Salazar at OR

OR director Kenji Haroutunian (left) walks the show floor with DOI Sec. Ken Salazar

After 20 years in the industry I can’t recall a cabinet level executive ever attending the Outdoor Retailer Show. Those with long standing memories may prove me wrong and I’ll stand corrected. But I believe that the address of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to the biannual Outdoor Industry Association breakfast meeting was a truly unique occurrence.

His position in the Obama Administration not withstanding, Salazar’s visit to OR is important for other reasons. As a person of Hispanic ancestry and the direct representative of the first African-America president of the United States for the first time in our history, federal policy for the protection of our public land, air, water and natural resources is being guided predominately by people of color. Salazar brought with him a message from the White House that stands not only as a sign of a strong relationship between our industry and the U.S. Government, but it may also serve as a rare opportunity to finally bridge the divide between outdoor recreation and ethnic minorities in our country who fail access it.

As one of the very few African-American professionals in an industry populated almost exclusively by whites I am surprised to have only just now realizing the significance of Salazar’s visit to OR. When the show director Kenji Haroutunian asked me to write this guest blog the Secretary’s heritage, nor that of the other two guest speakers that morning never occurred to me. I am encouraged to believe that is a byproduct of our so-called era of post-racial America. But it also demonstrates that when it comes to outdoor recreation race doesn’t matter. At least it shouldn’t.

Appearing with Salazar before an audience of more than 800 at the Marriot Hotel in Salt City was also Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. A gay woman of Argentinean descent, she is the primary advisor on natural resource policy to the president.  The two rearranged their schedules with the expressed purpose of connecting with those of us in the business of outdoor recreation. Their visit also coincided with a public listening session held later that same day to discuss issues surrounding America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, an Obama Administration program that aims to get more people in the U.S. engaged in the natural world as part of their active lifestyle. That’s a goal the outdoor industry certainly shares.

Also on the dais that morning was Juan Martinez, a young Latino man who is the national coordinator of the Natural Leaders Network. Part of the Children & Nature Network headed by “Last Child in the Woods” author Richard Louv, Martinez’s organization works to motivate young people from all socio-economic backgrounds to become involved in outdoor recreation as well as environmental conservation both in their personal lives and potentially as a profession. I find no small measure of pride in the knowledge that Juan works to develop this program in the very same African-American/Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up 40 years ago.

Juan Martinez

As he welcomed Martinez to the microphone Steve Rendle, president of outdoor gear maker The North Face, declared his company’s commitment to a create a more diverse and inclusive outdoor community, a commitment shared by many in the room.

“Our challenge is simple, to get more people outside, having fun and exploring the world in ways that are meaningful to them,” he said. “When we are successful our work will inspire and activate a passion for outdoor activities amongst our youth and therefore a desire to protect the places that we live to explore.”

In a population whose primary growth stems from an emerging generation of young people, many of whom are African-American, Hispanic or Asian, it becomes more important than ever to reach out to an audience of consumers who have previously been overlooked by the outdoor industry. With no malicious intent our marketing and outreach to date have failed to attract and retain a customer base that reflects the full cultural landscape of America. But now Martinez said we have an opportunity to set things right through a movement to encourage even more Americans to get outside.

“This movement is integrated in our core values, “ he said. “This has gone beyond an environmental issue. This has gone beyond a civil rights issue. This is really a human issue, to connect back with nature.”

In the current social and political environment it stands to reason that the outdoor industry can use this opportunity to embrace a broader, more diverse community of enthusiasts.

Nancy Sutley

“Eighty percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs and kids today spend less time outdoors than ever,” Chairwoman Sutley said in her address. “Unless we change this a whole generation of Americans will grow up without that strong connection to the outdoor heritage that makes us all Americans.”

But the federal government and policymakers in Washington realize that this not a task to be taken lightly or alone.

“You in this room are some of the foremost leaders in promoting conservation and connecting Americans to the outdoors,” Sutley said. “And that’s why we need your help.”

When Outdoor Industry Association president Frank Hugelmeyer introduced Secretary Salazar to speak, he declared categorically that few in Washington have done more to benefit OIA members.

“It’s been a very long time that we’ve had any president place so much focus on either conservation or connecting more Americans and youth to the outdoors,” Hugelmeyer said. “We have Secretary Salazar, Chair Sutley and others to thank for this.”

The current administration has set in motion a series policies that duly recognize the outdoor industry’s value to our success as a nation.

“We’re facing some tough times in America today, but it’s the right time to move forward with a conservation agenda for the 21st century,” Salazar said. “It’s because it makes our country stronger. It’s because it refuels our spirit to make sure that we recognize that anything is possible for us here in America.”

But it’s also Salazar said about jobs and creating an economic environment where outdoor recreation can thrive.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

“Here in the Outdoor Industry Association we know that in our own analysis $730 billion are contributed to the economy through outdoor recreation,” he said. “We know that 6.5 million jobs are created because of your efforts…So it’s an economic generator and that’s a message that needs to be heard loud and clear.”

And if this economic growth is to be maintained and environmental conservation is expected to continue we must make sure that the broadest possible constituency of consumers is included and welcome to participate at all level of outdoor recreation. Through the ongoing efforts to support organizations to get kids outside, particularly youth in our urban centers, the outdoor industry has a tremendous opportunity to not only grow its business but actively protect the natural and recreational resources that make that business possible. With the help of the Obama Administration, Secretary Salazar, Chairwoman Sutley. Juan Martinez and many others, the industry can inspire a new generation of conservationists that will secure our future for decades to come.

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The Joy Trip Project blog is brought to you thanks to the support of The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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