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The Future of the Great Outdoors Is for Sale

With public land shrinking, private companies are stepping in to serve eager hunters, hikers, and campers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Logan Crable moved to Texas from Virginia, he found himself distant from the hunting scene that he had grown up in. “I was totally locked out of the hunting world,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know anyone with land. Public land was nonexistent.” Texas is 97 percent privately owned, he explained, making hunting on state-owned property a near impossibility.

His personal struggle inspired Crable to launch Outrider, a sort of Airbnb for hunting, which allows landowners to lease their acreage to hunters. “I was scratching my own itch,” he says of the service, which is available nationwide though most of the 167 properties currently on the service are in Texas.

“I have a background in design and tech and have the personal experience, so I decided to solve the problem, brick by brick. We built the beta site in 2016, we got some good traction, and were kind of validated like, ‘Hey, this could work.’”

Crable’s experience not being able to take advantage of state-owned territory is an increasing worry for all outdoors enthusiasts—not just hunters—all over the country. The fight for public lands and the interest in providing access to the outdoors in new ways is something that’s united two sides of the aisle: those who enjoy more passive activities like camping and hiking, and those who participate in recreational activities like hunting and RVing. Late last year, President Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s decision to shrink the size of the government’s property in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah drew concern and criticism, and now a wide range of groups—from brands like Patagonia to politicians like Oregon Governor Kate Brown—are lobbying to protect our public lands. But what if Crable’s venture is the future of experiencing the outdoors? What if, in order to hike or camp or hunt, we have to rely on private entities to rent space for the adventure?

“There should be some concerns about what’s happening to public lands in the last year, and there’s been a real shift in thinking about what public lands should be,” says Tania Lown-Hecht, the communications director for the Outdoor Alliance, an organization devoted to protecting public lands. She says the change won’t happen suddenly; instead it will be a “slow burn.”

“Congress … has been shrinking land management agencies [and funding] for 15-20 years,” says Lown-Hecht. “They need people—staff, maintenance—to take care of these places, and when they don’t have that, it filters down into an argument that ‘Maybe people can’t take care of public lands so they should be divested to private agencies to take care of them,’ when, really, we can, if we have the resources.”

The question of whether to give business to private companies or rely on public agencies is hardly a new debate. Lown-Hecht doesn’t shut down the conversation, but she’s wary of the arguments advocating for privatization. “I hope we’re not heading down a road where everything is private, in part, because it’s not just about who can do it better. It’s a philosophical question about who owns and has a stake in these places. You’re a stakeholder, you’re not a customer,” Lown-Hecht says of public lands. “You’re going home when you go to these lands.”

Yet, there are a handful of companies preparing for the possibility of public land reduction. Like Outrider, they are infused with sharing-economy principles and embrace the “Airbnb for X” or “Uber for X” mentality of many Silicon Valley startups. The key difference with these new companies is that instead of entrenching users deeper into virtual worlds or digital platforms, they’re hoping to inspire customers to value the outdoors and the environment—even if they’re profiting from newly limited access to them.

The internet has turned the outdoors into a commodity, and we’re a generation bent toward spending money on experiences rather than on items. Many of the companies making this possible are interested in protecting the outdoors, putting them in a strange situation. The networks created by companies like Outrider and Hipcamp, an Airbnb-style platform for finding camping locations, are what enable many people to get outside, via renting access to private places. And so public land may shrink as interest in outdoor recreation rises, creating a favorable market for the platforms. Now, it behooves these companies to promote outdoor experiences, while also making their users more comfortable with the idea of leasing spaces that have been or should be open to the public.

The complications of this landscape aren’t lost on Hipcamp founder and CEO Alyssa Ravasio. “I definitely understand the conflict of interest there. It’s a weird one,” she says. Hipcamp, however, has tried to forge a partnership with public lands as well as creating a platform for private ones. “I feel really fortunate that we actually do stand to profit from public land.” Before Hipcamp ever worked with a private landowner, the company struck partnerships with national parks, national forests, and California state parks to create platforms that enable easier online booking of public campsites.

