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Luis Benitez learned to mix a highball when he was a young boy. Not for himself, of course. From a tender age, Benitez was in close proximity to power brokers—and, in this case, he was mixing drinks for men with last names like Ashcroft and Busch and Danforth.
It was the late 1970s and early ’80s, and after school was over, Benitez would head to his maternal grandfather’s suburban St. Louis store, Kelly’s Sporting Goods. Bill Kelly hadn’t always been the proprietor of a retail business. He’d first made his name as a hunting and fishing guide who helped his clients achieve their goals on rivers or in duck blinds, from Missouri’s Ozarks to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and most everywhere in between. Some of those clients were men of considerable power and influence, and one day a few of them encouraged Kelly to open a sporting goods store. “The way my grandfather tells the story is that they were fly-fishing,” Benitez says. “They were all standing by the river, and they were like, ‘Bill, we have to order our shotguns from Scotland and our fly reels from England, and we pay a lot of import duties. We think you should open a shop.’ ”
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Kelly thought it was a grand idea, except he didn’t have the capital to establish a business of his own. So these men of considerable power and influence—Missouri Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Senator John C. Danforth, and Augie Busch, as in Anheuser-Busch—told their friend they’d write him checks. He’d never have to pay them back, they said, but in return for their largesse, when the business became solvent, these men could walk in and grab, say, a hunting jacket off the rack and keep it. Maybe a fly rod and a reel and a pair of boots, too. If they wanted Kelly to guide them, he’d have to get the store’s manager to run the shop while they were off gallivanting in the wilds.
And so it came to be that, before long, little Luis was hanging out at Kelly’s Sporting Goods after school, stocking shotgun shells and fishing rods and making highballs for these prominent men and running interference when their respective wives called the shop to ask where they were. “My grade school was a quarter-mile away from my grandfather’s shop,” Benitez says. “From the time I got out at 3 to 6 p.m. when my mom came to pick me up after work, this was my education.”
It was an education in both how power works and in the ability of outdoor pursuits to bring people together—the store’s slogan was “Where Sportsmen Meet”—that would serve Benitez well as he embarked upon a life full of ambitious undertakings. Some of those quests involved expeditions in extreme environments. In his 20s and 30s, Benitez summited Mt. Everest six times, including being a key member of the team that guided Golden’s Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to reach the highest point on Earth. Benitez has also stood atop the tallest peaks on all seven continents, many of them multiple times.
In his early 40s, however, Benitez took on a different type of challenge: a desk job as the founding director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. As the head of that entity, created in 2015 by then Governor John Hickenlooper, Benitez was tasked with being the point person for the Colorado businesses and communities that rely on the outdoor recreation economy. He relished the opportunity to help protect Colorado’s lands and grow the state’s already robust outdoor economy.
When Governor Jared Polis’ administration arrived, Benitez took his outdoors experience and Rolodex to VF Corporation, the parent company of iconic outdoor apparel brands such as the North Face and Smartwool. But the long-term mission he had begun to execute at the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office permeated his thoughts during his four years in the private sector. So much so that Benitez left VF Corporation in early 2023 to launch a new, very public mission: to create a federal office of outdoor recreation.
Benitez has begun this adventure at a time in which the idea of growing the federal government is anathema to roughly 50 percent of the voting public, and substantive—and seemingly intractable—issues like inflation, crime, health care costs, homelessness, immigration, and gun violence are front of mind domestically. It is, figuratively, a steep hill to climb. “If Lou says he’s going to do it, he’s going to find a way to do it,” says David Benitez, Luis’ younger brother by 11 years. “And if it’s not 100 percent achievable, he’s going to find micro-wins, and then, you know, everybody will feel like he did it anyway. It’s kind of an inevitability.”
In the state of Colorado, the phrase “outdoor recreation” conjures myriad images: hiking in the San Juan Mountains, fly-fishing on the Frying Pan River, cycling up Flagstaff Mountain, paddling on the Arkansas River, mountain biking in Fruita, elk hunting in the Never Summer range, four-wheeling near Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument, and skiing the Back Bowls of Vail Ski Resort. These excursions are among the primary reasons so many Coloradans choose to live here, and why so many tourists visit from around the world each year. The state sells adventure—it’s what we have that so many others desire.
