Not so long ago, the outdoor industry had essentially zero influence in state and national politics. Though individual companies played a role in conservation campaigns and other causes, there was little collective muscle to push issues like boating access to rivers and lakes the way, say, Big Oil can fight against higher fuel-efficiency standards in cars.
That’s started to change in recent years, thanks to two developments. First, in 2006, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) began publishing an annual report detailing the massive impact of recreation on the U.S. economy, now responsible for $646 billion in annual consumer spending (twice what Americans spend on pharmaceuticals) and 6.1 million jobs (a big enough number that recently proposed legislation could require the Commerce Department to start tracking it). Second, in 2013, Sally Jewell, then CEO of REI, became secretary of the interior, instantly guaranteeing that recreation would be a part of every major discussion about the use of federal public lands.
While the outdoor industry still invests few dollars in lobbying—the OIA’s political-action committee spent just $36,926 during the 2014 election cycle—“a lot of policymakers on both sides of the aisle are really drawn to this industry,” says Alexander Boian, senior director of government affairs for the OIA. “They understand that recreation is a sustainable economic driver.”
Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office—one of three similar state-government offices created in recent years—puts it more directly: “I now have senators from all over the state showing up in my office saying, ‘Tell me what legislation you want.’ ”