Washington Senator Kevin Ranker: The Way I See It

By Grant Davis July 7, 2015

Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, has represented the 40th Legislative District, which includes the San Juan Islands and parts of Whatcom and Skagit counties, in the Washington State Senate since 2009. This year, along with Senator Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, he introduced and played a key role in helping to pass Senate Bill 5843, a rare bi-partisan law establishing a permanent senior policy advisor in the governor’s office who will focus on outdoor recreation and the promotion of outdoor recreation throughout the state with three priorities: 1) Creating new outdoor recreational opportunities in Washington State. 2) Advocating for more Washingtonians and visitors to participate in outdoor recreation. 3) Incentivizing the outdoor industry and increasing the associated jobs in Washington State. In addition, the law fully funds the state’s “No Child Left Inside” (NCLI) initiative, and, when awarding $1 million in grants associated with NCLI, it gives priority to organizations that hire veterans.

We caught the self-described waterman (he’s a surfer, fisherman, swimmer, diver and sailor) in Olympia during a break from Washington’s current budget battle to get his take on the outdoors and what they mean to his state and his own life (At press time, the current legislative session was heading into it’s fourth additional month).

On purely political terms, outdoor recreation is considered a luxury, so it isn’t a priority. The environment is way above people’s basic needs—food, shelter, medical care—and many people are still struggling in this economy to meet those basic needs. There are numerous issues that are of greater concern—funding education, creating jobs, providing social services, mental health and health care. But the way to combat that is to make outdoor recreation about jobs and turns the discussion about conservation into one about economic opportunity.

Historically, the industry and people who love the outdoors don’t think politically. If we want to protect that blue-ribbon stream for fishing, we talk about how beautiful it is—we think it’s obvious why it should be saved, when the first point we should be making is that the stream supports 70 odd fishing-related jobs in Yakima. That’s what gets people’s attention.

Two years ago, I put money in the state budget to do a comprehensive economic analysis that, when completed, was the most comprehensive economic analysis of outdoor recreation in the country. I had to go out and get the meta data, district by district, to find out the economic impact of outdoor recreation in Washington. I believe we’re the first state in the nation to do this. It’s massive: 199,000 jobs and $21.6 billion in economic activity. Even more powerful is the fact that a majority of these jobs are in rural areas still experiencing high unemployment. If that was one company, we’d be bending over backwards to give them tax breaks and incentives to move to or stay in Washington. These numbers give the outdoor industry a seat at the table with Boeing and Microsoft.

With that information, I wrote each state legislator a letter and told them exactly how much of an impact outdoor recreation had in their district based on the number of local jobs it supports.

We’re still fighting over the budget, but this bill is one of the only ones still in the budget that’s been left untouched.

When Parlette and I were drafting the bill, Governor (Jay) Islee and I hosted a dinner with the heads of REI, Cascade Designs, Outdoor Research, Oiselle, K2 Sports, Washington Bikes, Far Bank Enterprises, Mountain Gear, Waypoint Outdoor, IslandWood, Backwoods and Brooks Sports. The Governor and I held a discussion with the outdoor leaders present regarding what our state could do to further increase outdoor opportunities and jobs in Washington State. The governor came out of that night knowing that the outdoor industry was going to work with him and his new outdoor recreation advisor.

REI had a lobbyist down here (at the state capitol in Olympia) on a regular basis who would follow up with legislators who were against the bill. That was very powerful.

It was important to involve veterans in my bill. I think the last thing any veteran needs [during the] transition back to everyday life is a job inside a cubicle. Get them outside.

The policy advisor position created by this bill will be able to define and shape the economic opportunities driving outdoor recreation. If we had this person in place, I wouldn’t be dealing with cuts to the state parks right now. Instead of cuts, this person would be looking for ways to incentivize the outdoor industry. That could be through tax breaks or access or conservation.

I’ve already heard from eight other states that want to replicate what we did here in Washington. [He declined to name them].

I identify as a surfer before I call myself a state senator. I’m a fourth-generation surfer. Got started off the shore of Catalina with my dad.

I run 5 to 7 miles a day to keep myself sane.

At home on Orcas Island, I have a Hobie Cat that I’ll try to sail every day during lunch. If there’s no wind, I’ll SUP.

I keep a surfboard in my office here in Olympia. Last night at 7, I threw my board in the car and drove to Ocean Shores and was in the water by 8:15. I surfed ’til 10. That’s not an unusual night for me if I’m down here.

Back home, when I want to surf, I’ll take my boat to some surf spots in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. I also regularly travel to California, Mexico (and sometimes others locations) in search of waves.


 Look for more words of wisdom about Close To Home recreation from industry veterans such as Christian Folk in our “The Way I See It” series, part of our ongoing mission to promote recreation in local parks and cities as well as far-off adventures around the globe. And join the conversation on Twitter (@OIA), Instagram (@OutdoorIndustry) and Facebook by tagging us in photos of your favorite #closetohome locales.
Like President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park program and America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, Close To Home recreation fuels the economy and creates jobs by promoting travel and tourism to national parks, wildlife refuges, waterways, forests and recreation areas that are right in our own back yards. Learn more about the impact of recreation economy and OIA’s recreation policy and what you can do to get involved.