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Industry association: There’s green in those green spaces

The outdoor industry accounts for $646 billion in retail sales and services, $80 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues and 6.1 million American jobs, according to the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association.

The industry shows no sign of a slowdown.

Colorado established itself as a major outdoor-industry hub in the aftermath of World War II, with individuals piggybacking on the new technologies that were developed during the war and making them useful for the everyday consumer.

Founded 25 years ago, the Outdoor Industry Association has played a major role in bringing disparate outdoor-industry manufacturers and retailers together to present a more unified front when it comes to protecting America’s outdoor recreation centers and promoting sustainable development.

Although the association is based in Boulder, with another office in Washington, D.C., it champions environmental causes across the country. It has 1,200 members nationwide ranging from large outdoor brands such as Patagonia, North Face and Columbia Sportswear to major retailers such as REI. It also represents small up-and-coming brands of outdoor apparel, equipment, skis, backpacks and fishing gear, focusing much of its efforts on specialty retail.

The group advocates for the industry in terms of fighting for more places for people to enjoy the outdoors, whether that means building additional infrastructure such as parks and trails throughout the country or maintaining wilderness areas or local parks.

“We’re engaged at the federal level because the federal government manages national parks, Forest Service lands and BLM lands,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of the OIA.

A new program started by the organization deals with close-to-home recreation. The organization works with states, cities and counties to build recreation infrastructure locally, such as access to green spaces, parks and trails.

Another focus is on sustainable business practices. The group wants manufacturers to consider whether the way they are making products is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The organization’s presence has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, in part because the group made a concerted effort to help policymakers, such as members of Congress and mayors, to “understand outdoor recreation as an economic driver and job creator,” Roberts said.

The group produced a report in 2008 showing all of the benefits to states, towns and local economies from outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Now it is seen as an economic driver as well as something that is beautiful or something people do with their free time. Investing in the outdoor-recreation economy brings jobs to the state you might want,” she said, adding that those jobs aren’t necessarily in the outdoor-recreation industry.

“We’re a big part of the tourism economy but also part of why other businesses may locate to the state.”

Companies in the technology or health-care fields are trying to attract employees, and location is a key determinant of where a company will set up shop.

The OIA’s legislative arm wants to influence how lawmakers spend their scarce federal dollars, “making the argument that we maintain and preserve the nation’s recreation investment and that there is economic return,” Roberts said. “From a consumer standpoint, we as the outdoor-recreation industry want to make it easy for people to go outside and get involved in activity. We want to make sure they have access close to home and don’t have to travel somewhere. They can incorporate it into their daily life.”

There are numerous ways for people to spend their money and free time, she added. “We want to make sure that’s something people consider.”

The organization also encourages states to develop offices dedicated to their recreation. Utah was the first state to do that, followed closely by Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper established the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office in 2015.

Colorado has a long history of an economy built on outdoor recreation in ski resort towns or the mountains. Now, cities that were almost totally reliant on the oil and gas and mining industries are realizing they have other natural resources they can develop to build their economy, she added — places such as Grand Junction, Fruita and Salida.

People have always moved to Colorado because of its natural amenities. They love to ski, climb mountains, hike, mountain bike, camp or fish. But having a state office dedicated to enhancing outdoor activities and development in the state “is putting some intention behind it instead of letting it naturally occur. We are seeing more intention behind that development,” Roberts said.

Many large outdoor companies have made Colorado their home, including Coleman and Osprey Packs. As more outdoor manufacturers and retailers locate in the state, innovation follows. Paddle sports have become a huge industry in Colorado. With more people getting outside and doing fun activities, it also has driven the development of side industries such as breweries and taverns. The trend is called “trail to tavern,” where people get their workout and then come back to civilization, eat dinner and have a beer.

Camping is another area that has grown in recent years with gear companies developing equipment and apparel that is targeted toward families; anything that would make it easier and more comfortable for families to get outside and enjoy the outdoors.

“Our industry put a big focus on product sustainability because that’s where our biggest footprint is, in making materials,” she said. OIA wants manufacturers to consider the products they are using to make their outdoor products, encouraging use of recycled and organic materials.

“The most durable product is probably the most sustainable,” she said.

Even with more durable products, the industry continues to thrive. By working together, there has been a lot of product innovation. Gear is becoming lighter or offers new features.

“I think we will continue to innovate, and that drives interest in buying new products,” she said.

Roberts said OIA will continue its efforts to protect the natural world, in large part because that’s what voters want. In 2014 alone, voters approved $13 billion in funding for state and local parks, trails and green spaces. The great outdoors is a bipartisan issue, she said.

The founders of the association, she said, “came together and recognized we can have more influence and amplify the benefits of our industry by working together rather than individually as companies.”