By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor
JACKSON, Wyo. – In its third year, Jackson’s signature conservation summit, SHIFT (Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow), brought more than 30 young people into the fold. During a weeklong program, participants in the Emerging Leaders Program were inspired and challenged to broaden the conservation and recreation discussion in their own communities, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Arcata, California.
SHIFT founder and director Christian Beckwith framed the cultural relevancy discussion—one of the summit’s focal points—by noting that 85 percent of Americans live in urban areas and statistically the average member of The Wilderness Society is a 71-year-old Caucasian female.
“That’s not setting [the conservation movement] up for success,” Beckwith said. “It is going to take all of us to do it, and that is the challenge we have before us. ”
The summit, which takes place in Jackson—the “crucible of conservation”—every October, was titled “Outdoor Rec and our Public Lands” and held Oct. 13-15 at Snow King Resort Hotel. The Emerging Leaders Program started three days prior with workshops at Teton Science School.
A crowd hailing from all over the U.S. and primarily outfitted in ski town business casual—a mix of jeans, leggings with skirts, button-up shirts and Patagonia vests under puffy coats—attended workshops and panel discussions on topics ranging from the intersection of mountain biking and wilderness, to the public lands takeover movement and the nuts and bolts of establishing a statewide office of outdoor recreation.
The latter workshop was led by representatives from states that have already established such offices—Utah, Colorado and Washington—and attended by people in states interested in getting one, including Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Maine, Oregon, North Carolina and California.
Just a few hours later, Gov. Matt Mead announced in his opening remarks that Wyoming is taking steps in that direction by establishing a task force to promote outdoor recreation, improve access to public lands, invest in outdoor recreation infrastructure, and recruit outdoor equipment manufacturers and distributors.
The economic development argument for fostering a healthy outdoor recreation industry is a formidable one. According to Beckwith, it’s a $646 billion a year industry and the third largest economic sector in the U.S.
Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, used an economic argument for supporting the outdoor industry, but he brought “topophilia,” or love of place, into the discussion as well.
“We keep talking about the [money] the outdoor recreationists spend or the jobs that they allow or help create, but it’s also [about] the folks that come out and they want to be closer to where that action is,” Hickenlooper said.
“They might write software, they might write code for the Internet. They might be musicians or lawyers,” he added. “But they’re drawn by that same topophilia that the rest of us are. I think right now the Rocky Mountain West has the opportunity to be the international symbol of what a balanced, healthy lifestyle looks like.”
Leading that charge in Colorado is Luis Benitez, a former international mountain guide who has summited the tallest peaks on all seven continents. Hickenlooper appointed Benitez to head up the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation almost a year and a half ago.
“Based on my own evolution of passion that I ultimately think we all share, I have a pretty simple and fundamental belief: I believe the outdoor industry can save the world,” Benitez said to a chorus of claps and whoops at the conference close.