Our series on Outdoor Allies profiles rad outdoor advocates and their approaches to protecting public lands. Today we’re hearing from Jess Wahl, Executive Director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable and former Government Affairs Manager at Outdoor Industry Association. Jess is one of the most influential people in the outdoor recreation policy world. In one of the most contentious Congresses of our time, Jess spearheaded the passage of truly bipartisan legislation for outdoor recreation. Today, she spills the details on how to make progress in a gridlocked capitol and the biggest challenges the outdoor industry faces.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to do outside and some of your favorite places to go.
In my profession, and in the outdoors, I’m more of a generalist. I take the 30,000 foot level on a lot of topics and I feel that way with my outdoor pursuits. I like climbing, paddling and trail running, mountain biking, surfing, SUPing and skiing but am not amazing at any of those activities because I switch it up so often. I also live in a 400 square foot apartment in downtown DC so having access to many of my favorite activities depend on a friend with a car and rentals! Rock Creek Park and the Potomac provide me with immediate outdoor running, fishing and paddling opportunities but my soul craves the ocean so that’s where I head for a re-fresh.
What led you to your work at OIA?
Growing up on the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario, the outdoors were a big part of my life, but I never made the connection that it could lead to a career until I started the work with Department of the Interior (DOI). It was there I realized just how big outdoor recreation was, especially out west. There are so many opportunities to connect people to the experiences I had a child that I think grounded me, and gave me an appreciation for things beyond my small city or high school. Through my work at DOI, I got involved with the Deepwater Horizon spill as well as the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which sent me all over the country running youth listening sessions with five Cabinet Secretaries.
I had a pivotal moment at one of the America’s Great Outdoors listening sessions with a group of students. It was in L.A., which is 20 minutes from the beach and 20 minutes from the mountains. I polled the students on whether they liked the beach or the mountains better and it was a punch to the stomach when most of them said they hadn’t been to either. Just in my short trip out there, I had been able to visit both. That was a wakeup call. If these places exist and the people who live so close to beautiful landscapes, fresh air and clean water don’t have the opportunity to explore them, what is it all for?
From these sessions I started working with the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative and running Let’s Move Outside and Let’s Move in Indian Country programs across the country. Through my years working on connecting youth to outdoors I met stellar people at outdoor companies like Brook Hopper at The North Face and David Weinstein who was with OIA at the time. When the OIA government affairs job (my current role) was created, everything just clicked- my background in government and political science degree, love for the outdoors and relationships with outdoor brands. I still can’t believe all the luck, good timing, and amazing people who led me to my current role.
One of your biggest successes has to be passing the REC Act last December in a climate where it seemed almost impossible to pass anything. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
There is gridlock in DC - that is real. But what is also real is the serious desire by most members of Congress to get shit done. The REC Act is the perfect case study on what can happen when you introduce a bipartisan and bicameral bill that is straightforward and doesn’t have serious opposition. In fact, most recreation issues or bills don’t face opposition beyond internal factions in the recreation community (who is going to walk into a congressional office after I leave and say they hate trails/green spaces and think more people should be couch potatoes?) But the industry divides over small (although sometimes important) nuances and that can kill a lot of ideas.
When they are evaluating a proposal, most members of Congress want to know who is for and who is against it. In the case of the REC Act, we could confidently say that the entire outdoor industry, including the boaters, ATVers, hunters, hikers, anglers, bikers, skiers, brands, retailers, user groups, and partners, were supportive and we didn’t know any groups in opposition. This set up a pathway to getting an amazing list of cosponsors and a steady drumbeat of positive press and earned media.
The hard part, however, was getting it on committee calendars for a hearing/markup and then on the floor for a vote. This is where incredible staffers and OIA member companies come in. Nick Bush, a staffer formally with Chairman Upton, is an avid outdoorsman and he and his boss were able to move the bill through the House Energy committee during one of the busiest times of the year. (Side note- finding outdoorist staffers in Congress is super easy and pays dividends in situations like this.) Similarly, Senator Gardner, one of the bill’s sponsors sits on the Commerce committee, where he was able to get the bill on the schedule for a hearing (always good to have bill sponsors on the committees of jurisdiction).
And, lastly, the tedious work of getting the bill on the both the House and Senate floor calendar for a vote during lame duck (where everyone wants everything on the floor calendar) involved a little bit of luck and in our case, a great team at REI and other engaged OIA member companies. They kept the drumbeat up about how positive this bill would be and the message that it was a win-win for Congress to get something done in a completely bipartisan way. It wasn’t until the day of the vote that we knew the bill was even going to get floor time. In the end, the Capitol Summit fly-ins, phone calls, emails, and letters pay off when members go to take a vote and remember that a brand in their state, or nonprofit they work with, came in and discussed the importance of the issue. (I also have to give a special shoutout to the bill sponsor’s staffers who worked tirelessly on this, coordinating with me daily on markup schedules, rules votes, and meetings with leadership). This bill was an amazing example what we can achieve when we bring together the passion in our industry to work together on unifying cause.
I know there are other bills like this in store for the outdoor recreation community in the future. I am working with Outdoor Alliance, sportsmen and the motorized community on one right now - Recreation Not Red Tape - that I hope can galvanize the same kind of support and excitement that REC Act received.
You seem to know everyone on the Hill. What are your secrets for building good relationships with policymakers?
Some hill staffers are friends from living in DC, going to school at Georgetown, and generally hanging out at the same places, but most are professional relationships that I have cultivated over the four years of my work at OIA. It’s amazing how many staffers love to hike, bike, ski or run. Finding out what people like to do outdoors helps me set up our issues for policymakers so that they can relate personally to our work.
A lot of times members can’t do everything we ask of them, but if they can do one small thing, like support a resolution or join a caucus, I like to make sure companies in their district follow up. I build relationships by going to hearings on outdoor issues so members see that the industry is there and that we care. And I offer up backgrounders, our economic data and possible questions for testimony, even if they don’t ask, so they can always be prepared with the outdoor business position if it is helpful.
In situations where members are hostile to our agenda, I work even harder to ensure I have an amicable relationship with their staff and focus first on the things we might agree on (low hanging fruit) and build up to the tougher, more controversial issues. At the end of the day, we may disagree with a member of Congress, but having good relationships means that even if we can’t have a win together, we can at least have a good dialogue about our differences.
What are the biggest challenges facing outdoor businesses right now? If you’re new to policy, what can you do, as a business or an individual, to make an impact?
Even with all the crazy stuff happening in DC, I still think our biggest challenges are within the outdoor community. I worry about the outdoor industry not recognizing how important our unique voice can be, especially when we work together as bipartisan and pragmatic business people, and I worry the outdoor message will get hijacked by other interests.
At Capitol Summit last April, I led a group of North Carolina business executives for a day on the Hill. We mostly met with Republican members of congress and it was one of the best days I’ve spent on the Hill. We made headway with Congressman Meadows (Chairman of the Freedom Caucus) with whom we have more in common with than we expected. It didn’t matter whether these executives voted red or blue, their voices crossed party lines, resonated with the policymakers we met with, and were truly authentic. They were able to communicate their passion for North Carolina, their local business, and outdoor recreation. That was a perfect day on the job for me.
Unlike any economic sector I can think of, outdoor businesses primarily support healthy communities, healthy economies, and sustainable jobs across the country. They are asking for common sense policies that help their businesses, and the vitality of the nation. People who love the outdoors have an important story to tell in a time of political divisiveness. I hope we get to speak with a unified industry voice for many years to come as a growing sector of the economy that stands for more than we stand against.