Public Lands Pay Dividends

Pronghorn antelope graze in a New Mexico plain. (Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management — click to enlarge)
Pronghorn antelope graze in a New Mexico plain. (Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management — click to enlarge)
Guest Column by Kate Zimmerman
Originally published July 2, 2013 on

A question for the new Secretary of the Interior: without public lands, would there be an REI?

Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation
Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation

Earlier this year, Sally Jewell was confirmed as President Obama’s second Secretary of the Interior.  Unlike her predecessor, the former senator from Colorado Ken Salazar, Secretary Jewell comes to the Department of the Interior from the private sector.  Most recently she was the president and CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. or “REI” as it is known to millions of Americans across the country.  REI is celebrating 75 years in business this year.  Started by a group of mountain climbers in 1938 as a way to order hard-to-find gear, REI has grown to be the nation’s largest member-owned consumer cooperative, with more than 5 million members. In 2012, it had 129 retail outlets in 32 states nationwide. Revenues reached almost $2 billion.

But my question is: could REI survive without America’s outdoor playground – our nation’s public lands?

Capitol Hill is not in Washington, D.C.  It’s a neighborhood in Seattle, Washington.  Capitol Hill was also home to the old Seattle REI.  (For those of you in Washington, D.C. to whom this is news, you really need to get outside the “Beltway” more often.)  The old REI store was a former auto dealership–a creaky maze of cramped showrooms joined by ramps and oddly spaced stairs.  Visitors often spoke of the building’s distinctive aroma: a hint of creosote from the wooden floor blocks of the old garage.  When I moved to Seattle from the Midwest in the 1980s; the Capitol Hill store was a revelation.  I remember being stunned by the assortment of light-weight tents set up on the third floor so you could actually crawl inside and see how “spacious” your camping accommodations would be.

For years, REI was primarily a backpacking and climbing-gear store personified by its longtime manager, Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest.  But like other retailers, such as Patagonia, L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, REI changed in the late 1970s and ‘80s to meet the burgeoning demand for a wide range of gear by outdoor enthusiasts, including me.

According to a 2012 Outdoor Industry Association report cited in a new Wildlife Federation (NWF) report on the value of public lands, my fellow outdoor enthusiasts and I now spend more than $646 billion annually to support our “habit.”  I’m willing to bet that a substantial portion of those expenditures can be attributed to America’s public lands.  The National Park System lands, for example, receive over 280 million visits each year.

But it’s not just the parks; more than 70 million people visit lands overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.  They come to raft the rivers, hike the trails, and ride the back roads and trails. They fish, they hunt, they hike, they ride, they float, and they camp. They visit heritage sites, National Monuments, Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness, National Trails and National Conservation Areas. They come to see wildlife that would otherwise only be visible at the local zoo.

Yet NWF reports that, despite the economic and public values of these lands, federal lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills seeking to sell off or roll back protections for public lands.  And legislatures in seven western states—Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho—have passed, introduced, or explored legislation demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of these lands. If successful, these state bills would impose an enormous loss for fish and wildlife and outdoor recreation.  Rather than being managed for the benefit and use of the American public, these lands would instead be managed in whatever way each state wants to use them—which generally means maximizing mining, drilling, and other resource extraction or just selling them off to private developers.

REI has become a place where customers from across the country shop for tents, canoes, skis, hiking boots, bikes and other gear for “human-powered” recreation.  REI owes much of its success over the past 75 years to the unique opportunity the public lands provide for millions of Americans to spend their time and their money exploring America’s Great Outdoors.

Speaking at the Western Governors’ Association annual meeting last week, Jewell acknowledged how key public lands are to businesses like REI and the economy in general. She told the governors: “At REI, we recognized that if we were going to have customers of the future that we needed to engage the next generation in outdoor recreation. If we were going to have places to recreate, we needed to advocate for public lands that are so prevalent out here in the West, but are very, very important in the East but hard to come by.’’

I am hoping that Secretary Jewell’s stewardship over the next several years will pay back dividends.

Kate Zimmerman is the public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation. She has an extensive career in conservation as a private attorney with a practice emphasizing environmental and natural resources law and as a public lands and energy policy director with conservation organizations.

— Editor’s note: This column was updated on July 29, 2013
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact Guy Padgett at or Dustin Bleizeffer at

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