USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

Acknowledging the important part outdoor recreation plays in the U.S. economy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised industry representatives for their part in helping promote national parks and federal programs aimed at growing that segment even further.

Speaking during Wednesday’s (June 2) second and final day of the Partners Outdoors virtual conference, an event hosted by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR) that features various associations and federal agencies that all operate in the outdoor recreation sector, Vilsack was introduced by RV Dealers Association (RVDA) President Phil Ingrassia, who also serves as ORR chairman.

“We at USDA look forward to working with you to create a 21st Century recreation opportunity for America,” Vilsack said. “That means focusing on workforce, focusing on technology, focusing on the right policy and making sure we have the right management practices in place.”

Vilsack went on to detail efforts in each of those areas, including the development of the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps. This group helps build the capacity of the workforce needed to expand recreation opportunities in the future.

Technology improvements could be important when it comes to fighting forest fires and to keep the people who battle the blazes safe, he added.

Vilsack touted the recent Keep America Beautiful policy act that provides an opportunity to capitalize on voluntary conservation practices focused on locally-led efforts. Items on that agenda include improving soil and water quality and habitat, all of which could affect the ability to expand recreational opportunities.

As for management, the secretary pointed to President Joe Biden’s proposed budget and its emphasis on infrastructure improvements. This even includes developing new wood products that allow for more activities to take place in the forest that lead to better forest management and potentially reduce some of the fuel for the large wildfires.

“There are several reasons this discussion is important,” he said. “We recognize the role of recreation as an economic driver. Nearly 2% of GDP is represented in this roundtable. That reflects millions of jobs. So, millions of Americans are not only able to enjoy the great outdoors, but millions are employed as a result of what you all do in creating access to the great outdoors.”

Vilsack said getting people outdoors also creates memories and traditions to be passed on as well as passing on family values. He said that is an important part of the shared value system of the country. It also creates a sense of curiosity about the world around us, he pointed out and offers significant health and mental health benefits.

In 2020, the national forests and grasslands saw an increase of 18 million people paying visits, with a total of 168 million venturing out after COVID restrictions began to be eased.

“We’re going to work together to continue to improve access,” he said. “We have a number of programs that you all helped to create and helped promote the funding for, whether it’s the Forest Legacy program or the America the Beautiful initiative or the support for a fully funded land and conservation fund. All of that was incredibly important to us at USDA and the forest service to do a job improving the basic outdoor infrastructure that is so vital to your industry and so vital to the country.”

Lee Davis

During a breakout session, Lee Davis, executive director of the Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy at Oregon State University, examined the need for trained workers in the outdoor recreation industry.

Davis echoed much of the type of concern that led the RV industry to establish the RV Technical Institute (RVTI) in recent years.

A good example is the creation of a program for the ski industry developed by OSU. The school was approached by industry veterans who were seeing something of a brain drain as experienced technicians who could service ski lifts were retiring and nobody was being trained to replace them.

“There are something like 2,500 different ski lifts in North American manufactured by 40 different companies, most of which are obsolete,” he said. “It’s kind of like trying to maintain a garage full of old cars. One ski resort in Oregon lost their entire maintenance staff in one season.”

OSU developed a Level 1 certificate for technicians that have been operating for a few weeks in an effort to help replace those vital workers.

A week ago, OSU also formed the Center for Outdoor Recreation Economy to support reaching its full social environmental and economic potential.

“But whenever anybody buys a training program or even a degree it comes with a promise of a better career,” Davis said. “We need to make sure these standards are recognized by the industry.”

Scott Schloegel

In one of the final breakout sessions, Scott Schloegel of the Motorcycle Industry Council gave an update on a number of proposals for transportation funding bills that are in the works.

The problem early in the session is that the proposals are so far apart on the amount of money being requested that it is unlikely that any sort of compromise can be reached in a sharply divided House and Senate where Democrats hold razor-thin margins.

Biden’s broad-based transportation act proposes $2.25 trillion in spending for projects ranging from roads to health care, housing, broadband and electrical charging stations for vehicles.

Other House and Senate proposals include a $400 billion sticker for roads, public safety and transit, a $928 billion proposal that would include airports, broadband and rail, and a $305 billion solution to highways and surface transportation safety.

“There’s a wide discrepancy on what the price tag should be for an infrastructure bill,” Schloegel said. “The president and Senate Republicans are almost $800 billion apart and where the money should come from to pay for it.”

This article was written by Travis Pryor for WOODALLSCM.com.