On Tuesday, April 11, Colorado State District 22 Senator Andy Kerr hosted a panel at Wheat Ridge Cyclery on 38th Avenue in Wheat Ridge to discuss “Celebrating Colorado Outdoor Recreation,” highlighting the importance of our public lands and how they contribute to our state’s tourism and recreation economy.
“Our public lands are under attack,” said Senator Kerr, “not only in Washington, D.C., but also in states like our neighbor Utah. We need to look at this issue not through a partisan lens, but with an eye toward coming together to keep these lands truly public, so that everyone can access them.”
Panelists included Colorado Tourism Office Director Cathy Ritter, Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office Director Luis Benitez, Public Lands Business Organizer for Conservation Colorado Gabe Kiritz, and State District 5 Senator Kerry Donovan.
As the Tourism Office Director, Cathy Ritter leads the state’s $19 million annual effort to drive domestic and international travel throughout Colorado.
“We held listening sessions around the state and heard that Coloradoans are concerned about the sustainability of our natural resources,” Ritter said. “We also found there is a misperception that out-of-state travelers are causing traffic congestion and harming our lands.”
Ritter noted that, although the Tourism Office is planning new initiatives such as “voluntourism” to help visitors get involved in preserving our state’s natural resources, the greater impact to our public lands comes from people right here in Colorado.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Office is relatively new, according to its director Luis Benitez, and other states such as Utah and Washington are interested in establishing their own. “Outdoor recreation is a deeply rooted $34 billion segment of our economy,” said Benitez, “providing 300,000 jobs and $4 billion in wages and salaries.” Benitez said his office focuses on three major issues: economic development to keep and relocate outdoor recreation industries and organizations, conservation and stewardship, and education and workforce training.
As part of the Conservation Colorado team, Gabe Kiritz works to build relationships within the outdoor recreation and technology industries.
“Preserving public lands is truly a bipartisan issue,” said Kiritz. He pointed to the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance (COBA) as an example of more than 150 business leaders from across Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy and emerging industries that have united to conserve and preserve access to public lands.
“Colorado’s business leaders recognize the value of our state’s public lands,” Kiritz said, “and 94 percent of the leaders we surveyed agreed that protecting public lands is good for our state.”
Senator Donovan represents District 5, which includes seven counties in the Colorado mountains.
“Public lands belong to you,” she said, address the audience. “We’re watching with concern the legislative efforts to sell off America’s public lands, and we’re seeing some unlikely alliances coalesce, such as motorized recreation, equestrians, bikers and hikers, to send a message that public lands should stay public and accessible to everyone.
Sommer Rains of Longmont and Niki Koubourlis of Lakewood, co-founders of Bold Betties, an organization that brings women together to explore the outdoors, said they attended the forum to stay informed about the issues.
“Our goal is to get women outside, and we advocate for diversity and inclusion for everyone on public lands.”
Jefferson County Commissioner Casey Tighe, who was in the audience, pointed out that legislation at the city and county levels is as crucial to protecting public lands as that at the state and national levels. “Land use decisions at the local level can have an even greater impact in the long term,” he said.
Senator Donovan, who sponsored a bill in the last legislative session to create the first state Public Lands Day on the third Saturday in May, said, “I hope you join the inaugural celebration on May 20th. This is your day.”