Outdoor recreation brings in $2.5 billion a year in consumer spending in Vermont, but many believe the state could bring in even more.
The best way to do that, however, remains unclear. So in June the governor established the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative. It was the first step to create a long-term strategy to support and promote recreational businesses and nonprofits in Vermont.
Members of that collaborative have been holding forums across the state to get public input. The most recent forum was held in Rutland on Oct. 3, and more than 60 people took part.
They talked about everything from how to expand hunting and hiking, to bike paths; from snowmobile registration fees, to the need to create more recreational opportunities for those over age 60 — which many attendees pointed out was a growing segment of the state’s population.
Michael Snyder, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, heads the collaborative.
“These public forums are one part of a larger initiative to bring better collaboration and communication among the many, many stakeholders in [the] outdoors of Vermont,” Snyder explained in Rutland.
Jessica Savage, who works in Snyder’s department as the recreational program manager, said she’s encouraged at how much interest the forums are generating.
“Everybody’s super passionate and engaged. Our first forum [held in Waterbury] was 102 people in this very small space," Savage said. “And it was just a cacophony of ideas.”
Savage said the public meetings are a way to gather input from all over the state which they'll sort through and present to the governor in late November.
To make the forums more productive, she said they break into focus groups with four central themes:
- How to promote business and entrepreneurial opportunities tied to outdoor recreation
- How to increase participation in outdoor recreation
- How to strengthen the quality of the state’s physical resources, like boat launches and trailheads
- How to strengthen the long-term quality of Vermont’s natural resources, like its forestland and waterways
Members of the collaborative act as facilitators for each group.
“And if you don’t see a group that fits what you want to talk about, bring it up anyway,” encouraged Savage in Rutland.
In other words, “If it’s outside, it’s in,” she stressed.
“We’re not making a judgment about what type of outdoor recreational activity you’d like to talk to us about,” continued Savage. "We really have heard the gamut and we hope that we continue to hear the gamut of outdoor recreation activities. If you’re playing outside, talk to us about it.”
With that, Savage encouraged members of the crowd to delve into as many conversations as they could.
A local teacher talked up ways to get kids more interested in outdoor recreation and the need to inform them about related job opportunities.
Another participant showed off a plan for better-connected bike paths, both for commuters and recreational bikers.
Derek Gregorek, of Brandon, wanted to talk about promoting recreational businesses.
“I’ll start out first with a personal level,” Gregorek explained. "My wife and I are avid ATV riders ... We’ve done 600 miles this year already on ATVs. We spent five nights in New Hampshire.”
Gregorek is not only an avid rider; he also sells all-terrain vehicles at Champlain Valley Equipment in Middlebury. He’d like to see Vermont make ATV trails more user-friendly by connecting them to nearby amenities like hotels and restaurants.
“So is one of your ideas greater access to trails for ATVs?” asked the facilitator taking notes.
Gregorek nodded and said the state has a number of areas that cater to skiers and snowmobile riders in the winter that could likely attract ATV riders in the summer if it were easier to ride ATVs from place to place.
“Look at the Route 100 corridor,” he cited as an example.
“It may be a lot more complicated,” Gregorek admitted, but he said Vermont needs only to look to New Hampshire, which he says has a much more extensive ATV trail system.
But some expressed concern about how to manage the noise of motorized sports, as well as their access to private land and their impact on trails.
Snyder said user conflicts are inevitable, but added, “I think we have a strong tradition of mostly working those out pretty darn well. And I think part of this initiative is bringing people together so they can realize how much we do have in common and we better play well together.”
“You can’t have everything on every acre all the time,” he added. “And recreational use comes with growing pains. But it’s all about deciding what to do and how to do it and we’re trying to be intentional to get it right. And I’m hopeful that when provided a suitable mechanism that people will be willing to work things out; maybe not have this use over here, but maybe have it over there.”
Savage said all the ideas would be written down and sorted by a steering committee made up of representatives from state government, businesses and nonprofits, including outdoor manufacturers, trail and user groups and conservation organizations.
She encouraged anyone unable to attend one of the public forums to take part in an online survey that the state had developed, which she said had already logged in 500 responses.
“It’s important to take part because the governor's really listening,” said Savage. “And we absolutely are going to make things happen. ... We’re mid-stream with it, and so I can’t say for sure what all those recommendations will be. But I know that we're gonna have success with this, because we’ve got huge buy-in. There’s hundreds of people who are ready to implement these ideas,” she said excitedly.
The next public forum will be held on Oct. 10 in St. Albans. Other upcoming forums this month include one on Oct. 16 in East Dummerston, another on Oct. 23 in White River Junction and the final one scheduled will be on Oct. 24 in Arlington.