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Luis Benitez. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

Luis Benitez Talks Public Lands, Outdoor Retailer, and His Office’s Purpose

Ahead of Colorado's Public Lands Day on May 19, we chatted with the hype man for the state's outdoor industry.

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Luiz Benitez had no plans to leave the mountains. The accomplished mountaineer (he summited Everest six times) was living happily in Eagle in 2015 when Gov. John Hickenlooper tapped him to direct Colorado’s newly created Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Benitez was reluctant at first; he loved the mountain community of Eagle and was even serving on the town’s council. But the opportunity to work alongside Hickenlooper and oversee Colorado’s multi-billion dollar outdoor industry was one he couldn’t pass up.

Since assuming the role, Benitez has been an enthusiastic advocate of outdoor recreation in Colorado and, perhaps most notably, led last year’s effort to bring the coveted Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show to Denver from Salt Lake City, where it had been hosted for 22 years. The Centennial State welcomed the massive trade show—and it’s estimated $110 million economic impact over the next five years—in January, as industry professionals descended on Denver for the first of three annual shows.

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OR’s decision to move from Utah to Colorado was beyond a business deal—it was rooted in support for public lands. In 2017, industry leaders pushed back against our Western neighbor over lawmakers’ request for the Trump administration to rescind protections for the hotly contested Bears Ears National Monument.

In Colorado, our commitment for protecting public lands was an easy selling point. Two years ago, Colorado became the first state in the country to establish its own Public Lands Day—one of the many factors that helped Denver win the OR bid. As we gear up for the annual Public Lands Day celebration on May 19, we spoke with Benitez about land management, courting Outdoor Retailer, and whether or not his job will exist once Gov. Hickenlooper leaves office next January.

5280: Over the past two years, public land issues have been in the spotlight. What is your office’s role in the effort to support and preserve public land?
LB: It’s everything we do. It’s encouraging tourism in the right ways in the right places. This summer, you’re going to hear more about the relationship between our tourism division and Leave No Trace. It’s an effort to let people know that encouraging people to get out and recreate in some of our more special places needs to come with education about an ethic on how to recreate in those places. That’s a partnership we are focused on. I also think the biggest thing we try to do is continue this conversation about being a blended economy, which we are. If you look at the Western Slope, the energy industry has a significant footprint there. We need to have a conversation—a good conversation—with the energy industry to highlight all the good things we bring to the table.

Last week, High Country News published a piece called “Your Stoke Won’t Save Us” about how people who recreate outdoors talk about conservation but don’t put their “stoke” into action. I saw you tweeted that piece out. How concerned are you about this? 
In regards to that article, we have to stir the pot like that. That’s what we need to say. A hashtag is only going to get us so far. We need to find a way to transfer inspiration into action. Whether that’s social or political, I think the outdoor industry’s greatest strength is in our numbers—and the fact that those numbers are bipartisan. We’re one of the few remaining bipartisan economies left, so when you talk about running, you’re not just talking about Democrats or Republicans. You’re talking about everybody. Same with mountain biking. Same with climbing. But we do not do a good enough job finding that common ground within that space. 

In Colorado, do we have a culture of people who go beyond the “hashtag” and affect change? 
I think we do. I really, really do. Our nonprofit ecosystem, with regard to the outdoor industry, is one of the finest in the country. We have iconic nonprofits here that do a lot of work that we rely on consistently…we’ve relied on that [nonprofit] infrastructure for a really long time and I think that’s what sets us apart. Now, we need to stop relying on a volunteer ecosystem, the nonprofit industry, to solve all of our problems. We need to find a basket of sources to fund our projects.

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How important was Colorado’s commitment to public lands as you were bidding for Outdoor Retailer? 
I think it was incredibly important. The reality is, it’s a trade show and it’s a business. When you look at where a show that size could fit or should go to function, yeah we’re on the list. But Vegas has a heck of a lot more room. If you just look at dollars and cents and functionality for a show that size, are we at the top? Yeah, we’re close. But just logistics? I don’t know. Outdoor recreation is a multi-billion dollar industry here, and while that show might fit better somewhere else, this is where it belongs

I was feeling confident that we had told a good story, put our best foot forward, and did everything we could. I started sleeping better at night thinking [whether or not we get the show] we’ve been true to absolutely everything we do, our industry, and our community. 

How did things go at Denver’s inaugural Outdoor Retailer in January?  
I joked with people that getting OR ready is like trying to park the Titanic in a two-car garage going 40 miles an hour. Something is going to break. It’s going to be rough. I fully anticipated that with the first show something wasn’t going to work. But what humbles me is just how thoughtfully our community, our state, our city, and our industry came together. Typically something this size takes years to prepare for. We did it, essentially, in about 14 months. So that’s credit to Visit Denver and Outdoor Retailer. 

Do you feel bad for Utah that Outdoor Retailer left and came to Colorado? 
I do. I do. Still to this day, you never want to learn a lesson the hard way. And you have to understand that I went to that show in Salt Lake for years. I got to know taxi drivers, I got to know people in restaurants and hotels. To go to Salt Lake City in January when the show was supposed to be there, you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to feel the social and economic impact. What we have to do is be there for Utah. We need to show up. I don’t use this word often, but Tom Adams, my counterpart in Utah, is a true statesman and a true gentleman. He knew above all else, in the middle of all this, that our main goal was to serve our larger industry and [the show moved] due to things that were out of our control. 

When a new governor is elected in November, what will happen to your job? 
Honestly, I don’t know. A new governor could come in and decide one of many things: The office isn’t important enough to keep, so no more Office of Outdoor Recreation. Or no more Luis. Or all of the above. My goal is to stay here and keep doing the thing that I love to do, watching over an industry that I care deeply about. Hopefully whoever the new administration is, I’ll have an opportunity to advise them where we’ve been, where we are, and where we hope to go. The rest is up to them.

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Will you miss working with Governor Hickenlooper? 
[Benitez belly laughs] Beyond a shadow of a doubt, having the opportunity to work with one of my heroes has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Am I going to miss him? You better believe it.

Why is he one of your heroes?
His unflinching tenacity toward understanding that these things we’re discussing [in this interview] are the right things for Colorado. He has this concept that he talks a lot about: Topophilia, the love of place. Governor Hickenlooper goes into a different tier when he’s talking about love of place in our state and our legacy, and our heritage and the things that we should be the proudest of. Yes, there are other parts of our economy, yes he is proud of all of them, but the one thing that I think he recognizes is that [our natural amenities] are the sorts of things that define our quality of life. And that’s what’s been so special to be with him in this journey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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