The ability to recreate in these wild spaces is also an important reason people stay in Colorado and in other states that have a similarly wide variety of natural assets. This phenomenon is a byproduct of something referred to as topophilia, a term Hickenlooper often employed when, as governor, he touted Colorado’s wilderness and the impact it has on the state’s residents. Topophilia is derived from the Greek words “topo,” meaning “place,” and “philia,” meaning “love of,” and as early as 2005, it had been defined as “the affective bond with one’s environment—a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place,” in an Environmental Health Perspectives article.
Roughly a decade ago, Hickenlooper decided he wanted to leverage that love of place in the Centennial State while at the same time keeping its wildlands wild. That meant coordinating supervision over the vast and somewhat disparate outdoor recreation industry in Colorado by creating the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, the second such department in the country, after Utah’s. Naturally, the governor wanted to hire a savvy leader and a strategic thinker to head up the new office, but he also needed someone with wide-ranging experience in the outdoor world. He ultimately tapped Benitez, who at the time was working at Vail Resorts. “Governor Hickenlooper deserves so much credit for this,” says Conor Hall, who became the office’s director in 2022. “He was a real visionary in shaping the office and giving it a voice and putting it in Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade to give it a real economic development and jobs bent. Because this is really one of the key economic drivers for the state.”
Benitez says that in the early days of the office, he was given a desk, a computer, and a credit card for gas—and that was about it. His portfolio of responsibilities, however, was significantly more substantive. Hickenlooper’s charge to Benitez was to coordinate efforts to grow the outdoor rec economy while also improving awareness of the sector, including promoting education and workforce development, and spearheading health and wellness initiatives. “For a long time, I had recognized the layered benefits that come from outdoor recreation,” Hickenlooper, now a U.S. senator, says. “It’s not just getting people healthy. It’s also about maintaining spiritual health. It’s helping people recognize and value wilderness and open spaces of all kinds. And it also creates jobs.”
Conservation and environmental stewardship also fell under Benitez’s purview. As participation in outdoor recreation has grown in Colorado, and across the country, that increased usage has burdened our wild spaces, and preserving those landscapes has frequently fallen to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). One representative example is the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which helps maintain trails on the state’s highest peaks. “We need to think of the outdoors as infrastructure,” Benitez says. “We need to think of trails like highways and rivers as bridges. We need to think this way because these things are resources that help drive our sector of commerce. These are not amenities; they are strategic, structural pieces of this economy.” Benitez argues that maintaining heavily used trails, for instance, should not fall to NGOs; most of the funding for and the work on projects like those should be carried out by state and federal entities working in concert.
A few years after Colorado’s office had been established, Benitez began looking beyond the state’s borders to expand his vision of a more unified and centralized effort to advocate for the outdoor recreation industry. In 2018, he rolled out the Confluence Accords, an early attempt to organize the various state offices of outdoor recreation that had been created around four pillars: conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, economic development, and public health and wellness. “It became clear to me as more state offices were created that we needed to have our own Magna Carta,” Benitez says. “Basically, the idea was to say to governors: ‘If you create this office, fine, you can choose your adventure and follow your own path. But if you choose to create this office and be part of the national consortium, you have to become a signatory to the Confluence Accords.’ ”
Benitez freely admits that it was an “experiment,” but it has worked—to a point. Currently, there are 22 states with offices of outdoor recreation, 16 of which have signed on to the Confluence Accords. That leaves 28 states, including the four most populous in the nation, without such an office, and the offices that do exist have often experienced setbacks. Montana, for example, has an office of outdoor recreation, but the current governor, who didn’t create the office, has decided not to staff it. The office in Oregon was nearly shut down as a result of budget cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic; directors from other states’ outdoor recreation agencies lobbied Oregon’s governor to keep the office, which he did.
Ultimately, the state bureaus are at the mercy of their respective governors, which, even with the Confluence Accords in place, makes things unnecessarily unstable in the outdoor rec sector. As Benitez puts it, those offices need an air traffic controller overseeing things and holding those states, and their governors, accountable. Both he and Hickenlooper believe a federal office could do just that.
When you have lunch with Benitez or watch him participate in a panel discussion, it’s easy to forget his mountaineering bona fides. In person, Benitez radiates energy, but like most mountain climbers, he is not physically imposing. He has enviable, wavy dark hair and perfect white teeth and, whether he is clean-shaven or sporting a full beard, he is eminently rugged in a way most men can only dream of. At the same time, at the age of 51, he looks more like a hip suburban dad—which he is—than, say, Nirmal Purja, the Nepali-born climber who is the most recognizable high-elevation mountaineer today.
