Sleeping giant no more

Under new leadership, Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry capitalizes on collaboration and COVID-fueled growth

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Conor Hall is the new director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
Ian Fohrma

Around age 8, Conor Hall started doing primitive skills courses with his siblings near their home in Crestone, “kind of tucked under the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains,” he says, “one of the weirder mountain towns out there, and I say that fondly.” 

They didn’t have cable TV, just parental encouragement “to spend every waking moment running around in the San Isabel National Forest, in our backyard.”  Things got dirty, but no one cared. “I just loved, loved, loved being in the outdoors,” he says. “And so, to this day, probably where I’m most comfortable is out in nature—where I go to recharge, where I go to think.” 

And Hall has a lot of thinking to do these days. In February, at age 32, he took the reins of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) and now leads the state’s efforts to protect and expand opportunities in and around outdoor recreation, an industry which his office says contributes 511,000 jobs and $37 billion in annual consumer spending to Colorado—and a job Hall infuses with an expertise in the combined arts of wilderness survival, U.S. politics, and conservation economics. 

Prior to his appointment as director of OREC, Hall spent three years working for the Trust for Public Land, a conservation organization hyper-focused on equitable access to nature. There, he helped raise billions of dollars in public funding for conservation and access enhancement, and won upwards of 50 pro-environment ballot measure campaigns across the U.S. Before that, Hall served in former-Gov. Hickenlooper’s cabinet as director of external affairs and senior advisor, then advised Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign as senior advisor on climate and conservation. In his early 20s, Hall beat a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer diagnosis, too. He’s an alumni of First Descents, an outdoor adventure program designed for young adults impacted by cancer based out of Denver, a program through which he now mentors other young, active people with cancer.

“While I’m new to this role as director, I’m certainly not unfamiliar with this office and the rationale behind why it was created and what it does,” Hall says. In fact, he worked closely with Gov. Hickenlooper when Colorado’s OREC office was formed in 2015—the second such office in the nation, following Utah. Hall then collaborated regularly with the inaugural OREC director, Luis Benitez. 

“[Outdoor recreation] is truly, in many ways, the lifeblood of this state,” Hall says. It’s “integral to our quality of life…. Nearly 93% of Coloradans recreate in some form or fashion in the outdoors every year; it’s just an amazing state—it’s tough to find 93% of folks that do [the same of] anything anywhere.”

Of Boulder County Parks and Open Space users:
6% identified as Hispanic, Latino/a/x or Spanish (a demographic comprising 14% of Boulder County’s population);
4% identified as Asian (comprising 6% of the County);
2% identified as Black (comprising 1% of the County);
93% identified as white (comprising 92% of the County).
Photo courtesy OREC.

But in 2022, two years into a pandemic that pushed people outside like never before, Hall inherited an outdoor recreation scene more populous, passionate and politicized than ever. According to the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), 2020 saw the highest U.S. outdoor recreation participation rate on record, with 53% of people age 6 and over recreating outside—7.1 million more people than in 2019. “It just skyrocketed to unprecedented levels,” Hall says. 

This has led to reports of crowding, issues related to first-time users, and some trail-related conflicts—not just in Colorado but throughout public lands across the nation—challenging land management agencies, local governments and social organizations to adapt to crowds and provide education about responsible outdoor recreation. 

Not long after the initial March 2020 lockdowns, Boulder County rangers began reporting higher visitation numbers and surging trail usage, says Vivienne Jannatpour, Boulder County Parks and Open Space (BCPOS) public information and engagement manager. Ultimately, visits to BCPOS properties increased 45% from 2019 to 2020. 

“We found a lot of people who were visiting open space for the first time, and that was a big change,” she says. Pre-pandemic, park visitors were “very familiar with open spaces and barely looked at our kiosks,” but suddenly folks at trailheads had lots of questions, and many were also “getting themselves in a little bit of trouble because they would not be prepared, you know, or not know their own physical limits,” she explains. 

BCPOS quickly prioritized educational outreach, inter-agency collaboration and staffing as their chief focuses over the last two years. They implemented a trailhead ambassador program, added more seasonal summer rangers, and joined forces with eight county, state and federal public land agencies from north-central Colorado to create NoCoPLACES2050, a forum to collaborate on the response to challenges the mountains and foothills are facing from high visitation and a growing population. 

In Boulder County, “the biggest stress point was in parking,” Jannatpour says. To help, BCPOS has installed and recently announced live trailhead cameras at parking lots for people to evaluate crowds and their chances of getting a parking spot (bouldercounty.org/open-space/parks-and-trails/live-trailhead-cameras/). 

