Land & Environment

Blazing Trails: New Outdoor Recreation Plan Built With USU Support

By Lael Gilbert |

Jordan Smith, director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism discusses the first-ever Outdoor Recreation Strategic Plan at Utah's state capitol building.

Utah’s first ever Outdoor Recreation Strategic Plan was released Friday at the Utah State Capitol, offering state leaders, land managers and outdoor enthusiasts an insider’s look at how recreation access and infrastructure will evolve over the next 20 years for activities like hiking, biking, four-wheeling, hunting, camping and fishing.

The aspirational plan, developed in partnership with USU’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism (IORT), includes high-level goals for the future of Utah’s recreation landscape, including ways to meet an increasing demand from a growing population, improving access for a variety of outdoor activities and developing strategies for cross-boundary management of recreation lands — a complex but necessary proposition due to tangled jurisdictional and administrative systems across which recreation occurs in the state.

Meandering trails and sprawling forest acreage used for Utahns’ favorite outdoor activities don’t line up cleanly with administrative boundaries. A single trail might be managed by a variety of federal, state, county and local government agencies, each taking a slightly different approach. Practical and cultural differences sometimes make it difficult to plan across agencies, said Jordan Smith, director of IORT and professor in the Quinney College of Natural Resources.

But new legislation helps Utah’s Division of Outdoor Recreation take a stronger role in facilitating cross-boundary planning, allowing the division to initiate partnership agreements for improvement of recreation infrastructure on public lands, as outlined in the new strategy.

Regional councils, which include public and private collaboration, will also play a key role going forward, said Jason Curry, director of the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation. Leveraging local knowledge can be essential to help managers understand recreation issues and community context, he said.

“Groups already serving in these roles have come a long way in recent years, but more connections are still needed,” he said during the release event.

IORT has spent the last year traveling the state, holding open house-style events to gather feedback from a variety of recreation groups, local leaders, land managers and other stakeholders.

“We’ve learned an immense amount by listening to perspectives in planning workshops across the state,” Smith said. “We’ve seen that solutions that work well in one area can’t be universally applied. Recreation issues tend to be region-specific.”

The planning team has been asked to represent a wide spectrum of interests in the new planning document, from casual hikers or birdwatchers to people out on side-by-sides, Curry said. But strong opinions about treasured recreation spots and hot-button conflicts likely won’t temper over time, he said

“Outdoor interests are only going to get more diverse,” he said.

A major objective of the plan is to ensure the planning process for infrastructure and management takes local needs into perspective, with strong consideration for the variable nature of communities and circumstances across the state.

“Solutions that work for traffic management and crowding in Springdale, a gateway community to Zion National Park, won’t necessarily be acceptable to places like their neighbor Rockville, which has different priorities and policies,” said Jordan Katcher, a community facilitator working with IORT who participated in the release event.

This new document also makes clear that key pieces of information needed for strong planning are still missing. For example, the state doesn’t have data on how effective messages about responsible recreation are for minimizing people’s environmental and economic impacts, Smith said.

Of the millions of dollars spent each year on outdoor recreation infrastructure projects and for promoting tourism in the state, less than half of one percent of the total budget is used for research and education on recreation issues.

“That leaves a lot of important questions unanswered,” Smith said. “We really need to work to make sure that these information needs are met in the future.”

The strategic plan has been through an intensive and thorough review process, and many people will rely on it for stable recreation opportunities far into Utah’s future, Smith said. More than 2.5 million residents use the outdoor spaces that managers have been asked to maintain and protect for the long term.

Outdoor activities are fundamental to who Utahns are and how they live their lives, Curry said. Recreation on state and federal land also plays a major part in Utah’s economy, contributing $8.1 billion in spending activity, $737 million in state and local tax revenue, and $3.6 billion in wages and salaries for Utah workers.

“The greatest risk to accomplishing the plan as it now stands is growth,” Curry said.

Keeping up with infrastructure, maintaining valued open space and increasing recreation access while minimizing the impacts on the environment, and offering communities maximum autonomy are no small order, he said.

The Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism participated in Outdoor Recreation Day on the Hill, an event leading up to the official release of Utah's first-ever outdoor recreation strategic plan.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Jordan Smith
Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism


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