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It was the summer of 2017, and I was working on a story about how Colorado land managers were seeing a distressing rise in what they called the loving-it-to-death phenomenon. Too many people were in the same outdoor spaces at the same times, and they often weren’t respecting the sensitive environments they were visiting. To learn more about how the state might address the growing problem, I had coffee on the 16th Street Mall with Luis Benitez, who was then the director of the nascent Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
Benitez wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from the director of an agency housed within the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. He was gregarious, confident, funny, compelling, and adamant that the state needed to find a way to protect its valuable natural assets not only because they were ecologically worthy of protection, but also because they were a huge economic driver. “We’re never going to put a ‘closed’ sign on Colorado,” Benitez said then. “But this is an industry worth billions of dollars, and I think we can—and should—take care of our own backyard.”
Six years later, Benitez is, if possible, even more outspoken about and dedicated to that cause—so much so that he’s taking his convictions to Washington, D.C. As 5280 editorial director Geoff Van Dyke details in this month’s profile of Benitez, the 51-year-old adventurer now wants to galvanize the outdoor recreation industry at the federal level by creating a national office of outdoor recreation. “There are 22 state offices of outdoor recreation, but there’s a limit to what they can accomplish without federal coordination,” Van Dyke says. “Creating a new federal office these days is a big ask, but given that outdoor recreation is an $862 billion industry in the United States, Benitez believes his mission is warranted. And advocating for outdoor rec seems to be one of the last issues both sides of the aisle are willing to support.”
I hadn’t seen Benitez since our long-ago coffee chat, but our paths crossed again in early 2023, right after he had left a private sector job to begin his latest campaign. This time around, we grabbed a hard cider about six blocks from the state Capitol, which seemed fitting. Benitez’s goal of having a federal office of outdoor recreation is an ambitious one, but if anyone can move mountains inside the U.S. Capitol, it’s a guy who has summited Mt. Everest six times.