State leaders unite outside
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The discord on the national political scene is near deafening. The din in Washington, D.C., even reaches our offices here in Colorado and Washington State. If you only pay attention to the quarreling inside the Beltway, you’d think the country’s progress was grinding to a halt.

We have at least one promising report from the states. As a governor and as a CEO of one of the largest outdoor retailers, we each care deeply about the health of this nation’s economy and environment. What we find is Americans of all stripes love this country and adventuring out into its natural beauty. And across the partisan divide, state lawmakers are collaborating like never before to promote the benefits of spending time in nature, including the economic benefits.

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2017 was one of the most politically chaotic years of our lifetimes. Most disappointing, the political elites in the nation’s capital stoked a debate over the wisdom of protecting our public lands. We started 2017 hoping our national leaders would pick up the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt and put the long-term health of our public lands above exploitation. Not so. 

But as that debate continued in D.C., 2017 also saw several states, with strong bipartisan support, create new “outdoor recreation sector leaders.” Each state has designated a point-person to help grow the outdoor recreation industry and improve their citizens’ access to outdoor experiences. Now a diverse array of eight states has these recreation-sector leaders – Colorado, Washington, Wyoming, Vermont, Utah, Oregon, North Carolina and Montana.

We believe access to the outdoors is an American right. And creating that access feeds a large, sustainable segment of the economy. So the time is ripe for other states to join this growing movement – to prioritize places where people love to recreate, to support the entrepreneurs and Main Street businesses that make up the recreation economy. It’s beyond time to assure everyone in this country – Republican, Democrat, Independent -- has the chance to enjoy the benefits of time in nature. 

The outdoor recreation sector is surprisingly large. Americans spend hundreds of billions per year on gear, apparel, boats, ATVs, trips, adventure travel and more. The sector supports millions of jobs. Importantly, recreation opportunities are often the economic lifeblood in rural America, attracting tourists, retirees and entrepreneurs. It’s an inspiring industry, tied to the land, not exportable. It’s a sector that thrives alongside our public lands and shared natural resources. It thrives hand in hand with clean water, clean air and a healthy climate.

Late last month in Denver, the eight rec-sector leaders met as a group for the first time. There’s consensus that spending time outdoors feeds the soul, heals wounds and brings us together. At the mini-summit, there was no notion of a red, blue or purple state. The group had a barn-raising spirit – a sense that they were defining policy goals bigger than themselves and even their home states. They agreed to meet again this summer in North Carolina in order to continue the work. We expect other states will join.

When REI opened its Flagship store in D.C. just before the 2016 elections, it did so under the banner “Left Side, Right Side, United Outside.” That ethos holds true in our hometowns and special places, and that gives us extraordinary hope.

John Hickenlooper Jr. is an American politician, businessman and the 42nd and current governor of Colorado, in office since 2011. Jerry Stritzke is president and CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., commonly known as REI, an American specialty outdoor retailer and the nation’s largest cooperative.