The rise of outdoor recreation

March 26, 2015

When President Obama picked REI president and chief executive Sally Jewell almost two years ago to be the 51st Secretary of the Interior of the United States, it was, like a snowball rolling downhill, a clear signal of gathering momentum for outdoor recreation.

April 10 will mark two years in office for Jewell, who left her position as the head of one of the world’s biggest and most recognizable outdoor recreation retailers to lead the Interior Department. With her arrival in Washington, a story whose plot had been slowly developing for decades finally had a protagonist to support its other main characters, the millions of Americans who hike, bike, camp, backpack, ski, paddle and otherwise play in the outdoors.

One would be hard-pressed to find a person more qualified than Jewell in this day and age to play the leading role in a story where conflict is so historically ingrained. By default, the Interior Department has contradictory dual missions, having to both promote the development of natural resources on the nation’s public lands and preserve them at the same time. Jewell’s background in both the oil industry and at REI is an ideal fit to bridge the inherent tension.

In the past, the balance of that equation has been tipped in favor of development and extraction. See James Watt, Gale Norton. And while other Interior secretaries can certainly be applauded for their conservation ethic and achievements, Jewell brings a new sensibility that goes beyond simply setting land aside to protect it. Her appointment is symbolic of how America’s love of outdoor recreation is now shaping the nation’s political and economic landscape.

Take, for example, America’s newest national monument, which Jewell’s agency will co-manage with the U.S. Forest Service. Browns Canyon in Colorado is iconic; more than 21,000 acres of rugged granite cliffs and colorful rock formations, a wild stretch of the Arkansas River running along its perimeter, bighorn sheep, bear, deer, mountain lions, and breathtaking vistas. Certainly qualities one would expect from a national monument. But Browns Canyon is also one of the single most popular whitewater rafting destinations in the country, attracting upward of 200,000 adventurous visitors a year, who happen to inject about $60 million into the regional economy in central Colorado.

That kind of impact and popularity is hard to ignore, and similar stories are playing out across the country. Nationwide, all that outdoor fun has become a powerful economic driver, generating $646 billion in annual consumer spending nationwide. Politically, the groups and associations that represent human-powered outdoor recreation are becoming more professional and organized. And as they do, they are coming of age as strong voices advocating for policies that support their constituents, especially on issues such as protecting public lands.

Once the province of the backwoods, hiking, backpacking, canoeing, snowshoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, climbing and other outdoor mainstays have blazed a trail into boardrooms and ballot boxes.

The rise of outdoor recreation is noteworthy, and Resource Media has prepared a backgrounder with more details on the many ways that it is helping shape America’s story. Read on here.

Eric Frankowski