Outdoors task force seeks way to tap enthusiasts

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There are a number of reasons why Gov. Jay Inslee decided to set up a task force focused on Washington's great outdoors, not the least of which are the numbers themselves.

Inslee created the task force partially out of his personal commitment to the outdoors and the legacy he hopes to leave to his grandchildren, but also because of the economic benefits the outdoors-based recreation and tourism industry has in the state, said his spokeswoman, Jaime Smith.

The group will be focused on finding ways to help the state strengthen and support the related retail industry, outdoor tourism and public lands.

"There's thousands of jobs that are associated with the outdoor industry; everything from the retail side that sells the gear and the small towns that rely heavily on tourism dollars," Smith said. "People just don't realize what a huge economic driver it is for our state."

Think billions.

That's what consumers spend annually on outdoor gear and activities, supporting a quarter of a million jobs and generating more than $1 billion in state and local tax revenues, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

Inslee signed an executive order Feb. 19 to create the 15-member group with representatives from public, private and nonprofit organizations involved in outdoor recreation, but an overwhelming number of applications has delayed the appointment process.

Members should be selected soon, and the first meeting is scheduled for April 9 in Olympia, Smith said.

Washington State Parks, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Natural Resources, which m a n a g e p u b l i c l a n d s and endured budget and staff cuts following the 2008 recession, will each have nonvoting members involved in the group.

The agencies can't yet pinpoint how the group's work might benefit them or their public lands, but say organizing it is a step in the right direction.

"There are a lot of groups, a lot of organizations all across the state . that are all kind of coming together right now on the topic of the importance of outdoor recreation. And the governor has really captured that in this executive order," Fish and Wildlife Public Affairs Director Bruce Botka said.

State Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter shares a similar stance.

"One benefit is to get people talking about our funding issue, but also the bigger (economic) picture," she said.

The task force will spend the next six months developing recommendations for the 2015 Legislature to strengthen outdoor tourism and job creation, promote recreation and develop long-term funding sources for stateowned lands and facilities.

For state parks, budget cuts and revenue reductions hit hard between 2009 and 2012, according to the agency's website.

In 2011, the Legislature created the Discover Pass - a $10-per-day or $30-per-year parking pass for access to state lands - to help replace money no longer available from the state.

During that 2011-13 budget cycle, less than 12 percent of the $148 million state parks budget came from the state, down significantly from the 60 percent received for the 2007-09 budget.

Fish and Wildlife also endured a loss of state funding.

"Basically at sort of a simple equation level, during the time of the really deep and steep budget cuts the state faced, our department lost about half of the general fund (tax) support," Botka said.

"We have been forced to be creative as to how to close some of that gap."

The agency has stayed afloat with federal funding for specific programs, as well as an increase in state licensing fees and 8 percent of the revenue from Discover Pass sales.

Those financial resources have helped maintain existing recreation sites and even allowed for some expansion of recreation opportunities.

"We're actually selling more licenses; we're holding our own even in the face of higher license prices," Botka said. "We also have a growing demand for outdoor recreation, a growing enthusiasm."