When getting ready to go fishing, hunting, camping, or on any other kind of outdoor adventure, many people use “punch lists” – a checklist of the gear and supplies needed to ensure a successful outing. For those who advocate for and work in the conservation and outdoor industry policy space, our “punch lists” have been particularly essential this year to bringing home major victories addressing longstanding industry priorities: expanding outdoor recreation opportunities and conserving public lands and waterways.
In just the past few months, two major conservation bills were signed into law. This past week, President Trump signed the America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act. This ACE Act includes reauthorization of a critical wetlands conservation program, the formal establishment of the successful National Fish Habitat program, and a critical stream of new funding for the Chesapeake Bay. The enactment of ACE follows the August 4 signing of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), which provides $900 million in permanent annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and $9.5 billion to tackle massive maintenance backlogs on public lands.
At a time of extraordinarily bitter partisanship in Washington – not to mention in the midst of a heated campaign year – how in the world did ACE and GAOA get passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes? What essential gear and supplies did those of us who lobby and advocate in this space have on our “punch lists” to bring home these wins, and what should outdoor recreation and conservation groups, associations, and coalitions plan to bring on future expeditions to achieve more successes?
- Strong, Credible, Official Government Economic Data. In just the past few years, we were able to start leveraging the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ (BEA) measurements of our industry’s economic impact. Critical to our success, BEA began measuring the economic impact of outdoor recreation in 2017 thanks to legislation championed by the outdoor industry. The outdoor recreation economy accounts for $778 billion of annual economic output and keeps growing. The reality of the importance of this economic sector has hit home in very stark terms during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Unified and Organized Coalitions. This is a general must-have on any advocacy punch list and outdoor recreation and conservation interests really had these roaring for GAOA and ACE. In our case, our work with the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), got a big boost with the formation of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR). This new coalition of outdoor industry associations formed only a few years ago – just in time to play a critical role in getting GAOA done. ACE was more sportsmen-oriented and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was a critical catalyst for organizing partners in support of that legislation.
- Legislation Packaged with Something for Everyone. ACE and GAOA succeeded as legislative bundles that spoke to the needs of a wide range of different lawmakers, geographic areas, and recreational niches. For example, when GAOA was expanded beyond LWCF to include maintenance money for National Park land and then expanded again to include funding for other public land types, more and more congressional champions came aboard and we locked in the votes for final passage.
- Awareness and Sensitivity to Current Campaign Cycle. Being closely attuned to the dynamics of the current campaign cycle is extremely important. Fully understanding the needs and motivations of certain legislators running for re-election allows advocates to meet lawmakers at a spot that maximizes the chances of winning their support. On GAOA in the Senate and on ACE in the House, members of Congress who were in tough re-election fights helped us and helped themselves by obtaining good fresh examples of their leadership on outdoor recreation and conservation issues and ability to work across the aisle.
- Persistence. Conservation and outdoor recreation aren’t new issues to policymakers. Elements of both GAOA and ACE have been in the works for as many as 20 years. By staying the course and adding more of the right items to the punch list over the years and then actually punching those items we were able to position both bills for presidential signature this year.
- Bipartisanship. We have to be mindful that the political environment on Capitol Hill never stops changing. The groups, businesses and associations working on these bills were very intentional about trying to work with legislators across Congress, offering praise when deserved regardless of other political considerations. Bipartisan relationships were created, sustained, and could be counted on when needed.
- Having a Feel Good Issue. Who doesn’t love being outside? Members of Congress, staffers, constituents, lobbyists, Republicans, Democrats – they all love talking about favorite outdoor activities. From fishing to hiking, boating, or just marveling at the beauty of our National Parks and public lands and waters, passion and energy comes through when talking to lawmakers about outdoor issues. Especially during the pandemic, appreciation and excitement for the outdoors has skyrocketed, and having conversations about the importance of these spaces and the businesses that rely on them got that much easier.
We are so lucky we get to talk about issues people love to advocate for and the places where people seek to spend their free time, but you can’t just assume these activities and places will win the day for you. If you make sure that your punch list hits the core strengths above and you link arms with smart, passionate people, you can get big bills passed in Washington. Hopefully, ACE and GAOA are just two examples that will sit on a longer list in years to come.
George Cooper is a Partner at Forbes Tate Partners and leads the firm’s natural resources and outdoor recreation government affairs practice, representing nonprofits, corporations and trade associations. Prior to joining FTP, George served as President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) where he helped create a new strategic advocacy niche in Washington for the nation’s 40 million hunters and anglers. George’s almost 30 years of experience in DC started in the media. Before he joined TRCP, George worked for CNN for more than a decade as a Senior Producer for several shows and on the White House and Capitol Hill beats.