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 Stivers (R-OH) 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?
As a former Boy Scout, I've always had a special place in my heart for the outdoors. I especially remember building our own cross-country skis out of barrel stays. Being outdoors in southern Ohio meant being along the Ohio River, and some of my favorite memories are with Troop 324, working to earn merit badges and learning about the importance of stewardship.
What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear and what do you love about it?
I love my pair of Rocky boots that I use for everything from my National Guard training to being outdoors with my kids. They’re the most reliable pair of boots I’ve owned, from a great company in Nelsonville, Ohio, that makes boots and shoes for hikers, runners, hunters and soldiers. Hands down the best gear I own.
What are the outdoor places in your state or district that people should visit?
Ohio, and the 15th District especially, has so many opportunities to get outdoors. In Hocking County, southeast of Columbus, we have Hocking Hills State Park, Old Man's Cave and the Wayne National Forest—sites that [collectively] get more visitors than Yellowstone National Park every year. Soon, Hocking Hills will also be a part of the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail System, with 88 miles of trails that will be a premier mountain bike destination. I’m grateful to have the REI Co-op Mastercard and the National Forest Foundation as partners in phase one of this project.
South of Columbus, people can visit the Hopewell Mounds [at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park], which were built over 2,000 years ago as a gathering place for feasts, funerals and rites of passage for Hopewell people. This area has the incredible distinction of being nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a distinction held by other world-renowned places like the Grand Canyon and Machu Picchu. Whether you are a hunter, angler, paddler, backpacker or bird watcher, Ohio has plenty to see and do and people should come and see it for themselves!
What are the most pressing conservation or stewardship issues our country currently faces?
Being good stewards of our lands is the number one issue facing our natural resources. We must balance reasonable utilization along with conservation of our lands. This was instilled in me as a Boy Scout, learning that we should leave our campsite better than we found it. We must ensure that everyone has access to our lands to enjoy visiting parks, hunting and fishing, and all forms of recreation, but we must also ensure that local communities can tap into the revenue sources to invest in schools and infrastructure, and provide jobs to the people who live near public lands.
I think there are plenty of bipartisan ways to do this, for instance, the John Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, was signed into law last year, which prioritizes conservation, recreation and increased access to public lands. I have also been an early supporter of addressing our maintenance backlog on public lands. If we are all to be good stewards of our lands, we must be willing to dedicate the resources to maintain roads, trails, facilities and infrastructure so that more generations can continue to enjoy these resources.
What role can the outdoors play in promoting health and well-being among U.S. citizens?
It can play a huge role not just in promoting physical health, but mental health as well. For so many of our veterans, the transition between service and civilian life is tough, and many are battling serious mental health concerns. That’s why I’m cosponsoring the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, that would help veterans get access to outdoor recreation as a therapeutic option. Far too many of our veterans are coping with post-traumatic stress or other mental illnesses, and we should be open to creative solutions like this—I think it’s a worthwhile bipartisan effort.
Our lands can also promote our well-being as a community by giving people from different backgrounds a chance to find something in common. Promoting civility has become a priority for me in Congress, and outdoor recreation offers another opportunity to put aside our political or philosophical differences and unite behind the shared enjoyment of the great outdoors. Outdoor recreation has a part to play in bridging our communities that may seem miles apart, but in reality, have more in common than we think.
What do you see as the biggest threat to public lands and waters today?
As I mentioned earlier, finding the right balance between utilization and conservation is tough, but worth the debate. Thankfully, we have bipartisan solutions to help guard against those threats, like the Dingell Conservation Act, which permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). That was a major victory for conservation efforts. The LWCF realizes our energy potential in our natural resources and then uses proceeds to protect future lands and ensure access for everyone to enjoy them.
We also need to ensure more Americans learn about the variety of lands available to them, and help them get to know the land in their very own communities and regions that are available for recreation. Everyone is familiar with our national parks and major state parks, but we have so many other types of protected, and even private, lands that offer the chance to get outdoors.
Why is access to public lands, parks, and waters important to you?
I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. My daughter is already active in her Girl Scout troop, and I know she gets so much out of learning to love and respect the great outdoors, just like I did as a Boy Scout. We have to make sure that our kids, and our kids’ kids, get the chance to see “America’s best idea” [our national parks] and have the same opportunity to fall in love with all of our lands and what they can provide.
What impact does the outdoor recreation economy stand to make nationwide?
In my district alone, the outdoor recreation industry is worth $1.37 billion. Businesses in this industry are vital job creators on their own, but there is also so much potential to be reached in related industries, like tourism. In Southeast Ohio, we’re working to bring more hotels and restaurants to serve the hundreds of thousands of people who are coming to Hocking Hills, or who will be coming to bike the Baileys Mountain Trail. The UNESCO nomination, and eventual designation, for Hopewell Mounds will bring visitors from all over the world. All of this is going to be a huge boon for our local economy, and the industry has the potential to replicate those results in communities across the country as they begin to figure out ways to build a sustainable economy around recreation opportunities.
What’s a policy solution for the outdoors you’re working on?
I’m very excited that Representative Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) and I just introduced the Transit to Trails Act. This bill will establish a block grant program to fund accessible public transportation systems and micro transit opportunities to connect underserved communities with recreation lands nearby. For too many families, lack of transportation is a major hurdle to experiencing public lands and parks, but your ZIP code shouldn’t determine whether or not you get to see the natural beauty in your backyard. This bill brings communities closer and will help inspire the next generation of explorers and recreationists. I’m all for using the great outdoors to bring people from different backgrounds together, and the Transit to Trails idea is about removing barriers to accessing our lands so that citizens from every community can enjoy those wonders that are here for all of us.