It’s also easy to look past Benitez’s feats as a summiter of 8,000-meter peaks because, for the better part of a decade now, he has toiled away at office jobs, much to the delight of his family, which had worried about his safety for years. The evolution is more logical than it might appear, but grasping the journey is easier if one demarcates Benitez’s working life into a series of acts:
Act I: outdoor/mountaineering guide, world traveler, climber of big mountains
Act II: town councilperson in Eagle, director of organizational development and then director of talent development at Vail Resorts, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, vice president of global impact and government affairs at VF Corporation
Act III: TBD
It’s more difficult to draw a straight line from Benitez’s early life experiences through to his professional accomplishments. His father, Ramiro, was an aerospace engineer who’d immigrated to the United States from Ecuador in the early 1960s to attend St. Louis University. His mother, Rosanna, was an artist and art teacher from Missouri. His parents were the yin and yang that influenced his younger years, and Kelly’s Sporting Goods provided him a schooling in the ways of the world.
It was an early-childhood diagnosis of asthma, however, that in retrospect seems as if it could have thwarted Benitez’s adventures before they’d begun. For much of his upbringing, Benitez struggled to breathe, both at a lower elevation in St. Louis and when he visited his dad’s family outside of Quito, Ecuador, which sits at an elevation of 9,350 feet. Eventually, his parents found a doctor who prescribed several things; chief among the recommendations was simply spending time at elevation to strengthen his lungs.
Neither of his parents was particularly outdoorsy, but his Ecuadorian uncles were. Benitez and his family would visit every summer, and young Luis would follow two of his uncles—who were engineers by profession and mountaineers by hobby—on high-elevation trails and practice breathing in the thin air. “Bit by bit, things got better, got stronger,” Benitez says.
Toward the end of high school, Benitez worked summers as a hut boy in Ecuador’s high-elevation hut system, cleaning the backcountry cabins and assisting the cooks. He was good at the job and handled the elevation surprisingly well—so well that he was eventually promoted to a position that Benitez says translates from Spanish to “turnaround person.” If clients got themselves in trouble on their expeditions, Benitez would be sent out to rescue them and bring them back to the hut. “I had grown up my entire life with asthma, learning pressure-breathing exercises,” Benitez says. “People would get freaked out because they couldn’t breathe the higher they got, and it’s hard to explain, but I could drop into this gear that was very comfortable and familiar because I knew how to pressure-breathe. I could stay calm when everyone else was struggling and falling apart.”
Benitez was mostly an indifferent student, both when he was younger and as he aged. Still, he attended the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where he studied political science, all while honing his climbing and mountaineering skills. Instead of completing his undergraduate degree, though, Benitez told his parents he was moving to Colorado to be a guide with Outward Bound, which offers experiential outdoor education programs. “They were like, ‘Luis, you’re throwing your life away to be a glorified camp counselor?’ ” Benitez says. (Benitez holds a professional mountaineering guide accreditation and has an executive MBA from the University of Denver.)
If the mountains of Ecuador instilled in Benitez a fascination with the high country, the mountains of Colorado forged in him a lifelong love affair. They also cemented in him an optimism and a stick-to-itiveness that’s common among mountaineers. Luis, his brother David says, is not the type of guy who finds excuses not to do something.
David recounts the story of when he and Luis were doing a multi-pitch climb in Colorado, maybe 20 years ago. The brothers were on the second pitch when David was ready to turn back. “I was like, ‘Lou, it’s gonna storm. There’s, like, a gigantic storm. I can see it.’ ”
Luis told his younger brother not to worry. “We’re clinging onto the rock wall and getting slammed by sleet and freezing rain and ice, and Lou said, ‘It’s Colorado. Don’t worry, it’ll pass,’ ” David says. “It didn’t pass.”
Twenty minutes later, the storm broke, but the temperature had plummeted, and David was freezing. “Lou said, ‘Come on, the only way you’re going to warm up is if you keep moving.’ So we kept moving, kept going up.”
The conditions were such that the brothers failed to complete the climb on that day, but Luis’ perseverance left a strong impression on his younger brother. That tenacity stuck with David and helped him reach the tops of mountains on other difficult climbs. “You know that elation when you summit?” David says. “That feeling when you finally finish the climb is unparalleled. Everything else is erased when you’re at the top.”
