A Q&A With Colorado’s Top Outdoorist

Governor John Hickenlooper understands small local business and the outdoor recreation economy as well as anyone in government. He explains why when you grow one, the other follows.

By Helen Olsson January 11, 2017

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a former small business owner and an outdoorist, is determined to bring together the outdoor recreation industry and Colorado government to move the state’s economy forward while at the same time protecting those natural landscapes that are the backdrop for outdoor recreation. In June 2015, Governor Hickenlooper appointed Luis Benitez to head up the newly formed Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Hickenlooper and Benitez are committed to working with retailers like David Leinweber, owner of Angler’s Covey, a fly-fishing and guide shop in Colorado Springs. Leinweber is more than just a shop owner. He advocates for reform on issues of permitting and access to Forest Service land, and he works with government on issues of protecting and preserving the health of the state’s waterways. Governor Hickenlooper sat down to talk with OIA last week to discuss how government and specialty retailers in outdoor recreation can tap into the power of collaboration.

OIA: How does a policymaker collaborating with a retailer move the recreation industry and the state of Colorado forward?

John Hickenlooper: That was the idea behind creating the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and getting Luis [Benitez] involved. We looked at it as a real opportunity. You can look through twin lenses: One lens, you see the benefits of job creation and economic development. The other lens, [outdoor recreation proponents] are leaders in conservation and stewardship of our open spaces. When you get the alignment of self-interest, that’s when good things start to happen.

We really are trying to create an environment—an ecosystem, you could say—where people throughout state government use their role as a partner to help create success in small business.

OIA: Tell us more about why you created the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

JH: In my first six years as governor, we’ve been trying to make Colorado the healthiest state in America. We’re already the thinnest state. Outdoor recreation seems like a natural partner for that, and we were looking for economic development.  After seeing a summary of jobs, we were really stunned at just how many jobs there were in Colorado [in outdoor recreation].  It was like a blinding flash of the obvious. We knew we had a lot employees at ski resorts, summer and winter, but we started looking at the number of manufacturers, hunting and fishing guides, bike shops…It was a much longer and diverse list than most of us had recognized.

We said, ‘Hey, this is an asset we already have.” There are only few states that have this concentration of outdoor recreation expertise and capacity. One of the proper roles of state government is to create jobs, and one way to create jobs is to build on the assets that are already there.

We’re the second in the country to have an office of recreation, right after Utah. The third office is in Washington.  If we do this really well, the rest of the country is going to want to do it.

OIA: In August 2015, Luis Benitez visited Anglers’ Covey as part of his listening tour. More than 40 outdoor industry representatives attended. Was the turnout anticipated?

JH: I think he got about double what he thought. When you’re respectful and engaging, when you say you’re really going to come and listen, all of sudden there’s an appetite that’s much larger than you thought. Part of what makes Luis so good is he really does have that nature of a visionary. He has exceeded, by large measure, every expectation. He’s hiked the tallest peak on every continent. That’s pretty impressive. He’s the real deal—and they know that.

With outdoor recreation, you attract people who care about protecting the fourteeners or wild waters. People like David Lienweber believe what they’re doing really matters. Those people are gleeful to see an effort by government to help the outdoor recreation industry. They say, ‘Holy smokes, all these other things that government does, I’m not so sure I believe in, but this I can get behind.’

OIA: Can economic development and growth happen alongside stewardship and sustainability?

JH: I think those could be conflicting sentiments, but as we’re trying to practice here, economic growth should create a sense of urgency that we need to do more to protect our natural spaces. If more people are using a habitat, people are going to speak up to protect it and put more resources toward it.

Our goal is to make Colorado the most pro-business state in America, but with the highest standard for environmental protection. Part of that is reaching out to small businesses, including in outdoor recreation.

OIA: Specialty retailers are evangelists for outdoor recreation. How can this collaboration tap into that?

JH: We should constantly be trying to create a partnership at every level of state government with all of our small businesses. Outdoor recreation is the most powerful and obvious of those opportunities. These small business are a) creating jobs, b) educating people about the importance of habitat, and c) allowing newcomers to feel embraced and engaged by the community. There a lot of new people moving here. If David Leinweber teaches them not only to fish but he educates them about the health of the rivers, he’s also making them feel like they belong.

OIA: What should other specialty outdoor retailers in Colorado and elsewhere know about working with local and state policymakers?

JH: A lot of people are just too busy running their business to get involved. Lord knows, I was like that when I was building up my restaurant [Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Company]. David Leinweber has been willing to step up and invest some of his precious time to the betterment of community. My advice to other specialty outdoor retailers would be to find some time to get involved in the office of economic development, the department of natural resources, habitat preservation and improvement.… That investment of time is almost always good for your business. You look at the people who are the real successes, people like David Leinweber, they almost always end up being joiners—people who are demonstrating some level of civic responsibility.

My advice to other specialty outdoor retailers would be to find some time to get involved in the office of economic development, the department of natural resources, habitat preservation and improvement.… That investment of time is almost always good for your business. You look at the people who are the real successes, people like David Leinweber, they almost always end up being joiners—people who are demonstrating some level of civic responsibility.

OIA: How can retailers work with policymakers to enhance state recreation infrastructure and access to wilderness?

JH: To build a network of bike trails—the classic example—you really do need grassroots support. Fish and bait shops, guiding services, they all have networks of people, and they can lobby for it. We need to find those missing links where we have a whole [chain] of green spaces, and we’re missing one [link] and it’s privately owned. If we want government to put up sometimes significant amounts of money to protect that space, [retailers] can enlist their network to say, “hey, would you guys be willing to send an email supporting the [government’s effort to] purchase these 40 acres to get everyone access to that wilderness area?’ Small retailers and manufacturers and guides, if you add them all up, they touch a huge number of people and they have tremendous credibility.