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Rachel VandeVoort

Rachel VandeVoort is Montana's first director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation. She is a Whitefish resident.

Touring the state to elevate the conversation about Montana’s recreation economy, Rachel VandeVoort hosted a gathering of about 35 people Wednesday afternoon at Thirsty Street Brewery Co. in Billings.

VandeVoort has logged 11 months as the state’s first director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation, created by Gov. Steve Bullock after the GOP-dominated Legislature declined to approve the appointment. At the time, the position was only the fourth such in the nation. Now that’s jumped to 11 states, she noted.

“It’s really a trend that’s taken over the U.S.,” she said. “We cross over so many sections of the economy.”

The job has prompted her and fellow outdoor rec directors in states as diverse as Vermont and Wyoming to collaborate on a national level, she said.

Although her position was created by a Democrat, VandeVoort sees the issue of outdoor recreation as a bipartisan issue, in spite of the fact that the Montana GOP has as one of its platform issues the return of federal lands to the state for management. That’s a position that has been strongly derided by Montana’s outdoor organizations and many businesses.

An email sent to Montana Republican Party leader Debra Lamm was not returned by press time.

Numbers collected from a recent University of Montana survey that VandeVoort flashed on the screen behind her stressed the fact that Montana is an outdoor-oriented state: 81 percent of Montanans say recreation is an integral part of their life; outdoor spending generates $2.9 billion in consumer spending; nationally, outdoor recreation is 2 percent of the gross domestic product — almost equal to the 2.1 percent that is all of the telecommunications industry — and is growing at a rate of 4.4 percent, far above average.

Todd Buchanan, of the Billings investment firm Buchanan Capital, touted Eastern Montana as an outdoor mecca for hunters and anglers, drawing visitors from across the United States. Those tourists are creating a trickle-down effect, buying goods and services that help local businesses grow, prosper and invest, he said.

Buchanan noted that some technology industries, which have the ability to locate almost anywhere, are choosing Montana because of the outdoor lifestyle the state provides their employees.

“There’s a strong desire to live here,” he said. “That’s driving so much growth in the state of Montana.”

As Montana grows and continues to be discovered, pressures on recreation facilities like Montana State Parks — which saw 30 percent growth in visitation during the past 10 years — will challenge state agencies, businesses and outdoor recreation users to cooperate, VandeVoort said.

Calling herself the “gun girl,” since she previously worked for a gun manufacturer in northwest Montana, she said, “If we can all work together and collaborate we’re going to get more done.”

VandeVoort’s tour travels to Great Falls next. The first meeting was in Missoula. Local breweries are hosting the events — titled the Great Outdoors Brewery Tour — which is the proper place for such discussions, she said. Montana brewers are creating places that are family friendly and that’s also what the outdoors are all about, she noted.

Shea Dawson, owner of Thirsty Street, said he’s enthusiastic about VandeVoort’s work.

“Beer and outdoor recreation go together,” he said. “The kind of people who go out camping, hiking and fishing are people who like to see things that are local.”

He pointed out that craft beers in Montana even draw their names from local phrases, such as Cold Smoke, a Missoula-brewed Scotch ale that utilizes the phrase for light, fresh snow. The state is home to 77 such independent breweries with another 10 in planning, he said.

“It’s really neat that the state can support that kind of market,” Dawson said. “As the brewing industry in Montana grows, outdoor recreation will grow, too.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who introduced VandeVoort, noted that breweries in Montana are a $1 billion industry, compared to $7 billion for outdoor recreation.

“So it is huge,” he said. “It’s really part of who we are.”

VandeVoort played a video stressing Montana’s ties to the outdoor industry, with footage of skiers, mountain bikers and boaters. The short clip included phrases such as: “It’s what we do. It’s who we are. Where work and play become one.”

“We love the outdoors, we respect the outdoors and if we can make a few dollars on the side, that’s OK,” Cooney said.

The tour is supported by the Montana Brewers Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wilderness Association, outdoor groups that have drawn the ire of the GOP Ravalli County Commission in recent weeks who asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate them for “blatant and extremely misleading political activity.”

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