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Vt. Group Discusses Ways to Improve Recreation Economy



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Outdoor recreation activities are a big part of life in Vermont, generating $5.5 billion in annual economic impact and 51,000 total jobs, according to the state’s Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation.

Now a new group is looking at ways to make those numbers even stronger. The Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative (VOREC) was formed earlier this year by an executive order from Gov. Phil Scott, who announced the initiative at a June news conference.

VOREC’s steering committee — comprised of government employees and representatives from businesses and nonprofit organizations — has been busy this fall conducting a series of public input forums throughout the state, including a late October stop in White River Junction.

Strengthening relationships between landowners and user-groups, making recreation areas easier to find and enhancing infrastructure emerged as central themes at the meetings, which visited every region of the state.

Jessica Savage, Vermont Forest & Parks’ recreation program manager, is a member of the steering committee and was impressed with the enthusiasm and range of topics covered, from better signage and boat ramps to increased implementation of outdoors-related programs in the state’s public education curriculum.

“Outdoor recreation opportunities attract a lot of visitors, but it’s also a big part of why people choose to live here,” said Savage, of Burlington. “It’s not the highest-paying state, and you could probably pay less for a house somewhere else. But a lot of people make it work here because of the natural beauty and the great people and communities. That’s well and good, but we always want to be thinking about ways to make it better.”

Those on wheels were well represented at the public input meetings, as mountain bike groups and ATV riders turned out in large numbers to voice concerns and share ideas.

Some of the concerns for mountain bikers and ATV riders are potentially tenuous relationships with landowners, since many trails permitting wheeled uses are privately owned. Ways to incentivize landowners’ keeping their properties available were widely discussed, with ideas ranging from tiered tax rebates to adjustments to state regulations.

“ATV riders and mountain bikers are very active groups; most of them are out there riding several times per week,” Savage said. “Right now a lot of the places they go are on private land, which makes them vulnerable. If ownership changes hands or the landowner changes their mind for whatever reason, all of a sudden that land could be posted. We heard those concerns from snowmobilers and horseback riders as well.”

Maintaining the state’s healthy pool of dedicated volunteers and stewards that maintain trail networks was another focal point.

Some teachers recommended more outdoor-based programs at schools to help foster an appreciation for natural resources. Others suggested efforts to build relationships with businesses in order to spur trail maintenance and construction, from company-sponsored volunteer outings to grant programs, where companies that benefit from the presence of outdoor activities might provide user groups with funding for maintenance tools, for example.

“There are already some programs like that out there, but a lot of people are looking at ways to get more involved,” Savage said.

Connecting recreation areas with municipal downtowns and business districts also was discussed. Expanding trail networks to make them more easily to accessible to downtown areas and efforts to make user groups more aware of nearby businesses were among the talking points.

Efforts such as northern Vermont’s Lamoille Valley Rail Trail are similar to Lebanon’s Mascoma River Greenway in physically connecting user groups to abutting businesses and services, and other groups are focused on additional ways to forge connections.

Wendy Knight, commissioner for Vermont’s Department of Tourism and Marketing, is also on VOREC’s steering committee.

“Organizations like the Vermont League of Cities and Towns are talking about all kinds of different ways to make connections,” Knight said. “For example, the Vermont Arts Council is looking at ways to make mountain bike groups aware of galleries that are near the trails. It’s the same thing with other businesses, from independent bike stores to cafes and breweries. They can all benefit from our robust outdoor recreation industry.”

Better utilization of Vermont’s vast network of scenic Class IV roads — an increasingly popular destination for cyclists and walkers — and their connections to assets was also discussed. The topic was popular especially at the forum in White River Junction, Savage said, which drew about 55 people on Oct. 23.

Many at the meetings also agreed that an online portal listing outdoor recreation opportunities, businesses related to the activities and other data could help strengthen participation. An asset map is already being developed and will be available on the website thinkvermont.com, Knight said.

VOREC’s steering committee is meeting next on Tuesday to pool results of the public input forums and develop talking points for a presentation to Gov. Scott in the near future.

“It’s a very quick timeline, which is good,” Savage said. “It tells us the governor is making a really strong push for this kind of work.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.