Colorado has a new face for its mighty outdoor industry. It's a young one.
It's 32-year-old Conor Hall, who from his childhood mountain town of Crestone has gone on to accomplish an impressive amount in an early career.
It has been a career in politics, most recently with The Trust for Public Land. For the nonprofit, Hall held a director role that had him steering local ballot measures aimed at funding for open space, climate and equitable access around the West.
Prior to that, Hall served as a senior staffer to then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, advising him on policy decisions. That included, in 2015, creating the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
Hall is now the third director of the office, tasked with boosting the industry through policy, promotion and workforce development, while also advocating for public land and the environment.
A few weeks into the job, Hall was also busy securing funds that he said would be unprecedented for his office — what he called "two pretty major grants from federal stimulus money."
The idea, Hall said, is "to push (the money) out over the next couple of years around the state to businesses, to nonprofits, to higher education institutions, to local governments, to local economic development groups, to tribes."
It could amount to $7 million, Hall said. "And that's exciting, because this office has never really been a grant-making office. So we're having to come up to speed and learn what the best way to do this is, the best way to make sure we're really expending funds efficiently and effectively."
Among other accomplishments, while studying political science at Earlham College in Indiana, Hall survived Hodgkin's lymphoma. He's cancer-free today.
We talked about that and more. Here's an abbreviated version of our conversation:
So, about Crestone.
It was a pretty wild and interesting place to grow up. I'm from a family of six, and we didn't have cable TV or anything. Really spent every waking moment that we could playing outside. We were doing primitive survival skills courses at like 9 or 10 years old, doing solos in the wilderness.
I was gonna ask what inspired your outdoor passion. A lot of that happened in Crestone?
Yeah, a lot of that happened in Crestone. But I'll add one more. About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. Had big, big tumors all throughout my chest and neck, had to go through very intensive treatment, chemotherapy, radiation, all those awful things to make it through. I found that I took a lot of solace in being in nature. It helped get me through in a lot of ways.
Wow. So you would've been diagnosed in your early 20s?
21. I thought I was invincible at that point. I'd had life and death experiences, rolling cars, falling off cliffs, on and on. When I got this news and it wasn't some split-second, adventure-based near-death experience, it was tough. I was telling everyone that I thought I'd be fine, but I really had to come face to face with my own mortality.
I recall a conversation I had with your predecessor, Nathan Fey, asking him where he saw untapped potential around the state, places maybe on the cusp of tapping into the outdoor economy greater. He mentioned your San Luis Valley.
Nathan was right on. I absolutely view that as one of those areas of huge potential. I look at (northwest) Moffat County, too. They've got so much. Their market forces are closing down, the extractive economy that has been up there. So we want to see if there's a way to kind of buttress some of those jobs from that economy with the o-rec economy. There's places like that all around the state. If we're able to do it well and really fortify those local economies, then I think we will also be able to take some stress off some of our more well-known communities, like along the I-70 corridor. That's a huge, huge focus for us.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing this space?
There's ongoing challenges around supply chain, obviously that's huge for this industry. There's so many different parts of the industry that were affected heavily by this labor shortage, and there's a lot of issues that tie into that. Affordable housing in our mountain towns is obviously a major issue.
What role does your office have in those conversations?
We're hearing it from folks around the state in the industry. I think we certainly have a role to play, and I'd like us to be at the table and advocating for more affordable housing. Again, we have an unprecedented amount of funding right now flowing through the state. ... We want to be an advocate and helpful partner.
In response to sheer numbers we've seen in some places, we're seeing new management strategies like fees to help offset costs, like reservations. Wondered if you had any thoughts about that.
We have to be clear-eyed. If there's increased usage, that will take its toll, so it's incumbent upon us as state leaders to help people enjoy these spaces in a responsible, sustainable way. ... It's funding, too, for park rangers and infrastructure. That should be an important part of the conversation, too. Increased funding to manage some of these places.
With fees, there's equity concerns that go with that, too, right?
That's right at the forefront. We want to keep those first- or second-time users that came up through the pandemic, many of them maybe who have not had traditional or easy access or come from disadvantaged communities. We want to keep them coming back and make it as easy as possible.
What are some of your most memorable experiences in the outdoors?
My first multi-day backpacking trip when I was maybe 7 or 8. We went up North Crestone Peak, saw all of this wildlife, we were so deep in nature, and then the stars that night were unlike anything. Those are the moments you remember your entire life. Just that feeling of total awe.