Luis Benitez has topped Everest six times and positioned Colorado as a thought leader as the first director of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Department. Now, he has his vision set on creating a national department that would put recreation at the forefront of the national agenda.
Political operative wasn’t Luis Benitez’ first career. Before he served as the state of Colorado’s director of the outdoor recreation industry in 2016, he was a mountaineering guide. He led climbers up the highest points on all seven continents, including six ascents of Everest. His clients included Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Everest; military veterans searching for breakthroughs on Himalayan peaks through Warriors for Summits; and Wharton School of Business students tackling Ecuador’s Cotopaxi as part of their MBA.
As another mountaineer-turned-Colorado-politician, Sen. Mark Udall has said, “You don’t climb mountains by accident. Mountaineers are optimists. Similarly, one of the most important qualities in politics is optimism, and Luis has that.” The men got to know each other in the 1990s when Benitez was an instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School and Udall was its director.
These days, Benitez is fresh off a stint serving as Denver-based VF Corp’s vice president of global impact and government affairs and back on the public stage politicking for increased power for his beloved outdoor recreation industry. In public appearances across the country and in the media, he is advocating for the creation of a national director of outdoor recreation. He points to the wins that Colorado’s state office of outdoor rec has generated for the state and its citizens and wants the same thing for the nation. The idea isn’t actually a new one, says Benitez. A mostly forgotten federal agency, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation existed for 15 years through the 1960s and 1970s.
“Outdoor recreation comprises 2% of our nation’s economy and provides priceless quality of life and health benefits to our people, but there’s no specific entity shepherding it in the federal government,” says Benitez. “Imagine how much more effective it could be with dedicated leadership.”
Seeing the Big Picture
When Gov. John Hickenlooper created the Colorado Office of Outdoor Industry and installed Benitez to lead it, he placed it in the Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The idea was to compete economically with Utah, which had created the first such state post in 2013. Benitez did just that, helping grow Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry from $13 billion to $60 billion in four years. Among his wins were helping to persuade VF Corp to move its headquarters from North Carolina, convincing German ebike manufacturer Haibike to move from California, and landing the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver once it left Utah in 2017 (due to flagging attendance, it has since returned to Utah).
“Luis tied together the benefits of outdoor recreation: a robust economy and a happier and healthier population,” says Hickenlooper, and he sold his vision across the entire state government. “He worked with the Department of Natural Resources to make it easier to get more people into the wild. That has a material benefit to how many tents and sleeping bags our retailers sell each year.”
Benitez’s big picture thinking created far more value than can be captured by GDP. He blazed trails to Colorado’s academic community, urging Western State University to create the nation’s first MBA focused on outdoor rec in 2018, and had a hand in the creation of CU Boulder’s master’s in economics of the outdoor recreation economy, and Denver University’s Leadership in Outdoor Recreation Industry program. “Those programs create a more robust economy, but also benefit society by fostering more sustainable businesses,” says Benitez.
That scope is much wider than the one possessed by the now-defunct Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. Established in 1962, it wasn’t an advocate for private business but did work to support groups like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, summer camps, and other recreational organizations. The bureau played an advisory role to state and local governments to promote outdoor recreation, issuing annual reports on outdoor rec. Its biggest impact was the work it did in orchestrating the 1964 Wilderness Act, and in 1965, the creation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF has funded some $18 billion in recreational infrastructure since its inception, ranging from boat ramps to baseball diamonds. Every single county in the nation had been the beneficiary of projects funded by the LWCF. The Bureau of Recreation was ultimately absorbed into a different agency in the Interior Department in 1977, and then dissolved thereafter.
Benitez was naturally working on the state level, but wanted agencies like his to be part of a national movement. He personally met with delegations from a half-dozen states like Montana and Michigan to create their own positions and campaign for the offices at the National Governors’ Association with Hickenlooper’s blessing. Then he created a formal agreement, the Confluence Accords, which assures alignment among the state offices on issues like promoting conservation and health and wellness. Nineteen states have signed the Confluence Accords, with another on the way. “How many other industries have made a formal agreement to work for the greater good of society?” says Benitez. “You don’t see that from the pharmaceutical industry.”
