OIA Capitol Summit wins big for Land and Water funding

The legislative impact the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) was able to make this year at its annual Capitol Summit was not only broader but also harder-hitting thanks in large part to a jump in participants -- including manufacturers, retailers, media and others -- by nearly 50 percent.
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The legislative impact the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) was able to make this year at its annual Capitol Summit was not only broader but also harder-hitting thanks in large part to a jump in participants -- including manufacturers, retailers, media and others -- by nearly 50 percent.

In fact, after only 24 hours on the Hill where 43 Summit participants in six regional groups took part in 46 individual meetings, the industry had started circulating signed letters to the House and Senate in support of $90 million for stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The OIA teams had also already won key support for LWCF from Sen. Judd Gregg (R, N.H.), a powerful, third-term senator who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee on Homeland Security.

"We were looking to create a buzz on the Hill about saving Land and Water, and it appears we have," OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer told SNEWS® after the summit, still hoarse and sounding a bit like Barry White after talking non-stop to legislators. "We have House and Senate letters circulating now that weren't before we showed up. And the chair of the budget committee has pledged his support. Those are huge wins.

"If we do save Land and Water, the Capitol Summit will have been a turning point," he added, pointing out that the work still isn't done. "We are significantly closer to the goal."

LWCF, which provides matching grants for local projects such as parks and nature trails that create outdoor recreation opportunities close to home, had been zeroed out in the FY 2006 budget recommendations by President Bush (see SNEWS® story, Jan. 17, 2005, "Industry company owners and CEO signatures needed to preserve federal funding"). It was one of three issues -- and the No. 1 of them all -- that participants focused on during meetings with friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly legislators.

The other two issues addressed at the third-annual Summit held April 12-14 were:

>> Transportation Enhancements and Recreation Trails -- Groups asked their congressional representatives to include $500 million over six years for the Recreation Trails program that is a part of the bill. More specifically, attendees asked senators to support those House levels of support and asked members of the House to hold firm to that amount. In addition, legislators were asked to continue to fully fund the Transportation Enhancements program, which expands the concept of transportation to things like bike paths and walking-friendly downtowns.

>> Association Health Plans -- A part of the lobbying effort for several years, the bill would provide for associations like the OIA to create a health plan that would make affordable health insurance available to its small businesses membership. According to Myrna Johnson, OIA vice president of government affairs, the bill that would provide pooled coverage passes the House but stumbles in the Senate, partly because of heavy lobby against it by large insurance companies.

Key for the first two issues was that they provide close-to-home recreation opportunities. Those opportunities not only can help provide fitness opportunities that may eventually offset the growing girth of Americans and help lower skyrocketing health care costs, but also can serve as an economic stimulator for small businesses and the outdoor industry.

"If you don't speak out for the outdoor industry, who will speak out," said Jerry Rinder of Woolrich. Woolrich, as well as REI, Outdoor Retailer and National Geographic Adventure, helped in Summit sponsorship.

Criss-crossing among and between buildings on the Hill -- too bad nobody wore a pedometer to count our 10,000-step days -- the groups had sit-down meetings with senior staff and, in some cases, the legislator him- or herself. Team California buttonholed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.) in a corridor to express its support; Team Rocky Mountain's fearless leader Hugelmeyer, despite suffering blisters but never missing a lobbying beat, spied Rep. Mark Udall (D, Colo.) crossing the street to head to a vote and sprinted after him to get in a few personal words. Team Northeast pinned down the LWCF support from Sen. Gregg with Summit first-timer Will Manzer, CEO of EMS, not willing to take "no" for an answer.

"Land and Water is a very important issue for us as a business," Manzer told SNEWS® during the event, adding that he's been in communication with Gregg's office before on Arctic drilling issues. "We need public lands."

Particularly pleasant were the friendly meetings with the likes of Udall and Rep. Jim Matheson (D, Utah) -- they were love fests that provided the energy to keep the faith into less-than-friendly meetings: Team Rocky Mountain for example met with senior staff in the office of Sen. Wayne Allard (R, Colo.) and was surprised to have a surprise visit to the pow-wow -- the first ever -- by Allard himself, who bemoaned the loss by Colorado in federal stats of being such a lean and fit state. Hugelmeyer took the lead, turning the session into a bit of a revival for the cause, pressing Allard for support (no wonder Hugelmeyer was hoarse after the Summit!).

In addition to lobbying, the OIA invited Melissa Johnson, director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, to address the group during the first organizational morning that included education about the issues, the legislators, and instructions on how to lobby. The association held a reception in the ever-popular Rayburn House courtyard -- where the Taste of the Outdoors lobbying event held its affair that included paddling in the inner courtyard pool.

OIA also kicked off the second morning of lobbying by giving the Friends of the Outdoor Industry awards to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R, Tenn.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D, La.), presented by Joe Royer, co-owner of Tennessee-based retailer Outdoors Inc., and Ed McAlister of Tennessee's retailer River Sports Outfitters, with goodie bags from Matt Hyde from REI, and Woolrich's Rinder.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Alexander told the group after receiving his award. "I see the Great American Outdoors as an important part of the American culture."

Landrieu, who wasted no time nearly getting into a tug-o-war over the plaid Woolrich shirt given to Alexander, said: "You just can't keep asking. You have to give back and you have to give back to the land and the water from which those riches are taken."

This year's Summit, with 43 attendees, was nearly maxed out, OIA staff said, since it's difficult to accommodate more than eight or 10 per meeting. But with last year's event only registering 29, it's obvious the interest had grown. In addition, this year's event had an all-time high in retailer attendance with Outdoors Inc., River Sports Outfitters, Midwest Mountaineering, Le Travel Store, Rutabaga Paddlesports, The Alpine Experience, REI and EMS, as well as about 20 newcomers to the event.

First-timer McAlister of River Sports told SNEWS® he thought every retailer should come to experience the lobbying and the system.

"I think every retailer needs to come once to experience the process and the need to communicate with their congressional representatives," he said. "I think it opens your eyes. It gets you out of your box. We tend to forget they listen. Especially in small towns, these votes may make the different in who wins.

"We forget one person can make a difference. It's like one person complaining in your store. You look at that and say, if one says something, there must be another 10 who don't," McAlister added.

Board member Larry Harrison of Earth Games, who has attended all but a couple of the Summit events and the previous Taste lobbying events, stressed too that everyone needs to come to the event, ask questions and become engaged.

"We all know the wheels turn," Harrison said, "but we don't witness them turning unless we come here."

SNEWS® View: It may be tough to get away for a few days mid-week, and it may be easy to say, oh, I know they'll take care of it without me. Still, if these issues are important to you -- conservation, open space, preservation, obesity or just the plain economics of small business -- you should put it on your calendar to be a part at least once. Sure, there are a few meetings with cordial, painted-on smiles and back-window-bobblehead response, but numbers and voices do count on the Hill. You can make yours a part of that. And, if you've never seen the process live and upfront, it's like high school government class lessons come alive. So alive that over the course of just a couple of days the OIA with the help of 43 attendees, including SNEWS®, may have be able to gather enough steam to reinstate funding for LWCF. Now that's response that's measurable.

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