Department of the Exterior: Parks and Outdoor Recreation

In 2015, Colorado became the second state in the nation, after Utah, to create an Office of Outdoor Recreation. Director Luis Benitez offers insight into this important new office born in the American Southwest. By Jayme Moye

The Office of Outdoor Recreation is a new concept to most Americans. What is the idea behind it?

Basically, it’s a reflection of any state that has a deep and robust outdoor recreation industry economy. The thought is that a little bit of oversight and guidance for that industry, and for that economy, will be beneficial to everyone.

What tasks does an Office of Outdoor Recreation take on?

We focus on three distinct portions. First is economic development, everything from recruiting outdoor companies to come to Colorado, to keeping the companies and organizations that are already here happy and prospering. And then also understanding what access to capital looks like — making sure we can help develop that innovator who is just about to branch out from her garage or a new nonprofit trying to establish itself. The second is conservation and stewardship: understanding that the natural resources we have in Colorado drive economic development and tourism in the state, but are also things that we need to protect and preserve.

And the third?

Education and work-force training. That’s ultimately making sure that we are ready for the workforce of the future within our industry: Who will be the leaders in conservation and stewardship? Who will be the leaders in advancing manufacturing? And what is academia doing to keep pace with those needs?

What’s been the top priority in your role as Colorado’s first Director of Outdoor Recreation?

I’ve been primarily focused on coalition building. One of the things we discovered in starting this role is that the outdoor recreation industry is really siloed. The dirt bikers don’t necessarily talk to the mountain bikers, and the mountain bikers don’t necessarily work with the hiking group. We’re trying to galvanize all those distinct voices into one channel.

How will this office affect tourism in Colorado?

We’re discovering even more gems in our state: Towns like Buena Vista, which, five to seven years ago — before the whitewater park, before all the gear companies started moving to Main Street, and the new restaurants, and the distillery — was just a place you drove past on your way back from Vail. But now, Buena Vista’s developed an outdoor industry economy that’s based on people wanting to come there and recreate. You’re going to see more of that evolution in small towns across Colorado.

What inspires you about your role?

I hear stories all the time from CEOs — of bike companies, standup paddle-boarding companies, ski companies, snowboard companies — who say, “You know, I was working a job doing X, Y, Z, but I loved to do this. And because I loved to do this, I decided it was time to get into the industry.” So, I get to see a lot of people who have had the unique pleasure of connecting who they are with what they do for work. When an industry is driven from that space of passion and innovation, well, I can’t imagine anything more empowering and uplifting.