How important is outdoor recreation to the vitality of Oneida County’s economy?
Citizens and officials who gathered together this week had a consistent and emphatic answer: essential.
That was the upshot of a special meeting Tuesday at the county courthouse about proposed revisions to the county’s five-year comprehensive outdoor recreation plan, which will guide the county’s recreation needs through 2019
Oneida County Forestry Director John Bilogan said the plan is important because it could help the county obtain money to fund projects identified in the plan, which in turn, he said, could offset local tax dollars.
Nine people spoke at the meeting – four of them citizens and representatives of outdoor groups, while five were county officials. Others in attendance just observed without speaking.
Tim Brown, the community, natural resource and economic development agent from the county’s UW-Extension office, said he thought the plan failed to articulate just how important outdoor activities are to the well-being of the county.
“I, as someone commissioned by the county to spend a lot of time thinking about economic development, was disappointed to see that the proposed plan makes no connection between our recreational infrastructure and our local economy,” Brown said. “The critical relationship that exists between outdoor recreation and the health of our local economy is barely mentioned in the plan.”
Brown cited three examples of just how important outdoor activities are to the county.
First, he said visitors to the county spent $186 million in 2012 on expenses such as hotels, restaurants and retail stores, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
“The vast majority of these visitors were drawn to visit and spend their money here because of the opportunities available in our county to do fun things outdoors,” Brown said. “They ski, snowmobile, cycle, hunt, fish and hike. Were it not for the ability to experience these things, that number would be quite a bit lower than $186 million.”
Second, Brown said there are more than 10,600 second homes in Oneida County, which he attributed to the wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities available.
And third, Brown referenced a survey that he is in the process of administering to Oneida County residents. He said that more than 90 percent of survey respondents across all age groups – about 400 people so far – have said that the outdoors is important.
“Outdoor activity is our lifeblood,” Brown said. “It’s our economic goldmine here in Oneida County.”
“Detroit makes the best cars on the planet, or at least they used to. Saudi Arabia has the most oil of anyone on the planet. And Oneida County, Wisconsin, has some of the most beautiful lakes and forests anywhere on the planet. I think we all agree on that. Outdoor activity is what we do best.”
County Supervisor Bob Martini also talked about the importance of outdoor activities to the county’s economy.
Martini, who is president of Oneida County Lakes and Rivers Association and vice president of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, said he would give the plan at present “a grade of incomplete.”
He suggested adding other information to the plan, including the role of outdoor recreation in addressing health issues; increasing the quantity of non-motorized trails; protecting water resources; and establishing bike trails to connect Oneida County communities, similar to what Vilas County has done.
“The plan is a really good start,” but it needs additional work, Martini said.
Brian Hegge, president of the Rhinelander Area Silent Trails Association, also said the plan should discuss the importance of outdoor recreation as an economic engine.
“I love living in Oneida County having moved up here 18 years ago,” Hegge said. “I choose to stay here, because I have had many opportunities to leave. I stay here because of the outdoor resources.”
Among other speakers:
• Jay Joppa of Northern Paddle and Trail said the plan should emphasize water trails, including rivers and streams.
• County Supervisor Jack Sorensen said the plan should discuss hunting more.
• Joel Knutson, town of Crescent supervisor, noted that Crescent has no county forestry trails.
Two citizens, the Oneida County ATV Club and the towns of Schoepke, Newbold and Cassian submitted comments in writing or by phone before the meeting.
Bilogan said the public meeting generated “a lot of good comments.” He said he was not sure if all of the ideas could be immediately incorporated into the plan; some ideas, he said, may take some time to develop, which might require adding to the plan as an amendment at a later date.
Sorensen, who is the chairman of the county’s forestry committee, said determining which ideas could be incorporated into the plan would be based partly on cost.
“Certainly there’s the ultimate factor of what we can afford,” Sorensen said. “Unfortunately we’re running tight on budget with the county board right now.”
Fred Heider of the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, who is working with the county in the process of revising the plan, said nature-based projects identified in the plan would be more likely to get funding from the state Department of Natural Resources. Having projects in the plan illustrates public support for them, he said.
Heider will take the public input from Tuesday’s meeting to the county’s forestry committee, which will then discuss what to add to the plan and what comments to omit.
The full county board must then approve the final plan, though it can be revised later on.
Though the plan covers the entire county and incorporates feedback from towns, Heider said the city of Rhinelander will create its own plan.
A draft of the recreation plan is available for public viewing online at www.ncwrpc.org/oneida/orp.html.
Members of the public can also view the plan in hard copy at the county forestry department offices in the courthouse, the Rhinelander District Library and the Minocqua Public Library.
Jonathan Anderson may be reached at email@example.com