The outdoor recreation industry economy in the United States accounted for $454 billion, or 1.9 percent, of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021, according to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). For context, BEA data show that utilities account for 1.7 percent of the GDP and mining accounts for 1.5 percent. In 2021, the year for which the most recent data are available, the outdoor rec industry accounted for 4.5 million jobs.
Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2018 that the BEA began measuring the footprint of the industry—which means no one really knew the full scope of the sector until five years ago. “The outdoor recreation industry has not been seen, or even understood itself, as a cohesive thing,” says Brad Garmon, the executive director of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and the 2023 chair of the Confluence of States, a coalition of states who have signed on to the Confluence Accords. “It’s partly tourism, but it’s also the ski hill operators and the people who serve the food at the resorts and the people who change the sheets in your hotel room. It’s the boat manufacturer and the RV manufacturer and the shoe manufacturer—it’s all part of the outdoor rec industry. For years, I don’t think that was understood.”
Not only is it now being recognized as a unified industry, but the data also reveal a sector that’s growing. The number of Americans participating in outdoor recreation—which includes a broad spectrum of activities, from jogging to camping to hunting—has grown for the past eight years. In 2022, the nonprofit Outdoor Industry Association’s most recent data year, the number of outdoor recreation participants grew 2.3 percent to 168.1 million, which translates to 55 percent of the U.S. population over the age of six. By contrast, 51 percent of Americans read a book in 2022, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
All of which raises an obvious question: Given the size of the outdoor recreation industry, why isn’t there already a federal office dedicated to it? Benitez likes to say that, as a whole, the outdoor recreation industry has been too busy playing outside to get organized on a national level in a way that might result in an agency or office nestled within a cabinet-level department, such as the Department of Commerce or the Department of the Interior. “We’re the cool kids,” he says. “We do inspirational stuff, and that is a part of our narrative.”
Hall, the current director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, takes a slightly different view. “I think that’s right—to a degree,” Hall says. “But I think that’s a little bit overblown. I think it’s more a byproduct of being such a disparate and widespread industry. It’s a series of a whole bunch of different businesses that all have that through line of the outdoors. And so it’s just been a little bit harder to organize.”
There actually once was a federal-level Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR), which John F. Kennedy established in 1963 and housed inside the Department of the Interior. The bureau was created in response to the findings of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration in 1958. According to a 2018 white paper titled “The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in Post-War America” by attorney Jeremy W. Richter, “The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was not to manage any land itself but concerned itself with policy, planning, aid, and coordination. The Bureau was interested in all outdoor recreation, both urban and rural.… The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation would work through the states, which would serve as middlemen between the federal and local governments.”
In its 15 years as a discrete entity (in 1977, it was disbanded and its responsibilities were absorbed into the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, which was abolished by President Ronald Reagan in 1981), the BOR had a marked effect that endures today. Its more lasting legacy may be its involvement in the passing of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, which resulted in the creation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF, which was originally financed by entry fees and donations to the country’s national parks, now uses money generated from offshore gas and oil extraction projects to fund states’ outdoor recreation projects.
In order to access those federal dollars—still available today through the LWCF, which was permanently funded in August 2020 by the Great American Outdoors Act—states must complete Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plans (SCORP) every five years. “Funds [are] available to states for both urban and rural recreational needs,” Richter writes. “The idea of the SCORP was to use time and money more efficiently. The SCORP would keep the states focused on the most pressing of the outdoor recreation needs, rather than being sidetracked by lesser projects.”
The LWCF is just one example Benitez can point to as a reason to resurrect a federal office. But given that BOR shuttered less than two decades after its creation, it seems reasonable to be skeptical of Benitez’s endeavor, and indeed there are a number of obstacles to the creation of such an office. Existing federal agencies that operate in the outdoor space—the U.S. Forest Service, for example, or the Bureau of Land Management—might believe there’s no need for another federal office coordinating what they do. Furthermore, broad-based understanding of what outdoor rec is and does is a potential hurdle. “We need to make people aware of the impact of outdoor recreation and why it’s important,” says Katherine Andrews, the director of Arkansas’ Office of Outdoor Recreation. “That’s one of the biggest parts of our jobs—explaining to people why outdoor recreation is important and how it contributes to factors like health and wellness, conservation, and economic growth.”
