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The Time is Now!


The video that accompanies REI's 2017 Report "The Path Ahead-The future of Outdoor Life" 

Outdoor access for All. The Outdoor Industry’s moment is Now!

I am on my way home from the Outdoor Retailer Show. Its somewhere in the ballpark of show number 30. And things feel different. Yes, we’re in Denver, not Salt Lake, but that’s not what I mean. I’ve been working to connect young people – in particular, young people of color- to the outdoors for 20 years. And at this show, the industry’s leaders have put out a different kind of call. A call for action, where everyone, every brand in the outdoor industry, is involved.  It’s a good thing, because addressing the growing disconnect from nature, and creating outdoor access for all is absolutely going to take the entire outdoor retail industry.

At the industry breakfast on day one, Sally McCoy, the former CEO of Camelbak and one of the most respected leaders in our industry stood up and said, in effect, “This is going to be very hard. The problem is complex, and it is a big one.”  Later I to spoke Steve Barker, long time OIA and OIF board member, who said “this problem is connected to, and is as big as climate change.” I couldn’t agree more. 

Lise Aangeenbrug, the new executive director of the Outdoor Industry Foundation seems to agree as well, and is up for the challenge. In her short tenure at OIF, she has already secured multi-year, five and six figure gifts from Patagonia, Thule and the VF Corp, and has industry leaders like REI and others committing to support the effort as well.  She aims to partner with organizations both at the national and local level.  The problem however is much bigger than a few million dollars, and there are only two or three foundations working on the national level to move the needle. Structural and societal problems add to the challenge. Public schools around the country are underfunded and stretched to the bone. In Chicago, public school kids aren’t allowed to ever touch water, never mind trying out a kayak in Lake Michigan, or a canoe on a local river or stream. 

Yet this industry has acted powerfully together in the past on key issues like public lands. The most recent example was the move of the OR trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver.  The industry shook off Utah’s regressive politicians who took aim to shrink public lands.  The formation of the Conservation Alliance is a powerful, unique example of an industry coming together.  Over the past 29 years, it has had powerful impacts, helping to protect 51 million acres and 3,102 river miles, to name a few.  These are accomplishments we should be inspired by.  Ones we need to applaud, and learn from.  

But it’s not a zero-sum situation.  This can’t be a moment where we choose between conservation or access. This is a “both-and “moment. John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance said to me years ago “in the long term, we have to do both”.  If we don’t work to break down the barriers to the outdoors for all people we’re going to continue our big gamble: that our species, that maybe all species, will survive our departure from the natural world. REI, in collaboration with Futerra, released “The Path Ahead, The Future of Life Outdoors” a well-researched report in 2017 that was “designed to provoke discussion by exploring nine ‘brutal truths’ juxtaposed with nine ‘beautiful possibilities.’” We don’t know we can escape these brutal truths, but we can be certain the beautiful possibilities won’t become reality without action. 

It’s time for the Outdoor Industry to get together again around a common vision of insuring that the outdoors is a place that all people want to visit.  We need to make sure that all children can get outdoors early and often, so that they know what so many of us know: that when you compare an experience outdoors, unplugged, adventuring with people we love, to an experience online, in front of screens, it’s not even close. Outdoors wins every time! 

In the non-profit, or social benefit sector, we have been testing collective impact, and network theory, the idea that when we share a common goal, and work cross-sector, with government, non-profits and the private sector all collaborating, with the support of a backbone organization, powerful change can occur.  It requires setting aside short-term goals and oversized egos and working towards measurable change over 5, 7, 10, maybe 20 years.  This is what it will take to turn the tide.

In its broadest sense, the outdoor industry and all its connected public, private and non-profit partners need to work with new organizations and the organizations that have been getting people outdoors for years – for decades in some cases- and replicate what works.  The Children and Nature Network, which hosts the largest international conference in the world addressing the issue, and is a leader in the movement to connect young people to nature needs exposure, and more funding.  They didn’t attend this last show, because it’s not worth it.  Many brands just aren’t giving to the cause, or hardly at all.  Let’s change that. Let’s work together. Let’s work together in a way that rejects the savior complex, and instead, funds, supports, and acknowledges outdoor experiences of all kinds – near, far, short, long, easy and challenging-  as relevant.  

I’ve seen more articles about diversity, equity and inclusion in the last year than I have in the last decade combined (see Outside and the OR Daily).  But the old guard needs to promote more women, and young people, and people of color to lead.  Camber, Outdoor Afro, and Latino Outdoors, and an exciting host of newer efforts (Natives-OutdoorsOutdoor AsianThe Venture Out Project and more!) are visible now, in ways they weren’t five years ago.  REI, The North Face and Patagonia are being joined by more and more brands that are contributing to not just conservation causes, but those that create outdoor access for all.  The industry is trying. There are new leaders here. It will be hard. But the time is now.

Lets do this!