Herbert unveils Utah outdoor recreation

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:22 AM

Brady McCombs, Michelle L. Price

SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled his long-awaited vision for outdoor recreation in the state Wednesday, calling for the creation of a government office devoted solely to the topic and laying out a broad-stroke plan to preserve Utah's natural jewels and cultivate outdoor recreation as a pillar of its economy.

Herbert announced the plan just as one of the world's largest outdoor gear trade shows got under way in Salt Lake City.

Organizers of the lucrative biannual show had threatened to move the event if the state didn't demonstrate its commitment to preserving public lands and offer more convention floor space and lodging for convention-goers.

Herbert's plan calls for a new government office that would be devoted solely to outdoor recreation. Its duties would include organizing an annual summit where outdoor businesses, recreationalists and other stakeholders gather.

The plan also says Utah should stand by its desire to take control of federal lands.

"This is a pathway, a framework, for us to work together, despite some differences we may have," the governor said in announcing his vision.

The Outdoor Retailer show draws more than 20,000 people, and pours an estimated $40 million into Utah's economy every year. The Boulder, Colo.-based Outdoor Industry Association, which sponsors the event, asked Herbert in August to share his vision for the industry by January.

Organizers this week announced they will keep the convention in Salt Lake City through 2016.

Hebert said Wednesday he's happy about that news, and the state looks forward to the association declaring Salt Lake City the show's permanent home. But he noted that with or without the show, his report is an important document to guide the state in balancing outdoor recreation and public lands.

The association, which represents companies such as Patagonia and The North Face, opposed a bill signed by Herbert in March that demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in Utah by 2014. The association also opposes Utah's effort to open thousands of dirt paths across public lands to motor vehicles.

Officials from Herbert's office met with members of the organization and others with ties to the outdoors over the past few months to produce more than 40 recommendations listed in the report.

They include plans to improve everything from outdoor education and funding for state parks to air quality and water conservation.

The report also lays out how outdoor recreation fuels the state's economy.

Frank Hugelmeyer, the association's president and CEO, lauded the governor for his commitment to making sure outdoor recreation and Utah's public lands are protected. He called Hebert's vision "unprecedented" and said it could be a blueprint for other states.

There are still some unresolved issues, Hugelmeyer said, but the plan includes mechanisms that will enable them to solve those in future years.

Sales of outdoor products and sporting goods bring $5.8 billion to Utah's economy every year and $60 million in state and local sales taxes. Utah's tourism is driven by visitors enjoying of the state's canyons, mountains and desert areas, and the state has highest the percentage of outdoor and sporting good jobs in the country.

Alan Matheson, the governor's environmental adviser, said the state also recognizes that easy access to outdoor activities attracts businesses in other industries, such as high-tech companies.

"Increasingly, in this world where people can live almost anywhere and work, they're drawn to places with great quality of life," Matheson said.

He said the governor and the outdoor industry "don't see eye to eye on everything," but they've always had an open dialogue.

The state's new outdoors plan is a great first step, but now the details need to be hammered out, said Ashley Korenblat, president of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, a mountain biking town that draws people from around the world.

Korenblat said upcoming outdoor gear shows offer a chance to check in every six months see if the state is producing results.

"That will prohibit this vision from being another binder on the shelf just gathering dust," she said.

Though she finds the plan encouraging, she said the "elephant in the room" remains the state's federal lands grab. There's still a lot of industry concern with the way those lands would be managed if the state took control, she said.

Matheson said that if the state did control those spaces, it doesn't mean they'd sell them all off or use all the land for energy development.

"The people of Utah love these lands - love our natural gems. And we're not going to do anything to lose those treasures," he said.

The governor, who is a big proponent of energy development, said the state would do a better job than the federal government of juggling the demands of the energy and outdoor industries.

"It should be a balanced approach," Herbert said. "Not everything should be protected, and not everything should be developed."

Herbert dodged a bullet by keeping the trade show in Utah, said one business leader who quit Herbert's outdoor recreation advisory council in protest over the Republican governor's policies.

"I think it's a meaningful first step," said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., a manufacturer of outdoor gear. "It states how important outdoor recreation is to Utah - our public lands, waterways and clean air.

"I'm gratified - but now comes the real work," he said. "Utah has been ground zero for radical policies threatening our public lands."


Associated Press writer Paul Foy contributed to this report.

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