Leaving Montana was never an option for the newly appointed director of the state's Office of Outdoor Recreation.
And now Rachel VandeVoort has a job to help promote some of the many industries in which she has worked.
“(Professors) said: ‘We found jobs in Oklahoma and Nebraska,’ and I said: ‘I’m staying in Montana and leaving is absolutely not an option,’” she said.
Born and raised
The Whitefish native describes herself as a “Montana girl for sure,” a former “dirt bag river and fishing guide,” as well as a hunter and former competition shooter. She also worked for an organic produce importer and as sales manager for what is now Whitefish Mountain Resort before she and her husband had two sons and she scaled back.
It was at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation banquet that she ran into some friends who worked for firearm manufacturer Kimber America, which has a satellite office in Kalispell.
“I really enjoy sales and educating people, and I thought, wait, I could sell guns,” she said. VandeVoort, 38, started with Kimber eight years ago, becoming trade relations manager before learning about Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to launch a new office.
Citing the growth of the outdoor industry and tourism in Montana, last year Bullock announced his public lands agenda, which included creation of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation housed in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The announcement of the office came along with other initiatives aimed at improving access and freeing up access funding, as well as opposition to selling or transferring federal lands in the state.
“When the governor announced he was creating this role, I had so much appreciation for his forward-thinking nature because this portion is such a big portion of our economy,” VandeVoort said.
VandeVoort has been in her role as director of the office for nearly two months now, fostering relationships as a liaison between state government, private industry and interest groups. Montana is the fourth state to add an office of outdoor recreation, following Utah, Colorado and Washington. There may be as many as eight or 10 state offices in the near future, she said, with plans in Oregon, Wyoming, Vermont and North Carolina.
VandeVoort wants to see Montana's office find its own identity.
“It’s a huge movement, and we’re looking at how to best sculpt these offices to serve our state, but I want to really refrain from doing anything other states have done,” she said. “I don’t want that to lead my thought process — I want to determine what is best for Montana and then look at exchanging best practices with other states and those sorts of things.”
Estimates from the national Outdoor Industry Association put outdoor recreation now as the largest sector of Montana’s economy. The association says the economic impact is about $7 billion in consumer spending, $2 billion of which is wages for 70,000 direct jobs.
“Communities across Montana recognize that outdoor recreation supports, contributes to a high quality of life, and — perhaps more importantly — attracts and sustains employers and families,” Bullock told the association trade show in July. "From the smallest rural towns to the most densely packed cities, outdoor recreation powers a vast economic engine that creates billions in spending and millions of good-paying American jobs. Outdoor recreation is the economy of the future, and we are fortunate to live in a nation of iconic beauty, inspiring landscapes and bountiful waters."
Creation of the one-person office has not been without its detractors. Republicans have been critical of Bullock for moving forward with the office as the state faces a budget crisis and cuts to health and education programs.
“It’s undeniable that Montana’s outdoor recreation economy is growing, and with that, spurring job and business growth,” Bullock’s communication director Ronja Abel said in a statement. “This is a small, but smart investment to ensure that we have the infrastructure needed for years to come to attract businesses, support industry growth, create even more good-paying jobs, and meet the growing demands of Montana’s world-class outdoor recreation.”
Abel added that $200,000 for the program was existing funding and appropriated from the Department of Commerce’s Big Sky Trust Fund program.
On the road
VandeVoort is based in Whitefish but frequently travels the state. Before this interview she had just returned from a trip to Libby to meet with a manufacturer of campers and a town hall meeting in Troy to talk about issues in the Kootenai National Forest. Next week she has a trip planned to Glasgow to discuss opportunities to connect Eastern Montana with public lands and recreation opportunities.
“I am spending a ton of time meeting with folks because we have all these people out there doing these amazing things,” she said. “The governor wants to make sure that the state of Montana is doing everything it can for one of the biggest sectors of our economy. Looking through that lens, I’m asking what the state can do to better that economy.”
Although still early in the job, VandeVoort sees one priority in linking private industry with programs for workforce training and education as well as developing apprenticeship and internship programs. Another emphasis will include connecting children through the school system with outdoor recreation opportunities in their backyards.
“Public land and water is the backbone with which this economy stands on, and we need to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place. There’s also a stewardship component to that and making sure we’re doing it right,” she said. “We are going to grow and have more visitors, but we have control over this, and we need to be sitting down and making sure we’re making responsible decisions that give back to the land. It has to be at the forefront of what we’re doing and, frankly, I love the fact that we have to have this conversation because it brings so many more people in.”