Seeing an increase in “OOO” messages these days? As more and more Pennsylvanians enjoy nature and time outdoors, “out of office,” that’s exactly why the state created a new office—of outdoor recreation.
“We often think about recreation—literally something we do with our free time—as frivolous or unnecessary,” said Nathan Reigner, 42, Pennsylvania’s first director of outdoor recreation. “But, recently, we all started to realize it’s not gravy—it’s actually meat and potatoes.”
The stats drive that point home: $11.8 billion of value added to the state economy plus $6.4 billion in wages for 146,000 Pennsylvanians, equaling the sixth-largest outdoor recreation economy in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“We need the office to make, advance and manage the point that outdoor recreation is a significant economic sector in the state of Pennsylvania,” Reigner said. “Simply put, my job is to expand and ensure the benefits of outdoor recreation to all Pennsylvanians as individuals, communities and the commonwealth.”
While it may be the dawning of a new era in state management, the boon in the great outdoors has been a decade in the making. The surge in hiking, biking and recreational pursuits began prior to the pandemic. But, Reigner said, the COVID-19 era has definitely put an exclamation point on nature’s value.
“With the pandemic—and the way we as individuals and as a society sought out recreation opportunities for safety, for time with community, for respite—that burst of outdoor recreation participation, on top of what had been already a remarkable decade of growth in outdoor recreation, really highlighted the significance of the sector for us as a society,” Reigner said.
Nationwide, the inception of outdoor recreation offices is trending. Pennsylvania, “Penn’s woods,” is the latest state to take stock of its rec assets. And Reigner has a lot to work with.
“We’ve got an incredible land base—bodies of water, mountains and valleys, rivers and forests,” Reigner said. “We’ve got more than 4 million acres of protected public land.”
This bounty includes one of the largest state park systems in the nation, along with “an incredible trail network.”
“Trails are like the backbone, the veins of outdoor recreation,” Reigner said.
That trail system includes two national scenic trails—the Appalachian Trail (AT) and North Country Trail, many additional hiking trails, nationally known mountain bike trails, and more designated or named rail trails than any other state.
Technology and creativity are growing rec’s range well beyond traditional hiking and camping to include gravel cycling—the fastest-growing segment of the bike market, Reigner said—as well as electric snowmobiles and ATVs, even something called “extreme tree climbing.”
Along with recreation’s upswing comes upkeep.
“We’ve also got a $1.5 billion backlog of needed maintenance in our state parks and forests,” Reigner said.
Maintenance is part of a balancing act—a feat of collaboration—within Reigner’s new post.
While the position is situated within the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Reigner will coordinate with state agencies that dovetail with recreation—the Department of Health, PennDOT, PA Game Commission, PA Fish and Boat Commission, as well as conservation and community development groups, chambers of commerce, municipalities, counties and federal partners.
Right now, Reigner is getting his feet wet, so to speak, by meeting with those partners, to set the office’s mission, priorities and structure “not from a top-down approach” but “collaboratively.”
He sees his role, appropriately within the Keystone State, as a “connector,” whose efforts will tie the great outdoors to a greater quality of life.
“Outdoor recreation is core to the health of Pennsylvanians,” Reigner said. “We found out that quality of life, as it grows out of access to natural and cultural heritage and amenities, is a better driver of economic development and community development in small and medium-sized rural and industrial communities than tax incentives or regulatory relief.”
His background laid the foundation for this groundbreaking position. A Philadelphia-area native, he describes a “joyous and free” childhood spent playing in the woods, scouting, hiking and camping. After earning his undergraduate degree at Gettysburg College, he worked in ag policy in Washington, D.C.
But it was through his volunteer work with the Potomac AT Club that he had a lightbulb moment. Ironically, he found his calling while lost in the woods (he jokingly calls it “getting turned around in the woods”).
“That experience stuck with me, that, simultaneously, I could have the feeling inside me that I was in the wilderness—that nobody had been there before … while at the same time I knew intellectually all the effort, management, administration, volunteering, budgeting and humanity that went into these places,” Reigner said. “And that kinda blew my mind—that I could have those two experiences within me at once, and it was at that point that I decided I wanted to devote my career, my life’s work, to outdoor recreation management.”
Following grad school and his master’s degree in forestry from Virginia Tech, then his PhD in natural resource management from the University of Vermont, Reigner returned to his home state. As a Penn State-based researcher, he was on the verge of moving to Greenland when Pennsylvania’s new outdoor rec position came calling.
“[This position] is going to take someone with Nathan’s passion for and understanding of outdoor recreation to see this mission through,” said Wesley Robinson, DCNR spokesperson. “That passion, combined with academic knowledge and personal interest in all things outdoors, helped make Nathan stand out among great candidates. We look forward to seeing the impact he will have.”
As he sets the bar for Pennsylvania’s newest office, Reigner is exploring the Harrisburg area’s rec opportunities out of office.
“When I’m not in the office, you can find me on the Greenbelt,” Reigner said. “There’s nothing like a sunset over the Susquehanna River, I gotta tell you.”
For more information on Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation opportunities, see dcnr.pa.gov. And to hear more about Reigner’s new position, tune into TheBurg Podcast’s April episode, which comes out April 8.
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