When contacted by a reporter on a recent autumn afternoon, the new director of Montana’s Office of Outdoor Recreation was experiencing spotty cell phone service. Fittingly, she was off the grid, bird hunting in the Sweet Grass Hills with a group of outdoor industry representatives and public land advocates. The interview would have to wait.
It’s a nod to Whitefish native Rachel VandeVoort’s outdoor cred that, one month into her role running Montana’s nascent Office of Outdoor Recreation, she has already made inroads with key stakeholders in the state’s booming outdoor recreation industry.
She was literally born to do this job.
A fourth-generation Montanan and self-described “river rat” who grew up hunting and fishing on the heels of her father, a professional guide, VandeVoort has remained steadfast in her pursuit to fully embrace the unique outdoor lifestyle that Montana affords.
Now, she’s dedicating the next chapter of her outdoor-centric career toward ensuring those opportunities continue to grow.
“I look at this job as though I’m working for my kids,” she said of her two sons, ages 8 and 10. “I’ve been fortunate to have these amazing opportunities to work and play outside in Montana, and the stewardship component of this position is only going to create more opportunities that benefit the state and future generations.”
When Gov. Steve Bullock announced his intent to create a new “Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation,” VandeVoort was working as trade relations manager for Kimber America, a Kalispell-based rifle company, content with a job that allowed her to hobnob with outdoor industry representatives, often leading them on hunting and fishing expeditions in the mountain West.
But when she heard Bullock’s announcement, her eyes lit up.
“I’ve never been especially political, but in the last four years as public-lands issues have really come to light, it has made me an active participant in local government,” she said. “I never get excited about anything political, but when the governor announced this new position I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. Outdoor recreation and conservation is a great unifying topic that brings so many people together.”
About a month before VandeVoort started her new job, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) confirmed her assessment — the outdoor recreation is not only intrinsic to the Montana lifestyle, it is also one of the most crucial parts of the state’s economy.
According to the OIA’s most recent figures, outdoor recreation is now the largest sector of Montana’s economy, generating over $7 billion per year in consumer spending and supporting over 70,000 jobs that pay more than $2 billion worth of wages. Those figures don’t even account for indirect economic effects, such as the thousands of startups and small businesses that choose to locate here because of the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities.
In many ways, America is in the midst of an outdoor recreation renaissance, a trend driven by innovation, awareness and sheer growth in the number of people exploring nature.
The National Park Service and its array of sites are enjoying all-time high popularity. State parks across the U.S. are experiencing similar record crowds, including throughout Montana. The evolution of gear and activities, such as stand-up paddleboarding, are driving more people outdoors in search of unique experiences.
Outdoor-rich states such as Colorado, Washington and Utah have also identified outdoor recreation as a tangible industry that deserves its own governmental office, similar to agriculture and manufacturing, devoted to protecting the resources and building on the associated economic benefits.
Other states are expected to follow course, creating governmental offices of their own, which VandeVoort notes is testament to a growing recognition that outdoor recreation is a powerful economic current in the country.
She also sees plenty of room for growth, including a unified strategic approach to managing a colossal piece of the economy. That means helping rural communities gain access to resources to fully capture the benefits of outdoor recreation, as well as conserving existing public lands.
“I think there’s a huge shift in thinking where we can be conservationists and still thrive in industry at the same time,” she said. “They can live symbiotically together.”
In addition to VandeVoort’s position, Bullock hired Ryan Weiss as a public-access specialist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, a job designed to help lead public-access acquisition and enhancement initiatives for state and federal lands.
Weiss is charged with identifying and developing new projects that increase access to public lands, collaborating with private landowners, local governments, federal agencies, and other stakeholders.
VandeVoort has already begun working closely with Weiss, whom she jokingly refers to as the “access czar.”
And while other Western states have similar positions to VandeVoort’s, she emphasized that Montana is rife with its own unique features and doesn’t necessarily fit the models adopted by Colorado or Utah.
“I don’t want to shoehorn us into something that isn’t the best fit,” she said. “I plan on looking at Montana independently.”
“It’s so gratifying to see this movement spreading across the United States,” she added. “We all make a living from the outdoors, and it’s time we stood up and recognized it.”