Amid a sea of COVID-19 caution and flood of Democratic Party platform language like equity, inclusion and climate change, some positive news was delivered to outdoor recreation industry members during the first day of the Partners Outdoors 2021 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.

The conference, which has been going on for nearly 30 years, is being held virtually this year due to uncertainties regarding COVID restrictions.

During breakout sessions, industry members were able to hear updates from administration officials such as Reginald Chapple, of the National Parks Service, Kate Kelly, of the Department of the Interior, Jeff Vail, of the U.S. Forest Service and Nada Wolff Culver, of the Bureau of Land Management.

Also on hand were industry representatives like Toby O’Rourke, of Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), Karen Redfern, of Go RVing and Lee Gordon, of Brunswick Corp.

Most vital to RV interests was a session regarding deferred maintenance funding on recreation and conservation.

While also discussing the mechanisms and procedures for submitting priority projects to be funded by the recent Great America Outdoors Act, Vail also gave some practical advice and real hope for RV interests when it comes to the future of national parks.

Karen Redfern

“It is vital for our local regions to collaborate to coordinate funding,” he said. “But we need to align our priorities and investments to reflect where outdoor recreation is going. Something the size and scale of RV use calls for improvements of infrastructure but also expanding the areas that go along with that use. We hear the feedback and we continue to learn from the challenges going forward to (fiscal year) 23 and forward.”

The importance of access to facilities for RVing was backed up by data Redfern presented during the closing portion of the first day of the conference.

She talked about the growth in the industry over the past year as people sought relief from being cooped up in their homes while also wanting the safety of the controlled environment that comes with an RV.

“RVs are still in high demand; we’re expecting another record year for 2021, building over half a million RVs for the year,” she said. “With so many Americans recreating outdoors for the first time, there have been a lot of inexperiences apparent to those of us in the industry.”

Go RVing has changed its messaging to teach consumers the basics of campground etiquette and encouraging all Americans to recreate responsibly.

During an opening session, O’Rourke also touted the growth in RV ownership and the need for continued investment in bringing parks and campgrounds up to date.

Toby O’Rourke

“With this healthy outlook we are seeing, we definitely urge for campground improvements,” she said. “There’s a lot of interest in campgrounds from the private sector. There’s a lot of money coming into camping with people building campgrounds for the first time in decades. People are expanding their parks and adding campgrounds. We would love to see that investment continue on the private side as well as the public side. In order to meet this healthy demand, we need to ensure we are providing good, comfortable safe places for people to camp.”

When it comes to campgrounds, all panelists agreed that making reservations is becoming more important as more people join the ranks of those in the outdoors.

Sandi Miller, vice president of the Outdoors NIC Division of Tyler Technologies, discussed in detail digital passes and permits that can be obtained before venturing out to parks. These kinds of permits are needed in an age in which March 2021 saw an increase of 414 percent in national park visits over 2020 and April visits were up 2,200 percent.

“These tools help to limit frustration and manage expectations,” she said. “You’ll start to see a squeeze. Longtime recreationists will feel this squeeze because they are used to local visitors being able to go to a park at any time they want. As long as you manage the access fairly and equitably you’ll see them come around and see the benefits. Expect some frustration and some noise, but soon this will become the standard. We need to promote the ‘arrive ready’ mindset, so people will plan ahead.”

Day 2 of the conference continues today and will feature a presentation by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Look for full coverage in Thursday’s WOODALLSCM.com newsfeed.

This article was written by Travis Pryor.