This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Luis Benitez, the first director of Colorado’s outdoor recreation office who helped forge the model for state outdoor recreation policy, is returning to the spotlight.
“It’s good to be back,” he said. “Now I can get pushy again.”
After four years as vice president of global impact and government affairs at Denver-based VF Corp. and head of the global apparel giant’s VF Foundation, Benitez is shifting back into the public world. He’s going to help with CU Boulder’s Masters of the Environment graduate program. He’s taking up the outdoor recreation industry’s political, economic and cultural mission anew, which he sparked in 2016 as the second-ever state boss of an outdoor recreation office.
He’s got a long to-do list after four years of mostly global focus for VF. At the top is a push to get all the state recreation offices — Utah formed the first a decade ago and now there are 22 — under a federal banner.
“A federal outdoor recreation office must be created and must be created before the next presidential cycle,” Benitez said.
As the outdoor recreation economy grows, Benitez wants to gather the industry’s varied roles as an economic development engine, a force for conservation and stewardship and a growing political movement as a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“The state offices have done such a good job of keeping the lights on and keeping the engine humming. It’s time to drive the political change we need to take the industry to the next level,” said Benitez, a mountaineer and guide who has led expeditions to the world’s highest peaks. “The OREC industry has been invited into the room to sit quietly and answer the occasional question. We have not been invited to the table to join larger conversations. It’s time to change that.”
His vision — which is quietly shared by a growing number of state directors — is to forge a federal office of outdoor recreation that can work with a host of federal departments to hone the industry’s focus on conservation, workforce education, economic development and public health. (Those are the four principles outlined in the Confluence Accords that guide the country’s state outdoor recreation offices.)
Ideally, he said, the Interior Department’s new Office of Strategic Partnerships, the Forest Service, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education will work with the new office to align the outdoor recreation industry’s efforts around those four guiding principles.
At CU, Benitez hopes to foster not just the next generations of outdoor recreation innovators, but political leaders. It’s a page from the modern-day outdoor influencers playbook, which has upset the traditional dynamic of popular athletes promoting brands to include more diverse voices speaking to populations that maybe don’t feel part of the outdoor recreation world.
“That is going to help us play in this larger game and connect everything and it really starts with education,” Benitez said.
VF Corp moved to Denver from North Carolina in 2018, setting up its global headquarters in LoDo. The move was a win for Colorado’s growing outdoor recreation industry as the state positioned itself as a national hub for all things outdoor recreation. Benitez, as head of the state’s outdoor recreation office, played a large role in that move. He then joined the company.
The pandemic was hard on all retailers and apparel makers, with supply-chain disruptions that challenged global companies into 2022. In December, the company’s CEO Steve Rendle, who orchestrated the move to Denver, unexpectedly quit the company he had worked at for more than 20 years.
Benitez only has high praise for VF Corp. He’s proud of how VF has championed sustainability on a global scale.
“It was time for me to do something different and talk to this larger game,” he said.
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Benitez just got a new raft and he’s planning to spend more time on the river with his family. He’s working on a book, too. It’s an autobiography — co-written by gifted outdoors writer Frederick Reimers — that Benitez said “is about the emerging political voice of the outdoor industry … using my own personal life narrative to follow that track.”
Benitez knows the follow-up question to public figures who are writing their life story.
“You’re about to tell me that sounds like I’ve got some political plan,” he said. “That’s when I look at you and go ‘wink, wink we’ll see.’”