John Hickenlooper, isn’t your average politician. He’s a geologist, served as mayor of Denver and co-founded of Wynkoop Brewing Company. He’s also an avid outdoor aficionado who embarked on his long career as a public official after a series of political conversations with patrons at his Denver brew pub. His values and background represent the spirit of the state—Coloradans elected him governor in 2010, indentifying with his forward thinking. His entrepreneurial history and geologist’s connection to the land still weave their way through his rhetoric and inform his goals and decisions at the state capitol. But the times, they are a changin’—and Hickenlooper faces more challenges than ever to continue protecting the the state’s resources. What’s more, the popular governor, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, will step down in 2018, due to term limit laws, but he is sure to keep influencing how Colorado evolves.
You’re originally from Pennsylvania. what drew you to Colorado?
I first came through Boulder in the 70s on my way to a geology field camp. Then, after I finished my masters in geology, the only place you could get a job as a geologist was Houston or Denver. That decision took about five seconds. I came out here in 1981 and never looked back.
Along with Colorado senators Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennett (D), you’ve been vocal about luring the Outdoor Retailer trade show to Colorado. Why is Colorado a good fit for the show and what challenges do you foresee with the state potentially becoming the host?
In terms of outdoor recreation, Colorado is the best model you could have of what outdoor recreation can be. We have so many different public spaces. We have national parks and state parks, and conservation stations all over the place. That allows us to have so many different types of outdoor recreation, which we think is a big part of our economic success. One of the things I love about the outdoor recreation industry is that the people who make so much of the gear like to be in smaller towns (versus big cities). I think it’s healthy for the financial ecosystem to have more businesses in rural parts of your state. That’s another reason why we’re so attracted to the outdoor industry. We’re also in the center of the country, which means people from the east coast and the west coast can easily make it here. Our friendly western welcome also makes the state a great place to host large conventions. I know the space in Colorado to hold the show is tight, but we’re in the process of creating the National Western Stock Show Center which is only two light rail stops from downtown. We have 650,000 square-feet of convention space, so we’ll figure out the space. We’ll make it work.
You’re currently featured in the Outdoor Industry Association’s #TogetherWeAreAForce campaign. What message are you hoping to send to Washington by being a part of this outdoor and conservation-centric campaign spurred by the outdoor community?
Washington is just now starting to measure the economic impact of outdoor recreation. There are a lot of people in Washington who think that our public lands should be completely opened up to oil and gas exploration. I’m a geologist, and I’m sensitive to the needs of oil and gas, but I think there needs to be a balance. A lot of these landscapes should be protected forever. One hundred years from now, how will we look back? Once you begin to develop, it’s very hard to go backwards.
There’s a big conversation happening right now about whether public lands should be in federal hands or turned over to the states and even private owners. Who do you think should manage them?
We work very hard in this state to responsibly manage our state lands. The vast majority of these are off limits to developers. But I think there’s a role for the federal government to have some level of public ownership because they’re protecting those lands for all Americans and that’s ultimately going to be a safer, even more secure lockbox than state control for the next generation and the generations to follow.
It’s no secret that Colorado’s population is growin, with the result of big crowds at popular outdoor destinations throughout the state. How do you plan to encourage visitors to explore the state’s outdoor treasures while mitigating those overcrowding issues?
There are issues at our popular outdoor destinations. Are those places going to become more like a national park or state park? That’s one possibility. Our national parks and state parks, and those opportunities that are easily accessible, we want to make sure that more people can get there, but it’s probably not going to be the same experience if you go on a weekend. Summer gets really busy when vacationers are here, but if you go to the really remote parts of the state, like the Never Summer Mountains, you won’t see another person the entire time you’re there. Those opportunities still exist. I think the crucial thing is that our development stays confined to urban areas and small towns.
Where’s your favorite place to go outside and play here in Colorado?
That all depends on the season. I love skiing—I’ve skied almost every resort in Colorado. But my favorite outdoor recreation is biking. Biking around Breckenridge is gorgeous, and, of course, there are some amazing trails around Crested Butte.
We know that you are a craft brewer and big beer fan. What’s currently on tap at the Governor’s Mansion?
Right now we have an IPA, a pilsner and a stout, but it rotates often.
Tyra Sutak is Elevation Outdoors’ digital editor. A Colorado native, she also writes for 5280 and DiningOut magazines, among other publications.
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