Our Opinion: Outdoor recreation agency holds promise

Canoe flip, September 1979.

Outdoor recreation is a significant component of Berkshire County: The outdoors makes the region an enjoyable place to live and visit and it's an economic generator. Arguably, it takes a backseat to the cultural scene that defines the Berkshires to so many people near and far. Could a new state agency help change that?

State Senator Adam Hinds, the Pittsfield Democrat, has filed a bill (S.484) that would establish an Office of Outdoor Recreation within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Heather Clish, the director of conservation and recreation policy for the Appalachian Mountain Club and a supporter of the bill, told the State House News Service that not enough people are aware of the outdoor recreation opportunities across the state. Clish believes that a state office that could coordinate marketing campaigns done by a variety of groups and agencies and provide an economic boost to host communities would be of great benefit.

According to a 2017 report from the Outdoor Industry Association, Massachusetts consumers spend $16 million annually on outdoor recreation and the industry generates more than $900 million in local and state tax revenue annually.

Berkshire County, largely because of its small population and inferior north-south highway network, has many economic disadvantages compared to the rest of the state. But in terms of outdoor recreation, it enjoys, along with the rest of Western Massachusetts, a considerable advantage.

Whitewater rafting and fly fishing have produced thriving businesses on the Deerfield River that could translate on a smaller scale to Berkshire rivers and lakes that are already enjoyed by kayakers. Skiing, both cross-country and downhill, have long been a major recreational and economic component of the Berkshires, and fishing, hiking, golf, boating, backpacking, running and cycling are other outdoor activities that help make the Berkshires so appealing, as do our underfunded state parks with their untapped potential. A state office devoted to outdoor recreation could promote and unite these activities in an unprecedented manner.

The state can look north to a potential model in the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative (VOREC) created last year by Republican Governor Phil Scott. The goals of VOREC are to grow outdoor recreation businesses, increase participation in outdoor recreation activities, strengthen the quality and extent of outdoor recreation resources, and increase stewardship of outdoor recreation resources. Last fall, Governor Scott instituted a grant program under VOREC to support development of "outdoor recreation friendly" communities.

We urge the Senate to take up the Hinds bill for consideration and for the Berkshire delegation to support a similar initiative in the House. A state office dedicated to outdoor recreation has obvious potential that merits exploration on Beacon Hill.