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It’s so easy to be cynical about politics and politicians these days. If your only connection to what goes on in Washington D.C. is CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, it can feel epicly depressing, like nothing gets done, nothing ever changes, and all our elected officials are just tools being manipulated by special interests.
But last week, I went to Washington as part of Outdoor Industry Association’s Capitol Summit, and it was a wake-up call. Our group of 100+ outdoor industry leaders descended on the Capitol and marched through the halls of the House and Senate to meet with around 100 members of Congress (from 33 states) face to face.
For the last 25 years, OIA has gathered industry leaders on Capitol Hill to help promote the outdoor industry agenda, which this year included reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a balanced trade policy, protection of our public lands, and climate change.
I’ve always thought that lobbying for a special interest was dirty business. I guess I’ve watched too many movies. I pictured fat envelopes of cash exchanging hands in dark, underground parking garages. Maybe, sometimes, it is a bit shady. But not always. Not last week.
My two days on Capitol Hill were a revelation. Lobbying, it turns out, is pretty much identical to advocating. And advocating for what you believe in feels really,really good.
Read more: A recent win in Washington: The Recreation Not Red-Tape (RNR) Act passed through its first round of votes in the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee.
After a day of much-appreciated training organized by OIA, I was all in. We were divided up into teams and given our schedules for the next day. My 8-member delegation would hustle between the House and the Senate, meeting with 10 members of Congress and their staffs.
We were Team Rec 3, led by OIA’s Government Affairs Manager, Jessica Wahl, and we were largely focused on members of congress from the northeast. Chris Goddard from CGPR, Kate Paine from NEMO, Lance Pinn from Brooklyn Boulders, Jim Hauptman from Maine Outdoor Brands, Andrew Foster from L.L.Bean, and Cory Higgins from Jetty rounded out our crew. We were a mix of seasoned lobbying vets and total rookies, like Cory and me.
Each member of Congress has an office on the hill. The walls are decorated with posters and paintings of their state, flags, photos, and tchotchkes. The waiting areas have bowls of home-grown snacks (Massachusetts proudly offers NECCO wafers and dried cranberries). Each office has a distinct personality.
But one thing was constant: No matter where we went, we were welcomed graciously. We were listened to, and we were thanked for showing up to voice our concerns.
Get a glimpse behind the scenes on Capitol Hill
The clocks in congressional building tell more than time: Tiny lightbulbs around the perimeter light up in seemingly random sequences, and are often accompanied by buzzes that alert members of congress about votes, sessions, recesses, and other mysterious things. None of the staffers could actually articulate what the various signals meant. Or maybe they were just sworn to secrecy!
Rep. Nydia Lelazquez (D-NY) high-fived one of her constituents, Lance Pinn from Brooklyn Boulders.
Team photo with Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY)
A long-standing tradition: Congressional office waiting rooms are stocked with home-grown snacks. This is what you’ll find in Senator Ed Markey’s (D-MA) office.
We spotted Dana Bash and a CNN camera crew in the halls of congress interviewing Senator Bob Corker (R-TN)
Senator Angus King (I-ME) has a sweet, lobster-red corner office with Maine artwork and family photos on the walls.
During our meeting with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), she expressed interest in joining the Senate Outdoor Rec Caucus.
Lance Pinn promised to take Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL) rock climbing at his new Brooklyn Boulders rock gym in Chicago, as Jessica Wahl and Jim Hauptman look on.
The northeast delegation posing with Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) in our final meeting of the day.
The meetings always begin with introductions. We went around the horn and told the congress members our names, who we work for, what we do, why our customers matter to them, and how their policy decisions matter to our customers. Lots of business cards were exchanged.
Face to face with politicians, you realize that these are real people who care about their constituents and home states. They want to understand why our agenda matters to their voters.
Kate Paine, vice president of marketing at NEMO, explained to senators and representatives how our businesses depend on the ability for people to recreate close to home, on a weekly, daily basis. “These days not everyone has the time or opportunity to go on epic, far-away adventures,” she told members. “Close-to-home recreation that packs in the same spirit of adventure, but is 10 minutes away from home, and accessible for anyone, is vital for our wellbeing and happiness as a society. It can be a park, a riverside, or an urban garden—the point is that access to these shared resources get people outside easily, doing what is healthy and uplifting.”
L.L.Bean Merchandising Manager Andrew Foster shared a compelling explanation for why we need a balanced trade agenda. “At L.L.Bean, we produce over 700,000 pairs of Bean boots and more than 200,000 tote bags right here in Maine. That’s a critical part of our company heritage and our business. But we also sell technical Gore-Tex rain jackets that simply cannot be produced onshore. We don’t have the machinery or the skill sets to make those items—we have to look to Asia to produce them.” He went on to explain that increasing tariffs on those items that can’t be produced in the U.S. hurts businesses like his, and ultimately hurts the consumers trying to recreate safely outdoors. “Hikers need high performance gear, and they need to be able to afford it,” he said.
According to recent Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data, the outdoor recreation economy accounts for 2 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). That makes us larger than oil and gas extraction, legal services, and agriculture.
Jim Hauptman, president of Maine Outdoor Brands, shared how he has rallied 50 outdoor brands from Maine to come together to work towards growing the outdoor recreation economy in his home state, and how this can serve as a model for other states who want to do the same. “Banding together nearly fifty outdoor product companies in less than 12 months has been an enormous undertaking. But we’ve known all along that 50 brands speaking as one commands significant attention. The research provided by OIA on the impact of the outdoor recreation economy on our state has made for a compelling story — one we’re continuing to tell to state leaders as well as candidates running for office.”
In every single meeting, we were asked, “How can I help?” And it was sincere. We succeeded in getting three members to commit to joining the Outdoor Recreation Caucuses with several more very likely.
“The House and Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucuses will provide a critical forum to highlight the growing impact of the outdoor recreation economy and how outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes can come together to support healthy communities and healthy economies,” said OIA’s Executive Director Amy Roberts.
Virtually all members expressed support for the LWCF re-authorization (either long term or permanent), which is set to expire at the end of September 2018.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is America’s premier federal program that reinvests offshore energy revenue into conservation to ensure that we all have access to the outdoors. Whether it is a local community park or playground, or the vast expanses of our federal public lands, Congress created the LWCF almost a half-century ago to guarantee America’s natural, historical and outdoor recreation heritage.
That’s real tangible progress. And it happened because we showed up and used our voices.
That’s the key thing I walked away with. That our voices make a difference. That it all starts with conversations. That our politicians are real people who want to be guided by the needs, opinions, and passions of their voters. That if we don’t speak up, someone else will, and it might not go our way.
Every single one of us has a special interest. Ours is the outdoors. It’s one we can be proud of. And we have to fight for it.
Use your voice. Get involved. You don’t have to travel to D.C. to have an impact. (Although—and this was news to me—anyone can walk into their congressperson’s office and ask for a meeting.) OIA has done the legwork. Click here to find info on your congressional district, your legislators, and learn more about the outdoor recreation issues impacting your home town.