Bringing together hunters, hikers a focus of outdoors conference talk in Breckenridge | SummitDaily.com

Bringing together hunters, hikers a focus of outdoors conference talk in Breckenridge

A pair of Summit County hikers look out into the wilderness beneath them.

The "elephants in the room" weren't brought up until the final 10 minutes of the hour-plus "Statewide Initiatives" breakout session at Friday's final day of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Partners in the Outdoors Conference.

The first was raised by the moderator, Dan Zimmerer, CPW's statewide partnership coordinator.

"Let's talk about funding," he said.

The second was raised a few moments later by an audience member.

"The wildlife community was concerned that the outdoor recreation community has been getting this free ride — which we have, to some extent — and they are funding the care of public lands, " he said.

Call it the hunter-hiker divide. Some hunters, anglers and wildlife officials in the state want recreators, like the growing population of hikers, to pony up higher fees to pay for needed conservation and stewardship programs. More money from more people, especially in a time when Colorado's population is booming.

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Those two variables — finding better funding streams and bringing together historically separate groups — were at the core of the conference's final session hosted in Breckenridge's Beaver Resort Imperial Ballroom on Friday morning. It concluded two days of 30 outdoors and wildlife-related sessions for 500 attendees from across the state.

The final session was all about the challenges in forming partnerships with the aim of conservation.

"Most of you probably know this statement: That collaboration is an unnatural act between two non-consenting adults," said co-presenter Ann Baker-Easley, representing the Colorado Outdoor Stewardship Coalition. "And collaboration is not easy."

Neverthless, Luis Benitez, the director of the state's infant Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, feels Colorado's outdoors community has taken steps forward.

"There are now manufacturers that cross-pollinate, from a gear perspective, that are cross-marketing to both communities," he said. "And I think that's an extraordinary thing.

"The slow food movement as well," he continued, "you are starting to see people you'd never see in the hunting community really embrace that culture, understand what it means to stalk hunt, kill your own food. That's also becoming very prevalent in the hiking community."

Benitez was one of four co-presenters who shared their experiences about forming coalitions to advance and balance conservation and recreation in Colorado during this time of rapid population growth.

One of those presenters, Andy Neinas, chairman of the Wildlife Council, said he feels tension is being reduced between the hiking and hunting communities.

"I think that wall is coming down — that's the premise of why we are all here in the first place," Neinas said. "And so, we all are the same person. We're all cut from the same cloth. We all have the same desired outcomes."

Benitez and his office are working to achieve that greater good. And to paint the picture of how the outdoor industry has failed with funding in the past, he compared it to a familiar industry that Colorado's outdoors industry is actually bigger than: cars.

"Think about our reliance on the non-profit ecosystem and compare that (to the auto industry)," Benitez said. "… It would be like the auto industry showing up and saying, 'Gosh, we put out a great product. Our factory floor and our employees are amazing, but our machinery is a little worn. It needs a little maintenance. I've got a great idea: let's start a non-profit. We'll get families onto the factory floor this weekend, they'll help repair the machinery — or even better, a bake sale. That'll be great! We chuckle, yet that's exactly the reliance on the non-profit ecosystem and volunteerism we have right now."

Benitez said CPW is figuring out how to evolve its funding and fee structures for "21st Century times," as he put it. He highlighted how the state sees its access to trail systems and waterways as having a value proposition to its people.

And with that knowledge, and more collaboration, he sees the state playing a larger role than it has in the past.

"These emerging modalities of recreation have gotten a whole lot of something for a whole lot of nothing for a really long time," Benitez said, "and I think if you look at the modeling in the motorized (recreation) community, the hunting and fishing community, they do an exceptional job of charging themselves fees that go back into conservation and stewardship. We have to ask the same question for stand-up paddleboards, for mountain bikes, for e-bikes — you name it."

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