Ravasio, who’s from the Bay Area and grew up visiting the Redwood National Park, doesn’t plan on replacing public campsites with Hipcamp. Instead she thinks investments from companies like hers could help protect biodiversity. “I look at public land as the backbone, the infrastructure that we’re building on top of,” she says. “I definitely don’t think private land is a substitute for public land. [...] When I look at how much public land we have, I think we need a lot more land set aside for the rest of life.”

That “set aside” concept is the driving idea behind the Half-Earth project, which seeks to preserve the species that are disappearing from our planet by turning over half of the Earth to them. Ravasio sees Hipcamp as a facilitator of that proposition. “With private land, what’s exciting to about it, is the infinite amount of possibilities of how humans can interact with the ecosystem and nature in them.”

There are a variety of companies in the same market as Outrider and Hipcamp. There’s Tentrr, a camping company that not only aids in campsite booking, but also sets up the tents for its users. There’s Gamping, another network for finding and renting private land for camping. There’s Rent A Hunt and HLRBO, which both help you find privately owned land for hunting. The list goes on. And recently, Airbnb added “Experiences,” which is a service to sign up for activities like guided hikes, stargazing, and animal encounters, all on private land. Previously these were outings we’d expect forest rangers and national parks employees to lead. But between overcrowding, federal budget cuts, and shrinking of territory, alternative options continue to rise to meet a growing demand.

For Crable, that issue has been obvious for a while, given Texas’s unique situation. “Texas is really ground zero for the access problem,” he says. “What we discovered is that Texas is kind of light-years ahead of the country in monetizing their land.” Crable says renting private land for hunting in Texas is not a new concept, but before Outrider, landowners and hunters found each other on Craigslist, in Facebook groups, and on gas station pegboards. Texas became a bastion for this type of rental because it has laws protecting the owners from liability should renters hurt themselves on the properties.

Crable is not solely motivated by the market demand. “Our goal is to create more affordable access, and also help push sustainable hunting practices and create a new generation of hunters as well,” he says. “The lack of access is the number one problem facing hunters. And so if there’s not a new generation, then hunting licenses aren’t sold, and then conservation kind of falls by the wayside.” Crable stresses that one of Outrider’s biggest priorities is making sure different wildlife populations located on these private lands are sustainable, and teaching renters and hunters participating in their platform about conservation tactics. Lands used for hunting have to follow regulations regarding how many animals are hunted and living on them, and creating a system that makes landowners accountable to these rules can help sustain wildlife long term.

There are use cases far beyond outdoor consumer activities as well. “Hunting is one way to monetize land, right? But there are a million others,” says Crable. Solar and wind power companies could lease land, he suggests—and some already do, though without the user-friendly UIs and mass consumer awareness of the Airbnb derivatives.

The success of these businesses is certainly a boon to the private sector, but there is also a benefit for public lands defenders. “The success of outfits like Hipcamp speak to how much people love the outdoors, how much they’re willing to invest their money whether it’s private or public,” says Lown-Hecht. “As Hipcamp becomes more successful, that’s a message to Congress and to Trump that Americans really love and value the outdoors and they want to fund the outdoors. Recreation is growing as a sector. People are getting outside more than they ever did, and that’s a sign we should invest more in infrastructure to support it and sustain it for the long term.”

One thing Ravasio wants to tread carefully around is feeding our unyielding hunger to take and take and take. “From my perspective, that’s really, really dangerous actually and something we’re talking about a lot as a company—this view of land and nature existing to entertain you,” she says. “One more thing to consume! It’s really dangerous.” Opening up more of the world to us—and yes, enabling it through easy-to-use platforms that deliver the digitally fed rush of an Airbnb or Uber booking—might be part of what gets us to that place.