Growing outdoor recreation helps our kids and our economies

Originally Published in The Hill.

By Gary Herbert and Gretchen Whitmer

Getting outside didn’t use to have much competition – we would play until the streetlights turned on, and household chores needed to be taken care of. Growing up, we spent most of our time outside, in the yard, and experiencing nature – which was all around us. How times have changed.

Today, the average child spends more than seven hours in front of a screen, and only seven minutes playing outside in an unstructured way, while only 20 percent of children go outside on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, 1 in 5 children are obese, and only a small percentage of adolescents get the recommended amount of physical activity: 19 percent in Utah and 23 percent in Michigan. Studies have demonstrated that outdoor activity can support improved physical and mental health outcomes for our kids. We need to do better.

Our two states, Utah and Michigan, were the first and most recent to create offices of outdoor recreation, in part because of a desire to advance efforts to provide kids and others with greater access to the great outdoors. We also see a great opportunity to partner with a sector that contributes $887 billion and more than 7.6 million jobs to the national economy each year and is growing faster than the U.S. economy as a whole. There are 13 other states across the country whose governors have created similar offices or task forces, and the number is expected to continue to increase.

In Utah, we have seen how a focus on outdoor recreation has boosted economic development, helped us promote physical and mental health for our citizens, and enhanced access to public lands.

Over the last five years Utah has invested $10 million, funding more than 155 projects statewide and leveraging $78 million in infrastructure. These Utah Outdoor Recreation Grant projects have built 294 miles of trails and funded 25 different activity types — and what’s more, in excess of 60 percent of this support goes to rural counties.

As the Great Lakes State, Michigan has a long and proud history of conservation leadership, including dedicating more than $1 billion to land conservation and outdoor recreation projects since the creation of our innovative Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Today, Michigan is partnering more closely with the many outdoor businesses that call Michigan home, and look forward to learning from Utah and other pioneering states how we can better support outdoor businesses, attract a talented workforce, and connect communities to their natural assets.

The National Governors Association is supporting our efforts. It launched an Outdoor Recreation Learning Network earlier this year as a forum for state leaders to exchange ideas on how to build their outdoor recreation economies and help get people from all walks of life, particularly our kids, outside more.

May we all get outside more often. Having fun and enjoying nature is something we can all support, regardless of political party. We look forward to working with states across the nation, sharing ideas and best practices. From the ski slopes of Utah to the great lakes of Michigan and everywhere in between, there is wonder and adventure to be found in the outdoors. Let’s find it together.

Gary Herbert is the governor of Utah. Gretchen Whitmer is the governor of Michigan.