Highland Profiles is a series that aims to highlight West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Fayetteville citizen and infamous emcee of the Appalachian Outdoor Film Festival Dave Bernier contacted me about his colleague whom he felt was worthy of a profile, I was happy to finally receive a recommendation (yeah, readers, please send ‘em in). After a few minutes on the phone with T Grant Lewis, PhD, I was filled to the brim with excitement for West Virginia’s future.
As director of the adventure recreation management program at West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech), Lewis is training the next generation of outdoor leaders. By combining direct participation in adventure recreation with traditional management philosophies, these students are working to, as Lewis puts it, elevate the profession.
Lewis is a vocal member of the growing movement that sees outdoor recreation as an indispensable part of the West Virginia’s future. He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and stoke to the table, and I’m thrilled that our state has energetic folks like him to curate its future. I caught up with him to discuss his new life in the Mountain State, the program he oversees at WVU Tech, and the future of the outdoor recreation industry.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to WV story?
I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. I was working at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia doing something similar to what I’m doing now. That program ended, so I went to Weber State University in Utah to help build an academic program in outdoor and community recreation. This position [at WVU Tech] came open and I decided that it was time to come back east. It’s a good fit in terms of being closer to family and friends in a community that’s really supportive.
How do you see your adventure recreation management program improving the state?
One of the areas I keep hearing about is the desire to shift some of our economic resources to tourism. When we start thinking about what tourism currently looks like, outdoor recreation is certainly at the top of that list. One of our big areas of focus is trying to support the development of future recreation managers. When I say future, I’m talking three to five years from now as we start getting students through our program who can help elevate the profile of the profession, to say this is an economic driver. We really can create jobs that are full-time, that are benefited, that are helping to improve not only the economy but also the overall physical and mental wellness of the people.
What does the program entail?
It’s about diffusing the idea that adventure has got to be something super dangerous, adventure is what you make of it. We want our students to be exposed to a variety of different activities. You take courses and choose whether that’s paddling or mountain biking or climbing, so you get a wider sense of what people may be experiencing when they come to your programs.
We’re helping to support the development of people who can provide those adventure opportunities for people. We’re trying to make sure that our students are prepared for those managerial roles, so they’re getting a background across administrative abilities, risk management, legal issues, budgeting, marketing and fundraising. The hope is that students have the breadth of knowledge and skills that will help them transition into those roles.
What challenges will your students (and we) face with outdoor recreation in WV?
I think we’re still at a point where not everybody is ready to embrace the change, there’s still a very strong hold on what industry was here, which was obviously the mining of natural resources. There’s still pushback in terms of ‘this is not what we want.’ Not everybody is welcoming the shift to hospitality and tourism with open arms. I also think [the students] are going to have to consider how, whether or not we want to admit it, there are changes in our climate, and so how is that going to impact our resources?
One of the characterizations of young Millennials and the generation that’s now coming up is that they do something once and get instant gratification and move on to something else. That’s not a good economic model for us; we need people to come back. What are we doing from season to season and from year to year to get people to want to come back? As a society, we’ve become disconnected from one another. How do we get people to reconnect with one another, to reconnect to the natural world? That can be a challenge when somebody is not used to being outdoors.
How can we responsibly grow WV’s adventure towns?
That was a conversation we had [recently] as we were looking at the curriculum. As citizens, how do we get out there and educate people who are coming to our region? If we get that growth of the outdoor economy, right now it’s manageable, but is that going to become more unmanageable? For example, if we can continue to keep Fayetteville and the area right around the New River Gorge the way it is but build up around Oak Hill and Beckley and Summersville, then you can live 15 or 20 minutes away and still go recreate where it’s really nice and have all these cool restaurants and shops because all the congestion is dissipated into a larger area. We can position events around other places in the state so we can maintain those small town identities but still put on larger scale events, and they can see what those areas have to offer, so it’s not like every weekend the greater mid-Atlantic region is descending upon the same place, time after time.
What are some promising trends in outdoor recreation at the state level?
There’s an effort happening through [WVU’s main campus] to research the economic viability of outdoor recreation in the state of West Virginia, part of that is mapping out what resources exist. For instance, what they’ve been doing is looking at the New River Gorge as an epicenter. Within a 90-minute drive, what do you have access to? They’ve been looking at the miles of whitewater, the number of climbing routes, the amount and length of mountain biking trails and comparing it to Asheville,NC; to Chattanooga,TN; to Boise, ID; and Boulder, CO. What we have in our backyard, in some aspects, dwarfs some of these world-class outdoor towns that people flock to. A lot of people know the area, but they don’t realize the resources until they see those numbers. I think that’s going to make people stand up and start recognizing that this has a powerful economic impact to the state, and we have to harness it.
T Grant Lewis is beyond stoked for the future of outdoor recreation management in West Virginia. If you are too, look him up in the WVU Tech directory and send him your thoughts.