Finally, funding is a concern at the federal level when the United States is running a $1.4 trillion budget deficit. Benitez, who started the Colorado office with a desk, a gas card, and a computer, says, in all seriousness, “That’s all you need to start a federal office. It could be one person with a minimal budget. We’re not talking about big government.”
Even with all those potential hurdles to clear, outdoor recreation and all it encompasses—the protection and stewardship of the country’s wild spaces, the creation of jobs, and the health benefits of recreating outside—is one of the last domestic issues that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seem to agree on. “There are so many legislators now who recognize the importance of outdoor rec,” says Andrews, who works for Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose administration has made outdoor recreation a priority. “And, honestly, outdoor recreation is a very good example of a bipartisan issue. We see people from all across the political spectrum not only participating in the outdoors but also caring about the outdoors, both from a real, deep, personal connection and from a legislative and policy perspective. I don’t think it’s an uphill climb. I think Luis is really riding this awesome wave.”
It’s difficult to say whether Benitez’s formative years spent in proximity to powerful people or his years as a mountaineering guide at the highest levels or his innate determination will help him most in his effort to create a federal office of outdoor recreation, but his former boss has an educated guess. “Luis approaches solving problems like he approaches a mountain,” Hickenlooper says. “Especially with the larger, more complicated problems, he’s looking for a route. And once he’s got that route, then he’s analyzing it for weaknesses or places of risk. And then he’s figuring out how he’s going to resolve those places of risk when he gets to that point.”
As Michigan’s Garmon puts it: “I think the industry has always needed a sort of champion like Luis—someone who’s relatable, but also, you know, he’s summited Everest and can sit in Congress and chat with senators. Luis is a force of nature.”
Benitez is well aware that if a federal office of outdoor recreation is to be created, it will not happen quickly. Such an office would be established by the president or by an act of Congress. Benitez clearly already has the backing of Hickenlooper—who met with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo to discuss the idea in July—and he says both Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse support the effort to create a federal office. This month, Benitez will speak at the Outdoor Economy Conference in North Carolina, where he will press his case with the 22 state outdoor recreation office directors. “We need to have the directors have conversations with their bosses [governors],” Benitez says, “and be able to say, ‘Red, blue, purple—it does not matter. This is good for everybody. This is not bigger government; this is better government.’ ”
Being Luis Benitez means not sitting around and waiting, so while he advocates for a seat at the federal table, he is teaching a class in the Masters of the Environment program at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s also written a book about emerging political voices in the outdoor rec industry that’s tentatively scheduled to be released in spring 2024 by Di Angelo Publications. Teaching, writing, advocating: Benitez’s third act sure looks as if it’s shaping up to be political in nature. He says he isn’t thinking about leading a potential federal office of outdoor recreation, but he’d be open to considering it if he were asked. He also says he wants the next lieutenant governor of Colorado to make the outdoors his or her bailiwick. “Whoever the gubernatorial nominee is, I’m going to do everything in my power to push them to make the lieutenant governor responsible for this,” Benitez says. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the outdoor recreation industry office, and the tourism office. That can all belong to the lieutenant governor.” Could Benitez be that lieutenant governor? He’s coy when asked about the prospect, but he thinks maybe he could.
For now, though, the mountain-climber-cum-educator-cum-politico is focusing on helping the industry he loves. Benitez’s wife, Katie Jacquemin, says the happiest she’s seen her husband of 10 years at work was when he was employed by the state government. “The most passionate I’ve ever seen him in a job was when he was working with Governor Hickenlooper,” she says. “All the time I’ve known him, that’s the most passionate I’ve ever seen him about a job and a purpose.”
After a stint in the private sector, that passion has returned. “We need a deeper understanding of who we are as an industry, what we do, what our political power is, and what our voices could look like together,” Benitez says. “That’s why you need a clearinghouse for all these things. Because until you do, people are going to do great stuff in their lanes. And don’t get me wrong: These lanes are awesome. But imagine the efficacy if we worked together. If we could just get our narrative a little tighter, imagine the power of that.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this article reported that Washington state’s outdoor recreation was nearly shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state was Oregon. Additionally, the article reported that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is financed by entry fees and donations to national parks; the LWCF was originally funded in this manner, but its financing now comes from profits made from offshore oil and gas projects. We regret the errors.