Today, the Outdoor Industry Association is far from a K Street powerhouse, but in the six years since the Recreation Economy report came out, Hugelmeyer and Co. have become familiar faces in the nation's capital. The association brings CEOs and other representatives to Washington once a year to meet with White House officials, congressional representatives and agency bigwigs. The industry has even created its own Political Action Committee that, since 2008, has funneled a small amount of money -- between $14,000 and $30,000 a year -- into the campaigns of sympathetic politicians.
The lobbying, economic numbers and donations have opened doors. The association has collaborated with the feds on "America's Great Outdoors," President Obama's initiative to get more people outside. Hugelmeyer and others regularly appear at press conferences with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who frequently cites the association's numbers in his speeches. And in April, the White House gave Hugelmeyer a Champion of Change award for his work promoting environmentally and socially responsible business practices.
The outdoor industry has used its newfound clout to advance trade rules that benefit the great majority of its members who manufacture their backpacks, water bottles and other gear overseas. It has also pushed for conservation in the West and beyond. The association has acted as muscle for environmental groups, lobbying for basic funding for state and federal land management agencies and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pushes royalties from offshore oil drilling into the purchase of key public lands and waterways.
The association's sister organization, the Conservation Alliance, works along a parallel track. Created in 1989, the alliance collects membership dues from gear companies, then pours that money into grassroots conservation initiatives, mostly aimed at protecting wilderness areas and wild rivers popular with recreationists (see map at hcn.org). In recent years, the organization has also stepped up its lobbying efforts, holding training sessions for its board members in Washington, D.C., and meeting with congressional representatives on the bills and issues that the alliance funds.
"The outdoor recreation industry has really grown in stature and is becoming very influential," says Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. "It's one thing for conservation groups to talk about the values of public lands, but to have industry leaders come forward to talk about how important sustaining these lands is -- these are jobs that are sustainable and can't be exported. It's not boom or bust."
The biggest win to date for the Conservation Alliance and its allies came in 2009, when President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Act, protecting more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, more than 1,000 miles of newly designated wild and scenic rivers, and expanding the national parks and monuments system. The Alliance had given more than $700,000 to 13 grassroots organizations whose local campaigns inspired protections in the omnibus bill. It sent delegations to Washington to lobby on behalf of these groups, and wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi –– signed by 36 industry leaders and CEOs –– in support of the bill.
The alliance's executive director, John Sterling, is the first to acknowledge that the outdoor industry was a bit player in a much larger drama. Still, he says, it performed a necessary role in getting economic issues into the debate. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Ron Wyden both cited the Recreation Economy study in speeches supporting the bill.
That same year, the U.S. House of Representatives, nudged by the outdoor industry, approved $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Had it passed the Senate, it would have been only the third time since the program was created, in 1965, that it had received its full federal allocation. But soon, everything changed.
The 2010 elections, which swept anti-government, anti-conservation Tea Party Republicans into power in the U.S. House of Representatives, hit Utah particularly hard: Republicans threw out three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett during the state GOP convention. Bennett had sponsored the Washington County Lands Bill, and stood over the president's shoulder as he signed the Omnibus Public Lands Act. In his place, Utah elected Mike Lee, who last year earned a 27 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
In a special election the same year, Huntsman's lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, landed in the governor's seat. Herbert, a realtor who received campaign contributions from a coal company and road builders, rekindled Utah's road fight last December, announcing plans to lay claim to more than 19,000 miles of rights of way across public lands. In March, he signed an audacious bill demanding that the federal government cede 22 million acres of national forest and BLM land to the state. The Utah Legislature set aside $3 million for a legal showdown. Herbert also signed a bill limiting public access to rivers that cross private lands -- infuriating anglers and boaters -- and voiced his support for a ski area expansion vehemently opposed by Metcalf and other backcountry recreationists.
The news from Washington, D.C., was little better. Last June, Interior Secretary Salazar reversed his "wild lands" protection policy -- which he'd publicly unveiled at a press conference just six months previously, flanked by Hugelmeyer and Metcalf. Wilderness bills were sent spiraling back into the holding pattern of the last couple decades, while President Obama traveled the country singing the praises of domestic energy production. In March, the administration gave its initial blessing to a Denver company's proposal for extensive natural gas drilling spread across more than 200,000 acres of federal land rising up the West Tavaputs Plateau toward Desolation Canyon. Gov. Herbert added his enthusiastic support.
Then, on March 25, in response to a string of editorials Peter Metcalf had published in The Salt Lake Tribune slamming the governor's anti-conservation actions, Herbert replied with his own ultimatum. "If you are interested in finding practical, pragmatic solutions to public lands issues, I welcome your constructive input," Herbert wrote. "If after thoughtful consideration, you determine you cannot work in a spirit of collaboration, then I would expect your resignation from the working group" -- the Ski and Snowboard Industry Working Group within the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
Suddenly, the outdoor industry's ability to advance protection for public lands was in serious question. Meanwhile, Metcalf himself was in a free fall.