Nathan Fey is “champing at the bit” to get out on Colorado’s high water. But at the moment, he’s a little busy.
He’s into his first month of leading the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, a position that Luis Benitez held since then-Gov. John Hickenlooper created the branch in 2015. Like Benitez, renowned for six Everest ascents, Fey’s resume also includes serious adventure: The Boulder native spent much of his adulthood racing and guiding on the river.
“My wife jokes that I have more floating devices than she has shoes,” he says.
But before breaking them out, Fey is making a plan in his new office. That includes building on his predecessor’s foundation: recruiting business and selling outdoor recreation as an economic future for communities across the state.
We started our conversation about American Whitewater, the organization Fey has been with the past 12 years, steering recreation and conservation missions around the West.
How do you see your work with that organization translating into this new role?
It was important for me to reach out to communities across rural Colorado and build a big network of friends and allies and partners as we tackled hard issues around public lands. So I think having those contacts I’ve developed over the last decade-plus will help in this role.
And then I guess the other part of that would be, water has been my specialty for the last 12 years, if not longer than that. And if there’s any challenge or any kind of resource limitation on how we grow in this state and how we improve our economies, I think the big limiting factor will be water.
What do you see as some challenges you’ll be facing?
I’ve touched on water already — that’s a huge industry for this state, and it will still be a priority navigating the challenges of water supply and management. Also, when we’re working with rural communities, I’m hearing repeatedly the big challenge is inadequate infrastructure, specifically things like broadband access. We have a growing divide in the urban areas along the Front Range with rural parts of Colorado. Those are areas very much interested in setting up their shops and where recreation actually takes place, but their challenge is getting products to the market and getting access to high-speed internet and getting access to a talent pipeline.
Any communities in mind that are now starting to take that path, that are starting to look at outdoor recreation as an economic engine for the future?
(Grand Junction and Montrose) are two guys that rise to the top of the list. … One that comes to mind is Craig. Craig is in the middle of transitioning its economic base. They’re looking at expanded trail systems for mountain biking. They have this fantastic river that runs through the heart of town that has probably been underutilized. Lots of opportunity in Craig.
And then we have all of this amazing natural capital in the San Luis Valley. Climbing at Penitente Canyon, the trail system in Del Norte, you name it, every possible kind of recreation activity that takes place in the outdoors is home in the San Luis Valley. That’s a prime area for that transition to start happening.
Talks continue here, as they do in other places, about how to fund parks and open spaces. Particularly here, ideas have lingered on how tax initiatives can help, for example. In those kind of local discussions, what role if any do you see yourself playing?
It’s not just funding local parks and recreational access. It’s also a discussion with the Department of Natural Resources and search and rescue and Parks and Wildlife. Our office is a stakeholder, so we’re participating in those conversations. There’s clearly a need to figure out a way to fund maintenance of trails and to incentivize disbursement away from popular fourteeners, where the recreation footprint is huge and the environment is starting to show serious impacts.
We’re also trying to wrap our head around the unintended consequences of creating this pay-to-play model. That is, I guess, one of my fears, that we’ll start to alienate or disenfranchise communities from being able to get outside and recreate. Those are the places I grew up playing and my family has grown up playing for generations. I would hate to see those become inaccessible.
Was gonna ask you about pay-to-play. You don’t sound too on-board there.
Well, I think it depends on the model we’re talking about. I think the conversations now are casting a really wide net and looking at every possible option to generate some revenue. We have to do that; there’s a clear demand. But how to do it and how best to do it, nobody has an answer yet.
So it’s interesting to note that 92% of Coloradans report being enthusiasts, getting outside on a regular basis (citing Park and Wildlife’s Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan), but only 1% volunteer in a way that gives back to these places where we play. So we need to figure out, and I expect my office to play a role in these conversations, how to increase the level of volunteering. We don’t necessarily have to create new funding mechanisms. We need investment, and investment can come in human hours, it can come in letter writing, it can come in direct activism in addition to supporting groups on the ground getting hands dirty.
I worry I might be asking you to divulge secrets here. But what are some of your favorite places in the state?
The San Juans are very special for me. I love the San Miguel River. I love fishing on Cow Creek on the Uncompahgre. I love taking the family up to Deep Creek to do some backcountry camping. I love the Flat Tops. The upper Colorado River is one of my favorite destinations for rafting. Browns Canyon is way up there at the top of the list. The Yampa through Dinosaur, even just the national monument itself, the hiking trails, the vistas, that’s a very special place as well. We’re very fortunate to have all these resources.
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