Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

It was first published on February 18, 2022.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recently created a new position: Director of Outdoor Recreation. Nathan Reigner is the first to fill it. 

Raised in rural Montgomery County, Reigner earned a Master of Science in Forestry from Virginia Tech, and a Doctorate in Natural Resource Management from the University of Vermont. He’s worked in national parks and has been a professor in Penn State’s Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management Department. 

You might have guessed, he’s also into outdoor recreation himself, including skiing, biking in state forests, and hunting. Reigner said he’s often found times when he’s outdoors to be meaningful. “I could reflect and connect with myself, and get a sense of how big and beautiful and wondrous the world is,” he said. 

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Reigner about his new role.

LISTEN to their conversation

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Kara Holsopple: You’re the first person to fill this position. What does the job entail? 

Nathan Reigner: The job itself remains a bit of an unwritten book. We’re working hard here in DCNR and with all of our partners inside of government and outside of government, across the state, to understand what does the outdoor recreation sector in Pennsylvania needs from Harrisburg? How can I be of service to the outdoor recreation sector? We are certain that my role is a role within state government that is outward-looking, that is a connector and a liaison. What distinguishes my role is that I am recreation first.

Holsopple:  And is this recreation within like the state public lands, public parks and forests? Or is it recreation in other places in the state? 

Reigner: When we talk about outdoor recreation, as it relates to my role and as it relates to the outdoor recreation sector in Pennsylvania, we’re talking very broadly.

I was a professor at one point in my life, so I’m going to give you a little Professor Nathan here. There was a study done back in the 1960s where two scientists were talking with anglers about, “Did you have a good time fishing?” These anglers were coming back to camp at night with no fish in their creels, and yet they said they had a good day fishing.

These scientists were like, ‘How could that be?’ And the anglers said, ‘Well, this sunrise is beautiful and I saw a hawk. And, you know, I had some heavy things on my mind and I spent a day in the boat with my buddy, and we resolved them.’ So we recognize that outdoor recreation is more than just the activity. There’s more to fishing than catching fish. 

When we talk about outdoor recreation with my role as director of outdoor recreation, we’re thinking about it systematically. Sure, outdoor recreation involves the recreation itself,  the activity that they’re doing. It involves…the lands and waters and the infrastructure that they’re using.

Outdoor recreation, in some ways, has been thought of as gravy. We understand it is, in fact, meat and potatoes.

It involves the law and policy and regulation and budgeting and management. It involves the NGOs and the stewardship activities. It involves the industry, the retail and the manufacturing, and the guiding and outfitting services. All of that together is what makes up outdoor recreation. If the Lorax speaks for the trees, I speak for outdoor recreation.

Kara Holsopple: Why was this position created now?

Reigner: There’s been a growing appreciation both in our state and around the country of the significance of outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation, in some ways, has been thought of as gravy. We understand it is, in fact, meat and potatoes.

Outdoor recreation has substantial economic benefits. For example, it adds about $12 billion a year to the Pennsylvania economy. One 150,000 jobs within the state of Pennsylvania are based entirely on the outdoor recreation economy. So there are very real economic benefits.

We also understand that outdoor recreation opportunities and infrastructure improve people’s quality of life and that quality of life is felt in mental health. It’s felt in improved physical health. It’s also felt in economic development for communities.

Quality of life has a greater correlation with population growth and with employment in small and medium rural and industrial towns, than does the price of commercial real estate, for example, or prevailing wages

Kara Holsopple: In a 2020 diversity, equity and inclusion study by the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society, non-white respondents to their survey reported feeling less welcome, less comfortable, and less like they belong at local parks as compared to white respondents. And a 2018 telephone and equity survey by DCNR and Penn State showed that white respondents reported more frequent visitation to state parks as compared to Black, Latino and Asian respondents.

What’s your plan for making outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania accessible and inclusive?

Reigner: Those statistics that you cited are absolutely true, and they represent significant social and societal shortcomings that we need to focus on. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, I believe, has been a leader in this area. Outdoor recreation for all is one of the priority focus areas of the state-wide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. The Pennsylvania State Parks Strategic Plan is entitled “Recreation for All.” 

My job is to be someone within the department who connects with all outdoor recreation users, present and potential future, new and experienced.

When I think of diversity, equity and inclusion issues associated with outdoor recreation, I think in terms of three broad areas. One is marginality. It has to do with the availability of resources, time, money, and knowledge. One is institutional bias or discrimination. It has to do with both purposeful, but much more frequently, background or legacy institutional discrimination. The third is cultural differences – the idea that our parks and forests or outdoor recreation system were set up to provide certain types of recreation experiences that are associated with those who were in power at the time these institutions were set up.

Within my role as director of outdoor recreation, inclusion and equity issues are certainly central to my work. My job is to be someone within the department who connects with all outdoor recreation users, present and potential future, new and experienced.

It is a focus of my job, pulling in the perspectives of those who currently feel unwelcome in the outdoor recreation sector, so we can better serve their needs and helping to implement the plans that the department already has in place to address these issues.

Kara Holsopple: How do you see outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania growing and changing over the next few years, or maybe even a few decades? 

Reigner: Outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania will grow. Even before the COVID 19 pandemic, outdoor recreation had been increasing in Pennsylvania. Participation in outdoor recreation had been increasing in Pennsylvania, just like it had been around the country.

We are in a phase, I think, in our society where we value experiences. We have the transportation, we have the information technology, and we have the gear and equipment to go out and have those experiences. So I believe that Pennsylvanians and visitors to Pennsylvania will only be more and more hungry for outdoor recreation experiences.

Our challenge is helping new users develop the skills and knowledge they need to have these experiences in safe and responsible ways. We also have the challenge of bolstering our management through investments in infrastructure and staff, through investments in research, to make sure that we can continue to provide high-quality experiences for outdoor recreation in the future. 

One other trend that I see for the future of outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania is the continued proliferation of the ways in which we enjoy nature and recreation outside. This is driven both by technology and creativity.

We see it in developments in ski equipment, in developments in cycling equipment, developments in hunting and fishing equipment. The range of outdoor recreation experiences, the types of activities that people participate in are not only going to increase in volume, but they’re also going to diversify in type. 

Nathan Reigner is the director of outdoor recreation for Pa. DCNR.