Home / News / Business News / States are opening offices of outdoor rec. Will Gov. Little? Only if it works for Idaho

States are opening offices of outdoor rec. Will Gov. Little? Only if it works for Idaho

A kayaker navigates the North Fork of the Payette River, the location of the North Fork Championship kayaking competition. Outdoor recreation is big business in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Erik Boomer

Twin Falls economic recruiters were leery.

How would the values of a Republican farm community in the Magic Valley match up with a progressive food company that was looking for a new home?

The company touted its environmental values and its aspiration to help save the planet, a message some community leaders thought might clash with Twin Falls’ own pastoral history. But the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce went forward anyway, and when Clif Bar officials showed up to see the proposed bakery site, they were pleasantly surprised.

“We were more concerned about not showing off the sugar factory, but they were asking how far it was on bike to the south hills,” said Shawn Barigar, executive director of the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce.

The extensive mountain bike trail system and access to the Snake River were important attributes for Clif Bar, which makes energy bars marketed to outdoor enthusiasts nationwide. Now it has more than 290 employees in Idaho and has invested more than $100 million into the state economy.

That success has prompted Twin Falls to look for more opportunities to develop outdoor recreation and tie them to economic opportunities, Barigar said.

Now Idaho Gov. Brad Little and other statewide leaders are hoping to do the same — but unlike other states that have created a new state agency strictly for that purpose, these leaders hope to craft a solution without a new layer of government.


Twin Falls isn’t alone in its ability to harness the economic impact of accessible wilderness and outdoor recreation.

Boise has expanded trails, parking and access to its foothills, along with new parks and its popular Greenbelt and river recreation. Couer d’Alene has kept its waterfront open and developed Tubbs Hill for hiking. Rural communities from Salmon to Stanley to Orofino have cashed in on the whitewater and fishing opportunities in our rivers. Outfitters and guides take guests deep into Idaho wilderness and canyonlands.

Little recognized that growing value of outdoor recreation in Idaho’s economy in January’s State of the State address, pointing out that the outdoor recreation industry directly accounts for 78,000 jobs in the state.

He is exploring ways to build on that idea by examining a nationwide trend to open specific state offices to promote what has become the fourth most powerful economic sector in the nation (behind hospitals, other health care, financial services and insurance). Eleven states now have some form of an “Office of Outdoor Recreation.” Seven other state offices are under development.

Idaho once saw recreation and tourism as a minor supplement to Idaho’s traditional industries like agriculture, mining, timber and manufacturing. But today, outdoor recreation accounts for $7.8 billion in consumer spending in Idaho, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. That’s on a similar scale as the agriculture industry.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis, which published its first report in February 2018, showed outdoor pursuits, such as skiing, biking and boating, accounted for $373.7 billion, or 2%, of GDP in 2016.

In his State of the State, in addition to Clif Bar, Little gave a shout out to Smith Optics, Buck Knives, Vista Outdoor, and even little Dragon Fly Tarps in Arco, which supplies the outdoor industry.

“Idaho’s lands and waterways provide unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities, enhancing the quality of life for Idahoans and attracting visitors, which in turn, powers urban and rural economies across our state,” Little said.


An office of outdoor recreation would coordinate between government and private interests to benefit outdoor recreation and its related businesses.

“Five years ago there were no outdoor recreation offices in the country,” said Rachel VandeVoort, director of the Montana Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation.

These offices have already had great success. In Oregon, the new data related to the outdoors prompted Nike to reinvest in outdoor recreation. In Colorado, VF Corporation, the holding company for The North Face, JanSport, Smartwool, and other outdoor related brands, cited Colorado’s outdoor activities and lifestyle when it announced that it was moving its global headquarters to Denver in 2018.

Little has been watching this growing movement for several years. As governor, he put his agencies and staff, including representatives from the Idaho Department of Commerce, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, to work to create an Idaho solution.

“Our office is in the early stages of determining the best way to proceed with this important endeavor,” said Marissa Morrison, Little’s press secretary. “At this point, there are no plans to create an Idaho Office of Outdoor Recreation.”

But he may not need one. The Idaho Recreation and Tourism Initiative has brought state and federal agencies together since the late 1980s to coordinate funding and recreation initiatives, said Matt Borud, marketing and innovation administrator at the Department of Commerce.

That initiative is managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Its director, David Langhorst, said the department has done many of the same tasks the new offices of outdoor recreation are doing elsewhere.

“Idaho can take advantage of the heightened awareness of outdoor recreation without creating another layer of government,” Langhorst said.

The current proposal calls for adding some members to the initiative’s board from the outdoor recreation business community and the Idaho Department of Commerce, according to a letter obtained by the Idaho Statesman. The proposal also calls for reorienting some outdoors-related goals.

“We’re talking to anybody that’s interested right now,” Langhorst said. “It’s the governor’s decision.”

Little met with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonprofit that advocates for access to public lands, earlier this month and declared May 3 Public Lands Day. He has repeatedly connected the collaborative conservation of these lands with the development of recreation businesses and technology as critical to rural development.

“Developing all facets of Idaho’s outdoor recreation sector benefits the entire state’s ability to engage tourism and commerce,” Little said.

About Rocky Barker Special correspondent to the Idaho Statesman