Representing the Outdoors is a series dedicated to interviewing policy makers about outdoor issues. The Co-op Journal takes a nonpartisan approach to interviewing elected officials. If there is a Congressperson who advocates for the outdoors that you’d like to see interviewed here, please let us know in the comments below.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Representative Graves (R-LA) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Co-op Journal or REI.
What’s one of your most memorable outdoor experiences, and why?
Well, my wife and I got engaged on a five-day kayak trip on the lower Snake and Salmon Rivers. For species preservation purposes, that has to be at the top. Over the past 30 years, serving as a wilderness instructor and river guide and doing solo trips played sort of a counterbalancing role to being a consultant and congressional staffer and working on coastal resiliency efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Pushing yourself to new limits to bag a peak, deciphering currents to successfully navigate rapids, learning your mental and physical strengths on a rock, working with the members of your trip to overcome the challenges the backcountry will throw your way, or just lying out under the big sky to watch the light show—the outdoors forever changed me.
One of my favorite experiences leading wilderness trips was watching the transformation that would occur in students after we had been out in the backcountry for a week or two. Everyone stunk, none of us would win a looks contest and all of the societal pressures and factions just sort of dissolved. You were just left with the core of real people. Communication, respect, support, self-realization and sense of community all improved.
Walt Whitman wrote that the secret of making the best person is to “grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” He didn’t just stumble upon that.
What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear and what do you love about it?
Can I do two? First, a lightweight Mountain Hardwear jacket. It packs tight, blocks the wind, is water-resistant and you could wear it on a peak or to a White House meeting. Second, we have this old Dana Design daypack that I still use all the time traveling back and forth to Washington. Dana was the pioneer in weight management and comfort and I still love the pack. For those of you under 30, Google it.
What are the outdoor places in your state or district that people should visit?
In Louisiana, the real jewel is our coast and coastal wetland areas. It is unlike any wilderness anywhere. It’s one of the largest watersheds in the world, sending enormous volumes of fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico and creating an estuary there that is one of the most productive ecosystems on the continent. Uniquely beautiful terrain; abundant wildlife; our sunsets and sunrises are unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. And there are 7,800 miles of shoreline where you can go to visit these gems. One area really worth visiting is the Barataria Unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, which hosts unbelievable scenery, trails and more. I can’t say it enough about South Louisiana and all that it has to offer. Get a taste by checking out “Cajun sleigh ride” on YouTube. You can’t do that in Yosemite.
What are the most pressing conservation and stewardship issues our country currently faces?
I can’t help but answer this question through a South Louisiana lens: Our state has lost 2,000 square miles of coast. If the state of Rhode Island lost 2,000 square miles, the U.S. would be down to 49 states today. Reconfiguring rivers, building levees, digging new channels, coastal erosion, subsidence and sea rise are taking their toll. This is huge.
For years, people viewed the crisis there as a birds and fish habitat problem, but Hurricane Katrina sobered us up to understanding that it is bigger than that—what’s happening in Louisiana is a detriment to the national economy, to America’s future, and to the rich history, culture and way of life expressed every day through the millions of people who live here.
Due to our unique geographical and geological features, Louisiana is very much the canary in the coal mine when it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate and sea rise. We are at the forefront of coastal sustainability and resilience challenges.
When you look at the ecological productivity of coastal Louisiana—which effectively surpasses everywhere else in North American in terms of our incredibly productive estuary and the largest wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl—virtually all species in the Gulf of Mexico are dependent on our coast wetlands and the resources it provides at some point during their lifespan. It is an incredibly rich resource that is dying and disappearing at an alarming rate. Almost 90 percent of the coastal wetland loss in the continental United States is happening here in Louisiana.
When I think of pressing conservation stewardship issues, I think South Louisiana is ground zero. The precedent being set here is the model that coastal and other communities everywhere should be paying close attention to. The primary question yet to be answered is whether there is going to be an effort to achieve a proper balance in sustainability or will we just write these areas off? So, if you live in California, New York or Florida, this should be a big deal to you and you need to understand that what’s happening here is not okay.
What role can the outdoors play in promoting health and well-being among U.S. citizens?
Most obvious is the improvement to health and fitness that coincides with more active time spent in the outdoors. Getting to the outdoors usually requires you to move, so whether you are running, hiking, biking or climbing then you are taking advantage of the incredible opportunities that nature provides. Also, there are several studies that show being outdoors can lower your blood pressure and help improve your mental fitness; and there are other direct and indirect benefits to having open spaces and being outdoors. One of the things I enjoy about being outdoors is the mental clarity it can produce: It helps you do a better job prioritizing. For example, when you are backpacking, because of the weight of your backpack and space constraints, you are motivated to prioritize what you bring and to recalibrate your perception of what is truly essential. Live for a few days with limited gear and primitive surroundings and you’re reminded of what really matters, what’s really important and what is excessive.
What do you see as the biggest threat to public lands and waters today?
We have to better balance residential and economic development with sustainability. For a long time, economic and development considerations have been the primary drivers, and I think we are now to a level of science, understanding and awareness that some of these goals are threatened to be undermined by our failure to think about sustainability. So how do we get to a better balance? It looks different depending on where you are and the factors at play. In our home state, it means restoration of our coast and resiliency of our communities in light of storm and flood threats. But nationally, even globally, it means adaptation to climate change and sea rise. It means doing a better job with natural resource management and greenhouse gas emissions and clean energy technology solutions. I have become a huge fan of those symbiotic relationships or solutions. We have developed or improved a number of natural solutions to our resilience challenges here—using the power of nature to actually help improve our flood protection, sequestering greenhouse gases and improving seafood production.
Why is access to public lands, parks and waters important to you?
The importance of the outdoors to me is directly tied to the personal role it played in my maturity and growth. My time in the outdoors and the experiential wisdom gained there are irreplaceable. It’s one thing to have the lands for ecological productivity, but it’s more than that. It changed me, challenged me and taught me more about myself than perhaps anything I have done. The ability to access these treasures and giving the public the opportunity to experience what they have to offer have so many benefits.
What impact does the outdoor recreation economy stand to make nationwide?
The economic benefits of outdoor recreation are, in my opinion, largely underappreciated—especially in places where it’s not obvious. I think about recreational fishing in South Louisiana, for example, and the enormously positive economic impact it has. In other states it might be hiking, mountain biking or skiing. For us, it looks different, but the impact is just as significant. Our primary outdoor recreation here has almost everything to do with our coast, the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico, birdwatching, hunting, swamp critter tours and saltwater fishing. And it’s not just the fishing; it’s the the hotels, the restaurants, the marinas, the bait shops, the charter boat captains—all that goes into these coastal economies. These activities are critical, extensive and the foundation of an economic pulse for places that could potentially otherwise struggle. Outdoor recreational opportunities create destinations.
What’s a policy solution for the outdoors you’re working on?
We are working to cut through some of the bureaucracy and red tape when it comes to laws applicable to environmental protection. In a number of cases, we have found that these laws designed to protect the environment are the ones preventing environmental restoration projects. Being told you can’t build a wetlands restoration project because you may impact wetland is a real head-scratcher. Our laws should not hinder the critical restoration of the coast of Louisiana and prevent us from having more resilient and sustainable communities. We’re also working on bipartisan legislation that would create a lifetime national park pass. Right now, there is an annual pass, but the creation of a lifetime pass would create the ability to pull forward funding for land management agencies to make investments, repairs and other needed improvements now and to pay those expenses off much earlier than they otherwise would. We think that the lifetime pass would create more revenue, incentivize more frequent and repeat visits, and outperform the annual pass framework currently in place.