"Some of the feedback we began to get back was, 'By the way, this is Washington, D.C. Money talks. Nice to hear from you, but I got a campaign to run,'" he said. "So we began making contributions. It was clear if there wasn't any money behind it, we were compromising ourselves."
Industry officials say Americans spend $646 billion a year on outdoor gear and apparel, off-road vehicles and travel and services, creating 6.1 million professional and seasonal jobs. Many American brands dominate the global marketplace for outdoor equipment.
In Washington, the 4,000-member Outdoor Industry Association tripled its PAC contributions in 2012 to nearly $900,000, according to data compiled by opensecrets.org. The industry spends around $300,000 a year on lobbying, but says it didn't push for Jewell's nomination and that she earned it on her own.
In Utah, the OIA pressured the state's Republican governor to treat outdoor recreation seriously by threatening to pull a lucrative trade show out of Salt Lake City. They have helped fund nonprofits that push for increased land preservation, sometimes butting heads with energy groups seeking to drill on federal lands.
"This is an economic engine, not just a bunch of guys trying to protect the land," said Mike Reberg, district director for Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. "They created an economic perspective on why this stuff is important."
Lobbying disclosures show the OIA's leading issues are protecting wilderness lands and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Act, which steers money from offshore oil leases to recreation programs. It has teamed up with other industry players to push for a repeal of the 1930s tariff on imported shoes.
"Our industry is often overlooked because of how diverse and broad it is. It's not a normal economic sector," said Frank Hugelmeyer, OIA's president. "We're a horizontal industry that touches many traditional economic sectors."
Beyond her executive experience, it was Jewell's work on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association and for President Barack Obama's "America's Great Outdoors Initiative" brought her leadership to the attention of the White House.
"She knows the link between conservation and good jobs," Obama said at a White House ceremony Feb. 6. "She knows that there's no contradiction."
Jewell is inspirational, "mission-driven" and a consensus builder who nearly doubled REI's revenues to $1.8 billion since joining REI in 2000 and will raise the profile of the industry, said company chairman John Hamlin, managing partner of the private-equity firm Bozeman Limited Partnership.
Among the issues Jewell will need to navigate is the collision between a record-setting energy boom — which has led to sharply increased drilling over the past decade — and the desire of western communities to lure tourists and information-age workers who want to be able to play outdoors, using the gear the industry makes.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said she's baffled at the hostility to energy exploration among the outdoor recreation industry.
"They're not transporting their products via windmills," she said. "Their customers wouldn't be able to use all that gear in the mountains without driving in their cars."
Bishop complained that REI has pushed for America's Redrock Wilderness Act, a bill that has languished in Congress for years without action because of the Utah delegation's opposition. It also helped fund nonprofits who sued to stop the Bush administration's award of 77 oil and gas leases on Utah land in 2008. He scoffed at those who argue that the West can prosper from the recreation economy.
"Recreation is a great element but it's only one of the elements you need," Bishop said. "It is extremely volatile. You need a good industrial sector. You need a good manufacturing sector. You need a good mining sector."
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