A National Vision
That alignment across the industry and the states has led to some remarkable bipartisan political wins in recent years. Outdoor recreation industry leaders were major players in advocating for the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act in 2019, which created 1.3 million acres of Wilderness and 10 new Wild and Scenic river segments, as well as increased the size of three national parks, among dozens of other conservation acts in dozens of states. The Senate passed it by a 92–8 vote, and it was signed into law by President Trump. The following year saw similar bipartisan support for the Great American Outdoors Act, which permanently allocated $900 million annually to the LWCF, which had been allowed to expire in 2018, and reduced the infamous National Park Service maintenance backlog by $9.5 billion.
All of that money is actually one of the reasons Benitez sees a national outdoor recreation director as so important. Between the LWCF and money from Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and his Infrastructure law, there are millions earmarked for outdoor recreation and conservation, but, says Benitez, few state and local entities know how to access those funds. “Even if they get to it, they don’t have people to do the work,” he says. A national outdoor rec leader could help direct that money to where it is most needed.
Veteran Washington DC outdoor recreation industry political player Jess Wahl Turner agrees with that assessment. “There are endless programs to tap for outdoor recreation,” says Turner, president of the trade organization Outdoor Recreation Roundtable. “Who is coordinating with state parks to use infrastructure bill funds to build EV charging stations? There is evidence that planting greenery in school yards reduces ADHD, but who is coordinating with the department of education to do that? That’s an ideal role for a federal outdoor rec director—advocacy and education of the benefits of outdoor recreation across all government departments.”
Turner applauds Benitez for using his personal time and political capital to advocate for the creation of a national director of outdoor recreation, and, like him, would like to see the position fulfill two other primary roles: convening and expanding the state outdoor recreation offices and leading the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation (FICOR). The latter is a partnership between seven land management agencies including the National Park Service, Forest Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Before it was dissolved by the Trump administration, FICOR made significant strides on behalf of outdoor recreation, including combining most federal permits and reservations into the recreation.gov website and helping the Bureau of Economic Analysis measure the economic impact of the outdoor rec industry. (Those figures, pegging outdoor rec at 2% of GDP, has been a major tool for political wins like 2020’s Great American Outdoors Act.)
Under the Biden administration, FICOR is back, but the problem, says Turner, is that its leadership rotates annually between the agencies and so, “doesn’t have the full attention of any of them. A national outdoor recreation director would be the ideal convenor of FICOR.”
On one conference panel this spring, Benitez went so far as to call FICOR a “headless snake” in front of an actual FICOR administrator. The administrator laughed and said, “We are at least a benevolent headless snake.”
Benitez says he isn’t talking about making government larger, an important concern especially for outdoor rec’s more conservative constituents. “I’m talking about better government. I did the Colorado job with my single salary, a gas card, a computer, and a desk. The outdoor industry is great at getting by with minimal resources—give us a roll of duct tape and some bailing wire and we’ll put it together.” Wahl says she envisions a staff of 3-10, tiny by Washington standards.
Coming Soon to Commerce?
How would the position of a national outdoor recreation director be created? Benitez would prefer that it reside not in the interior department like the defunct Bureau of Recreation, but in the Department of Commerce. The closest analogue is the newly created post of assistant secretary of travel of tourism. The position was created by Congressional law last year, which is one way the outdoor rec post could be established. Another avenue is that it could be decreed by the secretary of commerce. The latter is faster, says Turner, but the legislative route tends to withstand changes of presidential administration, so it’s ultimately more powerful. “Doing both simultaneously is usually the best route,” she says.
Benitez would like to see the position created before the next election, though Sen. Hickenlooper, the idea’s most powerful champion so far, wouldn’t commit to a timeline. He favors the secretarial order and legislation combo, saying “The secretary of commerce is on board. I’m hoping it will move forward in the days ahead.”
Is Benitez stumping for the job for himself? “I’m not looking to fluff my own pillow,” he promises. “I just realize I have a moment in my life where I have the freedom and flexibility to help get it done.”
The more Benitez stumps for the idea the better, says Hickenlooper. “Luis is incapable of talking about the great outdoors without getting people excited.”
It’s not just his charisma that makes Benitez an effective advocate, though, say political insiders. It’s also his past career on Everest and other peaks. “His street cred opens doors and creates a sense of interest about Luis, and that doesn’t hurt,” says Udall.
Top photo courtesy Luis Benitez. All other photos by Didrik Johnck