blessed with a tremendous amount of natural beauty—majestic mountains, crystal-clear lakes, wave-sculptured coastal headlands, vast desert vistas, and towering waterfalls. The state is home to a wide array of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Much of the western half and northeast sections of the state are heavily forested with Douglas fir, western red cedar, white and ponderosa pines, oaks, big-leafed maples, alder, willow, and other types of forest canopy that provide valuable nesting and foraging habitat. Sagebrush in eastern Oregon provides habitat for the threatened sage grouse.
It’s the natural beauty that makes spending time in the Oregon outdoors so popular. State and local governments have recognized the economic value and health benefits of outdoor recreation, which is the impetus behind HB 3350 and the reason why over 150 individuals involved in outdoor recreating in Oregon gathered at OSU to hear speeches about the mental health benefits of paddling and the need to make outdoor recreation more accessible to minorities and the underprivileged.
Outdoor tourism is big business in Oregon. State parks experience 50 million visits a year, and the park system is ranked in the top 10 nationally for both camping and day visits. Outdoor recreation provides 15,000 jobs and $546 million in labor income. Visitors spent $11.3 billion in Oregon in 2016.
Stacy Bare, a U.S. Army veteran who served several tours in Afghanistan and is now director of Sierra Club Outdoors, was the keynote speaker at the two-day event. He spoke to the audience about how he had left the Army and felt sort of lost. He didn’t know what to do after leaving the service, so he turned to drugs. Depression got the best of him and he contemplated committing suicide. The intervention of a friend who one day asked him to go rock climbing was what saved Stacy from going through with his desire to kill himself and set Stacy’s life on a different path.
Suicide is a serious problem with returning vets. They suffer from nightmares, trauma, and loss of purpose. Stacy works closely, through an outdoor organization he created to get veterans outdoors hiking and climbing mountains, to help them overcome their depression and desire to commit suicide. He also co-founded the Great Outdoors Lab to put scientifically defensible data behind the idea that time outdoors should qualify as health care and be covered by insurance companies and supported by employers. The premise is that employers should allow their employees to spend time outdoors for healing much in the same way they allow them time off from work for a doctor’s appointment.
Research has shown that outdoor exercise has many health benefits, both physical and mental, and spending time in the outdoors is a great way to relieve stress. Those of us who paddle know the mental health benefits we gain out on the water. We hear the high-pitched call of a bald eagle overhead, the croaking sound of a great blue heron as it takes flight, the little squeals of a litter of young river otters, the rapid trill of a marsh wren, the lapping surf as it caresses the face of rocks, the thunderous roar of a breaking surf, or the soothing sounds of water as it cascades gently down the side of a hill. For many of us, nature and the great outdoors is our drug, as strong a medication as Paxil, Xanax, and other mood-altering medications.
Following Stacy’s address, a panel convened to discuss various topics involving how to expand outdoor recreation opportunities in Oregon without sacrificing quality of life within the community. Jim Coey, mayor of Oakridge, discussed how his town converted from being logging dependent to being a mountain biking destination.
The panel discussed the need to find a balance between tourism and livability. Bend has seen an explosion of growth as a result of the outdoor activities available to residents and visitors alike. The rapid growth in Bend has led to a higher cost of living as home prices have soared. The influx of tourism grows hospitality businesses that cater to the visitors. New restaurants pop up to feed the hungry masses. With growth can come congestion and the need for traffic control. A once sleepy town may lose its charm as it becomes a gathering place for snow bunnies, mountain bikers, hikers, paddlers, off-roaders, fishermen, birdwatchers, and the like.
Chris Havel, associate director of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD), who served as moderator, asked the panel to address socioeconomic issues that many Oregonians face and prevents them from enjoying outdoor recreation. One of those issues involved transportation and how do you get people who might have transportation limitations out to the great outdoors. One of the panel members mentioned that TriMet runs a bus service out to Multnomah Falls.
When it came my time to address the panel, I asked them what can be done to make outdoor recreation more equitable? I mentioned to them that when I moved to Oregon 37 years ago, I could go skiing on Mt. Hood for $20 a day. Now a lift ticket will set a skier back $80.
Paddling isn’t cheap, either. A good Kokatat dry suit costs over $1,200. I told the panel that some of us are considered elitists because we’ll spend $3,000 for a kayak while others can barely afford to spend $175 for a Pelican kayak from Walmart. Those who do buy inexpensive kayaks often try and take them into the same environments those of us with more expensive kayaks go because they want to be able to enjoy the same experiences we enjoy. The problem, as I pointed out to the panel, is that taking inexpensive, low-end boats out into waters they’re not designed for can then lead to major safety concerns.