And while crowds may spoil spirits on switchbacks, they’re helpful elsewhere; the surge in outdoor interest has crystallized the outdoor industry’s political power, shined a light on its demographics, and mobilized Colorado as a multifaceted role model. 

Seven years ago, Nicole Brown founded Women Who Hike, a global online community that connects and supports women who enjoy hiking. Organized through regional Facebook groups, every U.S. state has a page, in addition to several Canadian provinces, Europe and Australia. Colorado, Brown says, is the organization’s biggest group; nearly 40,000 women across the state belong to the private, Colorado-specific Facebook page where they can ask each other questions, share resources and coordinate meet-ups. 

Mike – stock.adobe.com Outdoor recreation in Colorado, like elsewhere in the nation, surged due to the pandemic. Courtesy OREC.

When the pandemic hit, Brown also saw “this new influx of users”—they were flooding the message boards, asking for advice on where to go, what to do, and how to do new things outside. She noticed this surge first in Colorado, and as it spread across the globe, the organization turned to Colorado’s group as an example for others.

These digital forums became critical education spaces as Women Who Hike collaborated with other outdoor organizations and local agencies to streamline and strategically target responsible recreation messaging. Concurrently, women were stepping up to help educate each other. “What we saw in Colorado first was women asking other women who were seasoned solo hikers, [then other groups reaching out to Colorado, saying]: ‘I see that you guys hike solo; how do I do that safely? And where do I do that safely?’”

And despite the pandemic’s isolating circumstances, the group’s ability to build community and activate grew too; women began looking for COVID-safe hiking partners—people “who align with how [you] deal with COVID,” Brown explains, and that led to other values-based matchmaking throughout the summer of 2020, which, in turn, elevated conversations about how public policy affects outdoor recreation. “We hope that, come local elections and midterms and everything, that people know these things that much more and are empowered to, like, move on them, vote on them, be part of the process.” 

Hall, too, understands the amplifying value of collaboration, which he underscores by explaining the strategic positioning of OREC’s office in the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade—money connects everything, afterall, and from there his office can easily collaborate with any other state agency. 

“Historically, this industry—while always being huge and important—has been a bit of a sleeping giant because it’s so widespread and decentralized,” Hall says. “Not to say that there haven’t been strong voices there, but, you know, it’s been much less effective, I would say, than other industries like the pharmaceutical or the automobile industries, both of which, on a national level, [outdoor recreation is] larger than, in terms of economic output. And so that [has been] the idea: to give voice, give power, start to organize that industry.” 

Part of the evolving work has entailed “putting nature, our public lands, in that economic frame,” Hall says, which has helped “see [outdoor recreation] in a whole different light” and added new, economic-driven people to pro-conservation teams.  

“Especially when you’re dealing in politics and government, those numbers are incredibly helpful in increasing funding for conservation, or creating these types of offices to advocate and convene around this industry,” Hall says. “So I think [economic value of outdoor recreation] is a really important argument—it’s not the only argument, but it’s a wildly important one.” 

New Boulder County outdoor recreation data paints a picture

Every five years, Boulder County Parks and Open Space (BCPOS) conducts a system-wide demographics and satisfaction survey. Due to COVID, the 2020 study was delayed a year, pushing the survey collection to the spring and summer of 2021, when trained BCPOS staff and volunteers collected 2,261 exit surveys (with a 72% response rate and a Spanish-language option) at 15 BCPOS park properties.

Key survey findings, published May 2022, show the average BCPOS park visitor:

• lives in Boulder County (76%) and has lived here for 10 or more years (46%) 

• likely lives in Boulder (24%) or Longmont (20%), and is between 25-44 years-old (39%) or 45-64 years old (36%)

• self-identifies as white (93%), and traveled to a BCPOS park by car (89%)

Of BCPOS users, 6% identified as Hispanic, Latino/a/x or Spanish (a demographic comprising 14% of Boulder County’s population); 4% identified as Asian (comprising 6% of the County); 2% identified as Black and/or African American (comprising 1% of the County); 93% identified as white (comprising 92% of the County).

Visitors primarily hiked (55%) or biked (21%), the survey found. People also viewed wildlife (21%), picnicked (6%), went fishing (3%), among other outdoor activities like photography/art (11%). And the average visitor did not experience conflict with other visitors on the trail (95%)—most visitors (75%) did not feel crowded while at the trailhead or on the trail itself. 

In 2021, BCPOS’s busiest month was June; in 2020, it was May. Summer (June-August) typically records the County’s park system’s busiest season, with Saturdays and Sundays seeing 40% of overall visitation, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. as peak usage time both during weekdays and weekends. 

Contact the author with comments or questions at eathena@boulderweekly.com

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