Interview by Jayme Moye | Photograph by Adam Clark
Last summer, Utah created the nation’s first state-level Office of Outdoor Recreation, naming Brad Petersen as Director. Mountain caught up with Petersen to discuss his evolving role, and the 25-plus years he’s spent guiding, skiing, rafting, climbing, biking, hunting, and riding motos in Utah.
There are 54 million acres of public land in Utah and 2.9 million of us who live here. Outdoor recreation affects all of us, even where there’s a lot of energy development going on. I’m not anti-anything. I’m pro recreation and everyone in the state can benefit from what we have to offer.
The idea for this office came in August 2012 at the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow. Frank Hugelmeyer, the executive director, sat down with the governor and said, ‘Look you’ve got key people overseeing the largest economies in Utah, but nothing for the outdoor industry.’ He had a point. Outdoor recreation contributes more than $5.8 billion to the economy, employs more than 65,000 people, and is the primary driver behind the $7.4 billion tourism industry.
My career up until this point has been in the private sector. Utah has this approach to recruit successful private sector executives to spend a couple years as public servants. It’s very effective.
I grew up in Salt Lake, went to college at the University of Utah. I knew someone who owned a river company in Moab, so I went there for a summer job. I’d never been on a river. My first multi-day river trip was my training.
Every summer I lead a group of friends and family up the Grand Teton. This year I’m taking a bunch of state employees, including the president of the senate and some of the governor’s cabinet.
The first time I met with Black Diamond’s Peter Metcalf I was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt and looking the part. He didn’t think I was the real deal until he found out I had done the Grand Traverse.
The Outdoor Industry Association says for every dollar spent on hard goods, somebody will spend four dollars creating an experience with that product. The four X number is the one to go after. An example helps: We didn’t have a great snowpack last year, so it wasn’t a phenomenal water year. But river trips out of Moab and down in Fredonia had record bookings. It’s not just about the rapids. It’s about the overall experience.
Four days on the White Rim Trail is better than 10 days on Maui.
There are three ways to monetize federal lands in rural Utah. We can do natural resource extraction, which is a very focused play in that we either have it or we don’t. We can invest in agriculture, but that’s very cyclical and there are a lot of kids who are not necessarily returning from college and taking over dad’s farm. Outdoor recreation is sustainable and renewable and we have the natural assets.
We’re putting in a singletrack hut system for mountain bikers in San Juan County—Utah’s largest—down in the southeast corner of the state. Think of it as a purpose-built White Rim Trail with yurts—and a two million acre view. The huts have fire pits and solar panels to recharge your batteries. We know how to create outdoor experiences.
A major initiative of our office is to recruit outdoor companies. Right now, I’m working with three to four big businesses that are thinking of moving to Utah. Osprey was a proof-of-concept for what we’re trying to do here. [Editor’s note: The pack company recently announced it will move its distribution operations from Colorado to Utah.]
I’m amazed that states with recreation-based economies, especially in the West, aren’t yet looking to create similar positions.
From the Summer 2014 issue.