Representing the Outdoors: Senator Rob Portman

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. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Senator Portman (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? 

I can think of a lot of great trips, but one memorable one was whitewater canoeing on the beautiful White Oak Creek in southern Ohio. After a big rain, this normally quiet Appalachian creek becomes a challenging Class-3-plus river with big waves. Four of us decided to run the river in two canoes rather than whitewater kayaks, thinking that would be a fun challenge. It was. We had flotation but no spray skirts and after a wild ride and some bailing we went into the final gorge and totally submerged as we hit a wave train. The canoes were like submarines and we washed out. My paddling partner and I were happy to have good life jackets as we struggled to get to shore without losing our paddles. One of the other paddlers made it to shore, too, but no sign of the fourth friend. The three of us ran along the river bank yelling the name of our friend with no luck. My heart sank. Toward the end of the gorge was a bridge and there, about 150 yards away, I looked up to see the sweetest sight I could imagine: my friend, our fourth paddler, waving to us with both arms. He said he was taught never to leave his boat, so he held on for dear life through the gorge and made it out the other end. He did wisely abandon the boat when he got to the bridge. The very next afternoon, when I was back in my office in Washington, I got a call from the county sheriff, a friend, who informed me that a canoe was wrapped around a tree just below the bridge, 20 feet above the now more normally running White Oak Creek! The next time it was flood stage we ran it in kayaks.

What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear and what do you love about it?

I’d have to say the high-volume whitewater kayak now hanging in my conference room that I used on a source-to-sea 1,900-mile kayak trip on the Rio Grande during college. It is an old fiberglass Mark IV, with lots of gray tape, having been lovingly repaired many times over.                                       

What are the outdoor places in your state or district that people should visit?

Ohio is proud to be the home one of the most-visited national parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. If you spend even an hour there, you’ll see why. Last year, I had the honor of helping to cut the ribbon on their new visitors center. I’ve hiked the trails that overlook beautiful waterfalls, kayaked the Cuyahoga River that flows through the park and biked on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail that runs through the park. There is just so much natural beauty there and something for everyone to enjoy.

What are the most pressing conservation and stewardship issues our country currently faces? 

One stewardship issue I am very concerned about is the $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance projects in our spectacular National Park System. Needed repairs like trail fortification and road paving and repairs to visitors centers are building up and it’s making the parks less safe for visitors. We need to fix these infrastructure problems so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the parks for generations to come. I’ve seen this firsthand in Ohio, where there’s a more than $100 million backlog in long-delayed maintenance projects at our eight national park sites.  

We also need to ensure we are being good stewards of our land and water to ensure our natural treasures are around for future generations. In Ohio, we are lucky to have Lake Erie on our northern shore. In the Senate, I have worked hard to protect that incredible water source from harmful algal blooms and invasive species, as well as from things like microbeads—tiny pieces of plastic used in some soaps—that were harming our fish and getting into the food chain. I’ve also worked to provide federal support for ensuring public access to more public lands for camping, fishing and hunting.

A Congressional headshot of Senator Portman

Photo Courtesy: Senator Portman (R-OH)

What role can the outdoors play in promoting health and well-being among U.S. citizens?

Being outdoors is good for the body and for the mind. Not only do you get exercise in nature, but in my experience the fresh air and beauty of nature clears your head and improves your mood. It’s an easy and natural pick-me-up. And the natural beauty of the public lands across the U.S. is a draw in its own right.

What do you see as the biggest threat to public lands and waters today?

In Ohio, much of our focus is on keeping invasive species out and dealing with issues like toxic algae blooms. A warming climate makes some of these issues more difficult, as we see with the algal blooms.                             

Why is access to public lands, parks and waters important to you?

I’m a lifelong outdoorsman. In fact, I’ve been a REI Co-op member for a few decades, and I’ve always been grateful for the ability to take in all the natural wonders of America. Being in nature is good for your health and helps you to better appreciate God’s creation. 

What impact does the outdoor recreation economy stand to make nationwide?

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation annually accounts for 7.6 million jobs, $887 billion in consumer spending, and nearly $125 billion in tax revenue across all levels of government. It’s a worthwhile investment and I’ll continue to support increasing outdoor recreation.

What’s a policy solution for the outdoors you’re working on?

I introduced the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act to help address this $12 billion in delayed maintenance projects we’ve discussed. It has strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and I’m hopeful that we can get it signed into law this Congress.