'Quality of life': New DCNR recreation director working to spotlight, grow state's outdoor resources

·6 min read

Aug. 1—HARRISBURG, Pa. — For the past six months, Nathan Reigner has been forging his own path as the first state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources outdoor recreation director, and reports that the journey has not only been productive, but fulfilling.

The new executive staff member is a Pennsylvania native from the southeastern part of the commonwealth who left after college to pursue a career in analysis.

He worked around the country and in international locations, such as Iceland, with tourism councils and the National Park Service, examining the carrying capacity of locations.

Reigner returned in the end of 2019 for a job with Penn State University. When the COVID-19 pandemic restricted his travels, he began reacquainting himself with his home region.

"I fell in love with my state again that summer, riding my bike all over central Pennsylvania," he said.

"All of the sudden, I realized I was surrounded by high-quality, accessible, varied outdoor opportunities."

When the DCNR recreation position opened, Reigner applied — because he saw it as his way of contributing to the commonwealth.

"Outdoor recreation is so important to us," he said.

His mission is to help flex resources, without breaking them, in order to allow state residents and visitors to have meaningful experiences in the Pennsylvania outdoors.

This drive stems from a moment a few years ago when he went from being part of a crew participating in service projects to a hiker lost in the woods of Shenandoah National Park.

Reigner said during downtime volunteering, he went on a solo hike and found himself off-trail and confused on his location.

That led to a realization of how massive and beautiful the forest actually was.

The moment of appreciation was followed by logical thinking that helped him identify a cut tree and eventually an overgrown path that helped him get back to the Appalachian Trail.

Statewide advocate

"Nathan is a smart, thoughtful, collaborative and tireless advocate for outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania and the myriad benefits it provides," Outdoor Recreation Roundtable Director Benjamin Nasta said.

"His work has helped the state recognize the mental, physical, social and economic benefits of the state's outdoor recreation industry, which contributes $11.8 billion to Pennsylvania's GDP and supports 146,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis."

He added that Reigner has a great handle on other states' best practices as well as national recreation economy trends and Pennsylvania's attributes.

"Nathan is the 17th director to be appointed across the country and we would love to see his efforts further enhanced by the creation of a permanent Office of Outdoor Recreation in Pennsylvania — which would be the 18th state to either establish an office or have a task force recommend an office — to help this crucial sector of the state's economy continue to flourish," Nasta said.

During this year and part of next, Reigner said he's figuring out the scope and structure of his office while building connections with groups around the state.

He said he's also determining what the people of Pennsylvania need and want in recreational adventures.

"I'm working hard on data for outdoor recreation," Reigner said, adding that he's motivated by the needs of others.

One of those connections is with the Outdoor Industry Association.

Rebecca Gillis, the state and local government affairs manager for the organization, said she and the group are excited to work with Reigner in his new role.

"It is a big job and Director Reigner has proven himself prepared for the challenge," she said.

"I know he has been traveling almost nonstop, prioritizing meeting the movers and shakers of the Pennsylvania outdoor economy, economic development partners and other key stakeholders. He is prioritizing listening and better understanding what the most immediate needs of these folks are.

"His desire for inclusivity has shown through, and he has been actively seeking insight and guidance from partners in many of the shared learning venues that public sector leaders in the outdoor industry rely upon to strengthen the state and federal economies."

Gillis added that any state that has created a director of outdoor recreation position is "publicly acknowledging the importance of the role of the outdoors and the outdoor economy for the health and well-being of its citizens, as well as for the fiscal health of the state."

She said, "The outdoor economy in Pennsylvania is growing and has the potential to continue to create expanding economic, social and health benefits for citizens of the state."

One story Reigner tells that captures his mission for the outdoors is of scientists studying anglers in Minnesota.

They were trying to identify why the fishermen enjoyed the activity and what made for a good day on the water.

The researchers would ask the anglers how their day was and were repeatedly told it was good.

When the scientists pointed out that the people hadn't caught many fish, Reigner said, they were told that may be true — but, "I saw the sunrise this morning and there was this eagle that kept flying overhead and I had some heavy stuff on my heart and I spent the day in a boat with a buddy and we talked it out ... had a great day fishing.

"The lessons from this story are that there's more to fishing than catching fish," he said.

"If there's more to fishing than catching fish, then there's more to outdoor recreation than the doing of the activity. In other words, a hike is not about walking. A float trip is not about sitting in a boat. Outdoor recreation is inherently like a psychological process or act about satisfying our motivations to receive benefits.

"And we're talking about quality time with friends and family, learning and discovery, escape from daily life, challenge and accomplishment, being a member of a community of outdoor recreationists, these kinds of things and the status and confidence and physical and mental health and social connectivity that we get and thrive from afterward."

Reigner also correlates quality of life to these type of opportunities and how the former improves as the latter expands.

He referenced a study that examined quality of life and business environment in small- and medium-sized rural and industrial towns in the American Midwest.

For Reigner, those locations are interchangeable with the many communities in the commonwealth.

"As quality of life increases, populations grow and unemployment declines," he said.

"Quality of life is going to be the driver of development and vitality in small and medium-sized rural and industrial Pennsylvania towns. And quality of life is a product of outdoor recreation, historic preservation of our downtowns and the availability of temporary cultural services, which are breweries, interesting restaurants, art and music festivals."