Luis Benitez Upended Outdoor Recreation. What's Next?

Luis Benitez became the face of government’s interest in the outdoor recreation industry, one that’s larger than both the auto and oil and gas exploration industries. He sat down with 'Outside' to discuss the industry’s expanding role in politics and his own future.

Luis Benitez near his home in Littleton, Colorado. (Benjamin Rasmussen)
luis benitez

It’s been a big week for Luis Benitez. On Thursday, the former Everest guide and director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office was tapped by former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to be the first speaker at his inaugural presidential campaign rally. The day before, Benitez announced he was leaving the Governor’s office, and the post he helped create nearly four years ago, to take a job with VF Corp, the multi billion-dollar owner of such brands as the North Face, Smartwool, and Eagle Creek.

Benitez was on hand Thursday night to lend credibility to Hickenlooper’s position as a leader who can bring together environmentalists and energy industry representatives, and he spoke about Colorado’s efforts to build some 7,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the state and to capture methane gas in the energy exploration process.

Hickenlooper had appointed Benitez to bridge the gap between public-lands agencies and the outdoor recreation industry in the state. His biggest accomplishment was undoubtedly landing the thrice-annual Outdoor Retailer show for Denver when the industry left Utah in protest of that state’s antagonistic approach to federal public lands. In ring-leading other states to develop their own outdoor rec offices (there are currently eight, with six others in development or exploration), Benitez became the face of government’s interest in the outdoor recreation industry, one that’s recently been measured by the feds at $412 billion, larger than both the auto and oil and gas exploration industries.

Democratic power brokers in Colorado have been talking about Benitez’s prospects as a political candidate ever since the charismatic international mountain guide emerged in Hickenlooper’s camp, so it surprised many when he jumped to the private sector this week. At VF Corp his title will be vice president of governmental affairs and global impact, a job they created for him as the company moves its corporate headquarters from North Carolina to Denver. It has been reported that he will have oversight of the VF Foundation, though VF Corp directed Benitez not to speak about his upcoming role at the company for this interview.

I sat down with Benitez to get his take on how his role developed and where both he and the political prospects for the outdoor industry go from here.

OUTSIDE: You just kicked off Hickenlooper’s inaugural presidential rally Thursday night, yet here you are turning to the private sector. Are you shelving your future political career? 
BENITEZ: Not at all. I think the most effective leaders spend time in both the public and private sector. Without experience in business, I don’t think I’d be the best person to oversee a state or national economy. The VF Corp post is an exciting opportunity. I can’t talk much about it, because I haven’t started the job yet, but the word impact is right there in my job title. It's not enough to make a quality product anymore--that product has to stand for something and needs to resonate with the people that build that product and buy that product. When I look at the concept of impact through the lenses of conservation or social justice, it’s an exciting opportunity.

What were your biggest successes as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation czar?
Business and economic development was one my prime directives, so landing the Outdoor Retailer show was huge. I also think that steering the show to a state that puts a high value on federal public lands was the right thing to do.

My office also brokered a partnership between Colorado’s tourism office and the Leave No Trace organization to make low impact visitation a part of welcoming tourists to our open space and wildlands. As we promote outdoor recreation, we have to be mindful of its impacts. I’m proud of the work we did to help launch Western Colorado University’s Outdoor Industry MBA program. For the outdoor industry to continue to increase its impact, we need to mind the talent pipeline. Its not so different than university programs prepping students for aerospace or mining, except this one really looks at sustainability as a core principle.

I’m also really proud of the Colorado Confluence Accords—the agreement among the eight states that currently have state-level outdoor recreation directors that aligns us in a set of common values: economic development, conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, and public health and wellness. If all of the state offices are pulling in the same direction, we can accomplish more.

In the past, you’ve said Outdoor Retailer needs to evolve. What does that look like?
South By Southwest might be our best model. It really got on the map through its tech component, and then the music and arts really helped develop this cultural phenomenon that celebrates new creativity and is a huge networking and collaborating opportunity. Outdoor Retailer has been about getting together over product. In Colorado, we’re trying to move the external cultural aspects towards the core of the event.  I think it has to continue to move in that direction to maintain relevancy, but also to keep the ball rolling on outdoor rec as an emerging political force.

