Our series on Outdoor Allies profiles outdoor advocates and their approaches to protecting public lands. Today, Cailin O'Brien Feeney, State and Local Policy Manager at Outdoor Industry Association, shares his secret sauce for making state offices of outdoor recreation the most popular policy idea of the last year.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to do outside and some of your favorite places to go.
As a relative newcomer to Colorado (two years), there is plenty to explore and much of that begins out the door with peaks, trails and water in Boulder County. Access to nearby nature is important, as I need time outdoors to be healthy and happy. My go-to’s this summer include mountain biking at Hall Ranch, Heil Ranch or on Jefferson County open space followed by swims in the St. Vrain, Lefthand Creek or Clear Creek – basically, plan to bike to finish at water.
Exploring is fun too – the challenge and sense of adventure when piecing together a big trip to somewhere new I think will always be compelling. I also try to visit at least one new hot spring each year.
What led you to your work at Outdoor Industry Association?
Much of my late teens and twenties was in various outdoor education and guiding roles, on public land and water, all seasons, all across the west and abroad. While that was really rewarding (and a lot of fun), I was hungry to make a different kind of impact. I felt like I needed to move to advocacy rather than spending more time directly helping the next generation develop outdoor skills. In short, that’s why I switched from outdoor education to outdoor policy. (Also, living in the back of your truck gets old after a while.)
I believe in the democratic process and want to work within that process to improve outdoor recreation opportunities and the environment that supports them. Since leaving full-time guiding I went back to grad school, and spent a year as a fellow with the EPA. Professionally I’ve worked on public land and outdoor recreation policy at Winter Wildlands Alliance and at Outdoor Industry Association.
What has been the focus of your work at Outdoor Industry Association?
The influence of the outdoor recreation economy is growing. Economic growth is a nonpartisan issue, and many states are becoming interested in what kind of policies can support their outdoor recreation economies. In my work, I help build champions for the outdoor recreation economy. Some are lawmakers already holding office and others are people that want to work with us that we didn’t know were out there. The outdoor industry can capitalize on the opportunity to elevate the idea, and related policies, around the outdoor recreation economy.
The first step we take is telling the economic story. From there, we take roughly three directions. First is economic development for the outdoor recreation sector. The idea of focusing on a particular industry is not a new idea, but outdoor recreation as a “cluster” worth investing in is still somewhat new. Sometimes we look at incentives for growing this sector, but we also think about workforce development, logistics, helping products find new markets and barriers to innovation. It’s exciting for legislators to think of recreation through that lens.
Second, we advocate for policies related to access, management, and funding for outdoor recreation. There are a lot of ways to improve those processes so more people can get outside equitably and sustainably. Third, a lot of legislators are interested in participation and youth engagement. There’s growing interest right now in how the outdoors can integrate with education, STEM, health and wellness, or just disconnecting from the digital world and reconnecting with nature. There are legislators who want to work on those issues, who didn’t realize that the outdoor industry is also working on those issues.
You have been on a roll getting outdoor recreation offices and other outdoor policy established in state legislatures. What is the first step you typically take to move state policy forward?
So far, it has taken Outdoor Industry Association, a brand or business, or an individual to approach state lawmakers with their ideas. Typically, someone from within the outdoor industry is seeking support for an outdoor recreation office (or other policy proposal), rather than a legislator looking to advance a proposal and seeking out our support. We’re finding a lot of success when we plant these seeds ourselves. In time, I think that will change as we get more organized, and are seen as a partner and resource for those holding office.
Our success with outdoor policy is as much about educating our own membership (outdoor businesses) as it is about educating legislators. Local businesses are great champions for policy since they are the constituent, and often a direct beneficiary. It only takes a few outdoor businesses to really get policy moving.
You have a background in both federal and state outdoor policy. What are some of the big differences between the two kinds of policy work?
When I worked on federal policy, I focused more on planning than individual pieces of legislation. The land managers I worked with were admirable, and really wanted the expertise of the human-powered community that I represented. I enjoyed the long-term partnership and long-range work of land planning.
At the state level, the pace is different. Right now, there’s a real desire to make progress locally and provide tangible benefits for constituents. In state legislatures, you can get a win in a calendar year, and that pace inspires a lot of support, from legislators, businesses, nonprofits, and members of the public to join a campaign as advocates. Seeing the end goal and feeling like it’s achievable is motivating.
Every state thinks about economic development, and all states do land management, which either supports or hampers outdoor recreation. Even though states might all fund their parks differently, they are all grappling with how to take care of land and fund it in a sustainable way. That challenge isn’t unique, and as an industry invested in helping more people get outside, we are working to step up and figure that out.
What do you wish more outdoor businesses knew about advocacy work?
That elected officials want to hear from you – about your brand, your passions, your solutions and that OIA can help. Outdoor businesses have such compelling stories, and our elected leaders are hungry for them – they are public servants, and outdoor recreation is largely a public good.
Favorite kind of burrito: Mission Style
Next place on your bucket list: Scandinavia
Winter or summer: Spring?