By Marc Berejka, Director of Government & Community Affairs at REI
Two young fish say “hello” as they swim past an older one. Smiling, the older one says, “the water sure is nice today, isn’t it?” They smile back, swim on, and then look at each other wondering, “what’s water?” Sometimes you can be so inured to you surroundings, you not only take then for granted, you don’t even realize they’re there.
At REI, we know an outdoor life is a life well lived. We relish our wild places, whether they are officially designated a “wild and scenic river,” or a “wilderness area” or are a local park or trail system. Our forests, grasslands and waters are places to rejuvenate—to share with family and friends. Towering peaks, free flowing rivers and grand vistas bring a natural quiescence to our otherwise busy lives. Our natural environment is the quiet foundation for this region’s high quality of life.
Since our business operates (and since our members play) so close to the ground, the co-op’s ongoing success demands both changing how limited natural resources are used and expanding people’s access to inspirational places. We need to be both conservationists and prudent advocates for getting folks into the outdoors, so that the outdoors isn’t taken for granted.
Protecting Outdoor Places
This is a tradition for REI and others in the outdoor industry. We recognize the need to give back to the land. Among other things, REI is a founding member of the Conservation Alliance, and through that alliance have supported successful efforts to designate the Wild Sky Wilderness in 2008 and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions in 2014.
We currently are working with Washington Wild and other members of the Wild Olympics Campaign to protect recreational access, forests and watersheds on the Olympic Peninsula. The proposal would protect 126,000 acres of new Wilderness on Olympic National Forest and more than 460 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers on the Olympic Peninsula while preserving and enhancing recreational access.
Protecting inspirational, iconic outdoor places and recreational access for our members is one way we drive change for our community. It also makes good business sense for the entire state. According to a 2014 Outdoor Industry Association study, each year in Washington State outdoor recreation contributes more than $22.5 billion in consumer spending to the state’s economy, directly supports 227,000 jobs and generates $1.6 billion in annual state and local tax revenue. Each year, more than three million Washington residents actively participate in outdoor recreation. We know them well; our employees work hard to provide them the best in outdoor gear and expertise every day.
Our not-so-secret mission at REI is to get our increasingly diverse population into the outdoors, but with respect and care. As members and employees, we love spending time outside and we’re helping to build a community of people who feel the same way. One of the most important ways we do that is by working with local partners like Washington Wild to increase access to outdoor places.
Thankfully, we are nowhere near alone in this mission. Because of the co-op’s success, we’re able to invest in nonprofits across the United States that are committed to a shared goal of sustaining and improving access. In 2015, REI invested almost $8.5 million in more than 300 local, regional and national nonprofits working to care for and increase access to more than 1,000 inspiring outdoor places. These are co-op member-dollars returned to the places people love.
Protecting wild places and providing access to them, too often, are thought of as conflicting goals. In fact, each value can support the other and provide the full suite of recreational, conservation and economic benefits that can be an important boost to local economies. Wilderness trailheads are often the most sought after as we are increasingly drawn to the mountains to balance the pavement and din of our busy lives with the anticipation and solitude of wild places.
Since 23 mountaineering friends founded the co-op more than 78 years ago, REI has always been about the joy of a life lived outside. Our founders believed that life is better outdoors. Breathing fresh air, exploring, teaching one another new skills in the majestic landscape of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. They understood their responsibility to the outdoors and the community that depends on it. We proudly follow in their tracks.
Marc Berejka is Director of Government & Community Affairs at REI, the nation’s oldest outdoor co-op, which was founded in Seattle and which counts as members hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians. Fish parable borrowed from David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.”