Diversity, equity and inclusion have been talking points at Outdoor Retailer in recent years, and became a big outdoor industry flashpoint this winter with the conflict over Camber Outdoors leadership. You’ve been outspoken on that event.
Of course I’m glad that there’s strong leadership emerging to lead Camber in Diana Seung. And there’s no denying that there were mistakes made from Camber leadership. They should have been more proactive and aware in their diversity efforts and willing to accommodate other parties. But I strongly disagree about the way in which this change came about.

There is no place in our community for online bullying. When people make mistakes, we need to come together and figure out a solution, and all grow together. It’s not right to bully a woman who was willing to step up and at least try to make things better. I was in Germany at the ISPO trade fair when the conflict blew up, trying to get both sides together, but I just couldn’t get it done.

I don’t think this was a step forward for us because we bullied a woman out of her job, and that’s not the kind of community we should be. At all. Especially because we need each and every one of us if the outdoor industry is going to lead us forward out of this political divide. I still think there’s time to bring both parties together and make a better diversity pledge. We need to get there.

What else does the outdoor industry need to do to keep increasing its political and cultural power?
Inclusion is the big thing. We have to keep beating that drum. But we need to expand our ideas of what inclusion even means for the outdoor industry. It’s not just along gender and racial lines—it has to be along political lines, and along cultural lines. We’ve got to draw in different user groups like mountain bikers and hunters and motorized. We’re all using the same public lands. We should all care about climate change impacting those lands. My office has an advisory council that brings representatives from conservation and the forest service and motorized recreation and retail, and we get together and hash things out. It’s family business. Outdoor industry family business that we can disagree on but find common ground and present a unified front to get what we want. In Colorado, motorized recreation is working with the mountain bike community to help them fond a way to get mountain bikers to help pay for more access and conservation. We need more pay-to-play models. Bringing those two groups together on something positive is huge.

There should be a federal director of the outdoor recreation industry. Well, technically there is one. Rick May [was] an advisor to Ryan Zinke at Interior [Zinke resigned in December], but I think we can all agree that this administration’s interior department has been disappointing, to say the least. May has actually gone dark on communications, so I’m not sure if he’s still in the role. Clearly, that role has to be elevated, and capable of convening and coordinating in good faith.

We need to streamline the ability of more people to get outside. The Recreation Not Red Tape Act is a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for people to recreate on public lands with easier permitting online, and easier special use permitting for school and guided groups who want to introduce newbies to the outdoors. Right now, those processes can be almost insurmountable. We need to take the opportunity to get more constituents outside, especially under educational circumstances.

We should be thinking about moving the Forest Service from the department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior. Interior has managed their fire budgets better than Agriculture, where forest fire costs have crippled the department. Culturally, it’s a much better fit. Recreation, not mono-cropping our wildlands, is the economic future of our national forests. We should be managing them accordingly and Interior is much better at that.

You mentioned pay to play. That might not be popular at VF Corp, which has opposed the backpack tax through its membership in the Outdoor Industry Association.
I can’t speculate on VF Corp’s stances on such ideas, but in my role at the Colorado Governor’s office I came to believe that we have to find more ways to support for the public lands we all love. The reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is huge, and it shows bi-partisan momentum, but it’s not going to be enough. If people are moving to a place like Colorado because they want that quality of life and that quality of life is diminished because of that lack of infrastructure and maintenance, then where are we? We need to figure out funding mechanisms that are going to sustainably carry our natural resources in the future. In Colorado we looked at everything from license plates to taxes on gear like hunters and fishermen have been paying for 80 years. Motorized users have a sticker they buy that helps pay for infrastructure and maintenance. If recreationists are focused on finding a political voice on one hand but not paying in on the other, it’s going to diminish our political power going forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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