No one on the panel had any clear answers. Some mentioned that there are retailers who sell good, used gear. They also suggested partnerships between organizations that deal with low-income families and retailers.
While the morning session of the first day focused on the health benefits of spending time in the outdoors and how communities can adapt to growing outdoor recreation, panelists in the afternoon session spent much of the time discussing the socioeconomic concerns minorities and low-income individuals have as it relates to outdoor recreation.
Audio issues with the wireless microphones on the panelists kept cutting in and out, so I wasn’t able to hear much of what they were saying. Most unfortunate considering that one of the speakers, Edna Nyamu, was trying to talk about how to reach the black community. Edna is from Tanzania, and her accent and broken English, coupled with the audio issue, complicated my ability to understand what she was saying.
One concern I heard from panelist Jorge Guzman, co-founder and executive director of Hispanicpros.com, was the issue of how Hispanics are reluctant to get involved in outdoor activities because of recent changes in immigration policies. Many fear venturing outside to participate in outdoor recreation for fear of being rounded up and deported. I’m not sure how realistic that fear is, but then I’m not in their shoes, so it’s hard for me to relate, but to them it’s a very serious impediment to getting outdoors and an issue that shouldn’t be casually dismissed.
Both Edna and Jorge addressed the whiteness of outdoor recreation. I have keenly noticed the absence of minorities in both skiing and paddling. I serve as a trip planner and leader with the Tualatin Riverkeepers (TRK), and that organization works hard at involving minorities in paddle trips, but when I work the Cook Park boat rental, I see very few Hispanics and relatively zero African Americans out paddling. Even through the paddling organization I run and the many I am a part of, I don’t see any Hispanic or black participants. Nor do I see many minorities when I walk into REI, Alder Creek, or Next Adventure. Is race the factor? Or is it more a factor of economics?
There are certainly some outdoor activities in which Hispanics and blacks can and do participant—hiking, fishing, hunting—but paddling, skiing, and backpacking are not on the list. I’m not surprised. A good polyethylene sea kayak will set a person back $1,600, $3,000 or more if the kayak is fiberglass or Kevlar®. The least expensive tent at REI will run the buyer $150, most sell for over $250. Sleeping bags cost anywhere from $80 - $820 depending on the temperature rating of the bag. Now you can get less expensive tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, canoes, kayaks, PFDs, and paddles at Dicks Sporting Goods, Bi-Mart, Walmart, or Fred Meyers. However, the saying “you get what you pay for” means that specialty outdoor stores can charge considerably higher retail prices for high quality brands like North Face, Sierra Designs, Big Agnes, Marmot, Old Town, Current Designs, MSR, Wenonah, Wilderness Systems, Merrill, Keen, Asolo, and Columbia.
Two other possible reasons emerged during the panel discussion as to why more Hispanics and blacks aren’t participating in outdoor recreation: the need to work two or more jobs just to make ends meet, thus limiting the amount of free time available to get outdoors, and the inability to get to the outdoors. Both of these issues are intertwined.
If a person has to work two jobs, it’s most likely because neither one provides a living wage. In addition, if they’re both part-time positions, then it’s also likely the person doesn’t get vacation time or other benefits. People at the low end of the income ladder struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table and a roof over their heads have a hard time affording a vehicle, especially one equipped to carry canoes and kayaks, to get to the outdoors. Then there is the cost of gas to get to the destination and vehicle maintenance.
Many low-income-bracket wage earners are forced to either rely on public transportation, ride a bike, or walk, none of which lend themselves to easily transporting someone with camping or paddling gear to the wilderness. Taking mass transit anywhere often requires making several bus or MAX changes—not ideal if lugging around outdoor gear unless it’s a mountain bike.
Sadly, there were no solutions that came out of the day-one summit, probably just more questions, but it did provide food for thought for those of us in attendance. Perhaps at the next summit, if there is another summit, some in attendance at this year’s summit will have arrived at some ways of tackling the issues that arose at the summit.
I wish that I could have attended the second day of the summit, but commitments at work kept me from attending. I do hope that at the next summit retailers, ski area operators, and guide services will also decide to participate because they can be part of the solution. I plan to be there.