The Outdoor Alliance Origin Story: How folks in flannel set out to change public land policy in Washington DC
Today, the human-powered recreation community is a political force to be reckoned with, but it wasn’t always that way. In the early 2000’s, hikers, paddlers, mountain bikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers were working more or less separately to accomplish their conservation goals. Instead of joining forces, skiers would visit lawmakers on the Hill to discuss issues they cared about, followed days later by climbers, and then by paddlers. While the human-powered community has always had an authentic connection to people who love the outdoors, these organizations were going up against much bigger, better funded, and more organized groups.
Like the invention of the lightbulb, many people simultaneously concluded that these human-powered recreation groups should work together to achieve their conservation goals. Leaders of national recreation groups started to think about how much more powerful they could be if they combined forces. In 2002, Mary Margaret Sloan (then Executive Director of American Hiking Society) and Risa Shimoda (then Executive Director of American Whitewater) shared office space in Silver Spring, Maryland, where their desks were so close, they could toss things from one room to another. Along with Pam Dillon (then Executive Director at American Canoe Association), they started talking about working together with mountain bikers and other paddlers to see if they could gain more traction for protecting landscapes. Around the same time, Sally Grimes (then Executive Director of Winter Wildlands Alliance) and her partner Chris Chesak (then at American Alpine Club) who had both formerly worked at American Hiking Society, were brainstorming about how to bring together the policy work of these different human-powered recreation groups to try to compete with larger interests and protect quiet recreation experiences.
By 2004, the Executive Directors of five organizations representing recreationists – American Hiking Society, American Canoe Association, American Whitewater, Access Fund, and Winter Wildlands Alliance – were meeting in Colorado and in Washington DC to work on joint priorities, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Roadless Rule, which Outdoor Alliance continues to advocate for today. By 2005, the coalition had secured funding from Turner Foundation and REI to continue to work together (both remain longtime supporters of Outdoor Alliance’s work).
A key impetus for joining together in those early days was to have greater influence with decision makers who were determining the future of public lands. In DC, collaboration and coalition building is how to build power and get policy work done. During these initial meetings of the coalition on the Hill, what the incipient Outdoor Alliance heard more than anything else from lawmakers was, “What took you so long to start working together?” Whereas each organization had previously been a small fish in a big pond, once they joined together, they suddenly looked like a much bigger fish, commanding respect from decision makers and the larger conservation community. At the same time, the outdoor industry was publishing early studies about the economic impact of outdoor recreation and policymakers were increasingly asking for a common agenda on recreation and conservation.
By 2006, the five executive directors had hired DC-based environmental lawyer and whitewater paddler, Adam Cramer, to help coordinate their efforts. In backcountry cabins in West Virginia and dawn patrol in the Wasatch, these leaders gathered to discuss their shared priorities, goals, and challenges. Founding Executive Directors still have a spot on the Outdoor Alliance Board of Directors, with the coalition offering each organization’s top leadership the opportunity to have a community of peers and to build political power together. Just as important, the Policy Chiefs from each organization started to meet regularly to analyze outdoor policy and share resources. Outdoor Alliance’s Joint Policy Shop still meets weekly and is the engine of Outdoor Alliance’s policy strategy.
By 2011, Outdoor Alliance was advocating for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and better funding for public lands, and had successfully championed protections for over a million acres of roadless forest through the Colorado Roadless Rule. They were also coordinating with the Outdoor Industry Association on the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, culminating in a summit in Golden, Colorado at the American Alpine Club’s offices with Congressman Mark Udall and Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf (now an Outdoor Alliance board member). Though the informal coalition model was extraordinarily effective, the summit was an inflection point. It became clear that there was a much greater appetite for collective work and Outdoor Alliance needed to evolve into a standalone organization. By 2014, Outdoor Alliance had filed for 501c3 status and hired Adam Cramer as its first full-time Executive Director.
Since that time, Outdoor Alliance has grown from a clever idea into a thriving organization with six full-time staff. For outdoor enthusiasts and its member groups alike, Outdoor Alliance helps to navigate outdoor policy and empower people to protect the places they love. Since 2014, Outdoor Alliance has worked to protect human-powered adventures and conserve public lands, successfully defending public lands from sale and transfer, continuing to defend the Roadless Rule and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and advocating for funding for land management agencies who care for our shared resources. Outdoor Alliance is deeply involved in land planning, improving how the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service care for our shared public lands.
In the spring of 2019, Outdoor Alliance worked to pass a historic public lands package (S.47, the Natural Resources Management Act), bringing several of its years’ long priorities to fruition. These included permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund; protections for Utah’s Emery County, Washington’s Mountains to Sound Greenway and Methow Valley; Oregon’s Oregon Wildlands; Montana’s Yellowstone Gateway; as well as 1.3 million acres of new Wilderness, 621 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, mineral withdrawals, recreation and conservation areas, and larger National Parks.
According to an early executive director, as the coalition was initially conceived, Outdoor Alliance wore the business suits and the member groups wore the Gore-Tex. Over the years, however, the coalition’s strength has been in bringing the authentic perspectives of Gore-Tex wearers to the buttoned-up world of DC. Today, Outdoor Alliance provides resources for its ten member groups and the larger outdoor community to understand and engage with public land policy to protect the places we all love to play.