Aspen Ideas: Getting people into the great outdoors can help heal the country

Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI (left), and Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper discuss the power of the great outdoors to transcend partisan politics Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Sure, spending time in the great outdoors is good for a person’s physical and mental health, but could it help heal the deep divisions plaguing the country? The top executive of REI and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper think so.

In a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday, REI Chief Executive Officer Jerry Stritzke said he has witnessed how outdoor issues have galvanized his cooperative’s diverse 15 million members as well as Republican and Democratic politicians.

“When I walk into a congressman’s office and tell them I’m from REI, I get the stories of their youth or their experiences or the time they’ve spent with family,” Stritzke said. “And I can tell you this, it doesn’t matter if they are red or blue. They have those stories as part of their life. They are passionate about that, they care about that and it’s a platform to build on.”

Hickenlooper said outdoor recreation has provided “neutral territory” that allows him to develop relationships with Republican governors and then, very carefully, broach tougher issues.

“It’s almost one of the few places where you really can imagine the country coming back together again,” Hickenlooper said.

Stritzke said appreciation of the outdoors goes beyond political parties.

“I would actually say there is bipartisan love and support for the outdoors,” he said.

The $887 billion outdoor recreation economy —which includes everything from sales of RVs to lift tickets and ski lessons as well as trip-related expenses — is powering many rural areas of the West, he noted.

“It’s an industry driven by people with a passion for outdoors,” Stritzke said.

He considers the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah last winter as anomalies that don’t have widespread support. Over 95 percent of public comments submitted on the issue were in support of protecting the public lands, he said.

Stritzke said the conversation of privatizing public lands really hasn’t gone any further.

“I think it’s really a reflection of, when you start getting into states, the governors really do have a deeper and more profound appreciation for bipartisan support of public land,” he said.

While many people cherish their memories of the outdoors, fewer people are actually experiencing them as the country gets more urbanized and “distracted” by smartphones and other devices, Stritzke said. Humans are at risk of becoming an “indoor species,” he said.

REI clearly has a vested interest in making sure that doesn’t happen, but Stritzke claimed the company’s concern goes beyond sales. It’s about bringing people together over love of place.

“If you love the same places, whether that’s a trail that you’re on or a piece of water that you have a deep relationship with, that brings you together — that trust, that shared passion,” Stritzke said. “I do think that’s one of the secret sauces, this idea of (the outdoors) makes such a powerful force of bringing people together.”

(Editor’s note: This story was edited to reflect the accurate figure for annual spending on outdoor recreation.)