Champion of the Outdoors
Cailin O’Brien-Feeney BA ’07, head of Oregon’s new Office of Outdoor Recreation, works to elevate outdoor pursuits in every corner of the state.
When Cailin O’Brien-Feeney BA ’07 first applied to Lewis & Clark, he thought he would major in international affairs and play on the tennis team. But during a gap year before college, he took a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School that changed his direction. After an immersive experience in the outdoors, which included learning the technical skills of white-water rafting, backcountry skiing, rock climbing, and more, he was hooked. “By the time I entered Lewis & Clark, I knew I wanted to major in environmental studies and work in the College Outdoors program,” he says. “The rest is history.”
In late June, O’Brien-Feeney began his new job as director of the State of Oregon’s newly created Office of Outdoor Recreation, a branch of Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department. The new office is charged with coordinating and streamlining the state’s outdoor recreation policy while working with current environmental agencies to help promote and preserve access to Oregon’s unique natural landscape.
“Lewis & Clark was where everything really started to gel. It was an ideal place to explore my interests, and it set me on the path for what I’ve done since,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “It’s an environment that values ideas, critical thinking, and a curious mind. In my work now, many people are experts in one area—planning, policy, science, design, or marketing, for example—but the most effective are fluent in several. The interdisciplinary approach of my course of study at L&C, paired with my time as an outdoor leader, gave me a really solid foundation on which to build a career.”
Economic Impact of Outdoor Recreation in Oregon:
- $16.4 billion in consumer spending
- $749 million in state and local tax revenue
- $5.1 billion in wages and salaries
- 172,000 direct jobs
Source: Outdoor Industry Association
While at Lewis & Clark, O’Brien-Feeney was involved in College Outdoors, which provides students with opportunities to take organized trips to different areas in the Northwest. These trips complement students’ academic studies with experiential education, ranging from picking mushrooms in coastal forests to backpacking through the subalpine lakes near Mount Saint Helens.
“I loved my time with College Outdoors!” O’Brien-Feeney says. “I made great friends, gained confidence and responsibility, and got experience with a variety of recreational opportunities. My favorite trip was the New Student Orientation multiday rafting on the Deschutes: those trips were a great way to build community by sharing an adventure before entering college—and they were also really fun.”
After Lewis & Clark, O’Brien-Feeney earned his environmental science graduate degree from the University of Idaho, and went on to work with the U.S. Forest Service and as a river guide in Idaho. Most recently, he worked for the Outdoor Industry Association, a national trade group that promotes policies that support outdoor recreation and a healthy economy.
“Cailin exhibited a tremendous amount of ingenuity in building a successful advocacy model that raises the profile and opportunity around outdoor recreation in states and at the local level,” says Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. “He will bring that thoughtfulness to the state of Oregon as he assists the state in nurturing outdoor businesses and preserving places to recreate.”
In his new position, O’Brien-Feeney will lead a small team to promote legislation that improves public access to outdoor recreation. In addition to collaborating with tourism groups and organizations already working in the outdoor recreation industry, the team will provide resources to land managers about how best to balance development and preservation of Oregon’s unique natural resources.
“There’s an immense amount of momentum in the state in support of outdoor recreation, so it’s less about fixing something that’s wrong than seeing what we can do to elevate outdoor recreation across the board by working together,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “My office is designed to serve as a central hub or clearinghouse of information and resources for all the various stakeholders involved.”
As the leader of the state’s newest office, O’Brien-Feeney recognizes there are many challenges ahead, including balancing promotion of the outdoors with stewardship of the state’s natural resources. He’s currently working on building an advisory council of stakeholders to assist him in his work.
“I’m totally energized by the opportunity to combine my personal and professional interests in this position,” says O’Brien-Feeney. “My goal is to improve opportunities for all Oregonians to get outside.”
Reporting by Emily Price BA ’18 and Shelly Meyer