About the Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition

The Big Tent was established September 7, 2012, in the Tacoma program center of The Mountaineers, with 25-30 representatives from outdoor recreation organizations, environmental organizations, and lands and conservancy groups. The Big Tent Coalition is an association of the primary organizations participating in outdoor recreation in Washington State. The more than 45 organizations involve over 200,000 members.

The Original Mission: The mission of the Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition is to raise awareness of the importance of the outdoor recreation sector to Washington State. Working in close collaboration with elected officials, opinion leaders, and community leaders in Washington State, with local governments, and with the business community and the public, the Big Tent will focus on raising the profile of outdoor recreation and the substantial economic, social, and health benefits that come with doing so. The Big Tent will work to ensure adequate funding and access are in place to support the growing role of outdoor recreation, and to reduce or eliminate barriers that limit the right of Washington citizens, businesses, and visitors to enjoy outdoor recreation amenities.

New Mission (Adopted April 6, 2023) 

Mission: The mission of the Big Tent is to promote sustainable, diverse, equitable, and inclusive outdoor experiences in Washington state through advocacy and education.

What we do: The Big Tent advocates for sustainable state funding for recreation and conservation lands as well as sustainable and equitable development and human interaction with those lands.

Vision: The Big Tent envisions a Washington where elected leaders, businesses, nonprofits, and residents are working together to create a more inclusive and equitable outdoor experience for all. We want to find ways to use outdoor recreation to fuel economic activity and sustain healthy outcomes in our communities.

Big Tent Beginnings

If you’re looking for the time the “Big Tent Outdoor Coalition” drew its first breath, leap back to Spring 2012.  We were fresh off legislative sessions where the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program (WWRP) had to fight to survive in a 2011-13 biennial budget, and funding had been diverted from dedicated recreational accounts in the 2012 supplemental budget process.  I sat in a meeting room with Kaleen Cottingham, the Director of the Recreation & Conservation Office, wondering how outdoor recreation could grow a louder and more formative voice in the State Capital.

It was Kaleen who first suggested that perhaps individual recreation organizations could band together in unison, and an idea was hatched.  Washington was no different than many states, with dozens of outdoor and recreational organizations having formed and having succeeded for years by speaking to their individual needs.  But could the single silos form a collective and larger voice – one that spoke to the combined importance and weight of outdoor recreation in a state with such stunning natural beauty and natural resources?

An idea was hatched

And could these groups rally around a larger cause to show that, taken together, we could achieve something greater by demanding that Washington leaders view outdoor recreation as a sector, one which catalyzed the economy in every nook and cranny of the state while contributing to active and healthy living choices for our citizens?

In the summer of 2012, I sent e-mails to dozens of representatives of outdoor recreation organizations, environmental organizations, and lands and conservancy groups.  My questions were very basic:  Do you see value in uniting around this larger cause, and should we gather to discuss it?  Unanimously and unequivocally, ‘yes’ answers came back.  Our first organized meeting took place on a beautiful September day – Sept. 7, 2012, to be exact – as 25-30 of us gathered in the Tacoma program center of The Mountaineers, with a clear sky and a view of Mount Rainier as our backdrop.  We were on our way. 

A tent is an unmistakable symbol of the outdoors

I’m not exactly sure who gave us the name “Big Tent” or how it was coined, but it stuck.  We even toyed for a while with fancier names built off some outdoorsy acronym, but then it occurred to us that we already had our name.  A tent is an unmistakable symbol of the outdoors, and a ‘big tent’ welcomes lots of users and participants with a wide variety of perspectives and points of view.  How do you say it any more clearly than that?

We went on to design an inaugural “Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition” day in Olympia on Jan. 28, 2013, with over 75 of us descending on Olympia and showcasing a series of display booths on the 3rd Floor of the Capitol Dome and on the capitol campus.  It didn’t hurt that a couple of weeks later, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) released its first comprehensive update of outdoor recreation economic data since 2006.  The Washington results were a jaw-dropper:  in seven years, annual spending on outdoor recreation had nearly doubled from $11.7 billion a year to $22.5 billion each year, and jobs tied to outdoor recreation had grown on a similar bell curve, from 115,000 to 226,600 (ranking us fifth among all states).  The OIA report indicated that outdoor recreation generates $1.6 billion a year in state and local tax revenue – despite the fact that certain facets of outdoor recreation (for example, equestrian, sailing, and scuba diving) were not measured under the report. 

Transformational strategy for outdoor recreation

A little over a year later, on Feb. 13, 2014, we repeated the ‘Day in Olympia’ theme with a second event, this one filling the lobby of the Natural Resource Building with display booths, and with a program and speakers.  Our day featured an appearance by Governor Jay Inslee to announce an Executive Order establishing a Blue Ribbon Task Force to draft a transformational strategy for outdoor recreation. While the "Big Tent" is still like a young toddler, relatively new to its journey and (sometimes clumsily) navigating its way, we have at least begun to show that outdoor recreation matters in the state of Washington, for a whole variety of reasons.  What happens next on this adventure is still to be determined, but for those of us who love the mysteries and the wonders of the outdoors, isn't that half the fun?

by Doug Levy, Initial Convener of the Big Tent