Confluence was “incubated in Valdez,” says Lee Hart, with the Valdez Adventure Alliance. Right now, she’s seeking recognition of Outdoor Recreation as a $7 billion industry in the state. After hearing from stakeholders around Alaska she’ll decide whether to steer her organization toward advocacy, marketing, business development, “or some combination of all of them.”

The outdoor recreation industry — without our really knowing it — has become a major force in the US economy.

An outdoor recreation advocate brought her message to Sitka this week (2-27-19). Lee Hart lives in Valdez, and is the founder of Confluence, an annual gathering of outdoor recreation stakeholders that she hopes to evolve into a full-blown marketing firm — or even a state agency.

Hart told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce that outdoor recreation had topped $7 billion dollars in Alaska.

Nationwide, the economic figures were staggering.

Hart at the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on February 27, 2019. She’s on a whistle-stop tour of the state to promote the Fourth Annual Confluence gathering this fall in Talkeetna. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“The federal government has officially recognized outdoor recreation as its own economic sector,” said Hart. “On September 20 of last year they released the first data about our industry, and even Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says that people will be astounded at the size of it: $412 billion in US GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and 2.2 percent of the economy. People spend more on outdoor recreation than the pharmaceutical industry. Think about that!”

Hart believes the time has arrived to be more strategic in the way communities look at outdoor recreation. Many places in Alaska, Sitka included, have terrific outdoor recreation opportunities, but they tend not to be recognized for their economic potential.

“I’m trying to get people to think differently about this industry, and in a way I call it ‘seeing the forest through the trees,’” she explained. “It’s all around us: Everybody paddles here, or bikes, hikes. The trails here — what little I’ve had time to explore — are spectacular. But we haven’t really thought of it in aggregate as an industry. That’s what we’re trying to do. Act like that.”

Hart is regrouping after a failed attempt last year to create a state Office of Outdoor Recreation. A bill was drafted, but did not get out of committee. She said that over the last two years, 10 states had created similar offices, bringing the nationwide total to 13.

She reminded chamber members that outdoor recreation was transformative. Hart grew up in Colorado, and saw what took place in that state and in its neighbor, Utah.

“Moab, which was a uranium mining community — almost dried up and blew away,” she said. “And then it started to attract climbers, and then it also invested in developing mountain bike trails. It is now a thriving Mecca of outdoor recreation, and the capital of outdoor adventure sports in Utah. Same thing in Fruita, Colorado. Fruta was kind of a postscript to Grand Junction. It didn’t have much going on. They decided to get on the mountain bike train. Right outside of Fruita there’s a sign that the Moab Visitor’s Bureau put saying ‘Come to Moab!’ to try to lure people from Fruta. They’re only a few hours apart. It’s quite competitive and it’s a very big economic impact for these communities, and literally has saved some of them.”

After visiting Sitka, Hart was bound for Ketchikan. She then has plans to visit Fairbanks, Palmer, Soldotna, and Anchorage before organizing the fourth annual Confluence in Talkeetna this fall. And then, she hopes to have enough input from Alaskans to chart a course for the organization, “whether more advocacy-oriented, marketing-oriented, business development-oriented — or some combination of all of them.”