It’s not often that you hear of a Congressman hiking the Appalachian Trail. But Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat representing part of Northern Virginia, has been at it since long before the outdoor industry became the political force it is today. He’s been section-hiking the trail since 2002, and hopes to finish by 2020. His favorite section is the Grayson Highlands in southwestern Virginia, which reminds him of Scotland with its wild horses and cows wandering the hills. In 2016, Beyer was a lead House sponsor of the Outdoor REC Act, which mandates that outdoor recreation be counted as part of the nation’s GDP. The bill easily passed both chambers of Congress. In April, OIA honored Beyer with a Friend of the Industry Award. We asked Beyer how the outdoors influences his political decisions.
1. Why did you sponsor the Outdoor REC Act, and what do you hope it will accomplish?
I spend a lot of money every year at REI, Black Diamond, and on all these things that support the hiking and the camping and the climbing that I do. In talking with the outdoor retailers and manufacturers, I was really struck by the idea that most Americans just have no idea how important outdoor recreation and outdoor sports are for our economy. They may have some clue about how good they are for our culture, but they don’t realize that they’re a major contributor to our GDP. There are lots and lots of jobs created. It was a good, bipartisan way to get something small but important done during the last Congress.
2. You’ve joined the House Outdoor Recreation Caucus. What can that caucus achieve?
The very first thing is defending our public lands. I serve on the Natural Resources Committee, and there’s an existential debate between Western Republicans and the rest of the committee members, who very much believe, as I do, that public lands belong to all Americans, and that they need to be managed by the federal government and preserved as best we can. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but for the most part, Western Republicans who represent Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada have a strong desire to see so many of the federal lands turned back over to the states, or sold.
One of the things the outdoor caucus can do is continue to point out that most of these federal lands typically generate far more dollars through hunting, tourism, fishing, hiking, and camping than they do through grazing and, sometimes, fossil fuels.
3. Why did you start hiking the Appalachian Trail?
I went to college in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the trail ran right through town. I served on a trail crew, and I just fell in love with the mountains and the trail. When Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia and we had the killing at Kent State, my college, like many across the country, let out early. They basically just stopped classes and sent everybody home. So we decided to hike home from Williamstown down to Washington, D.C. on the Appalachian Trail. We only made it through one state, Massachusetts, before the blackflies, and the exhaustion, and an injury set in. So, for 46 years, I’ve wanted to finish it. I started in 2002, and I’ve hiked from Georgia to Connecticut.
4. How does your love for the outdoors and your experience on the Appalachian Trail affect the policy decisions you make in the House?
I guess, it’s in the most general of ways. I feel intimately connected to weather, birds, bugs, and mammals, and trees and ferns. They bring me peace, awe, joy, and the great sense of being alive in the world. These experiences make me want to share them, and to protect them for the other billions of people on our planet.
5. What do you think of President Trump’s proposed cuts to public land management agencies?
I think they’re terrible. So much of what he’s done in terms of the cutting is disastrous for the Fish & Wildlife Service and for the Bureau of Land Management. I know our new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, has sincerely said that dealing with the $12 billion infrastructure backlog for maintenance on the national parks is his number-one priority, but unfortunately, the Trump budget doesn’t reflect that at all. Of course all of his cuts to climate science are devastating for the population of the world, but they’re also going to hurt our public lands. Not dealing with [climate change] will [hurt] … The final budget will be much different than what Trump submitted, thank God.
Cover image: Grayson Highlands, Virginia, courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corp.