Instead of meetings in a conference room, Virginia lawmakers are participating in a caucus spearheaded by outdoor enthusiasts from both political parties who believe strongly that outdoor recreation is a nonpartisan issue.
“Not only is it a way to interact with legislators in an outdoor recreation fashion and hang out with them and mountain bike or hike, but it could be a platform for outdoor recreation issues,” says Jasen Eige, a partner with McGuireWoods LLP Law Firm and one of the organizers of the caucus. “We wanted to do something fun with legislators that could actually be used to help inform them of outdoor recreation issues and topics and help promote the industry here in Virginia.”
A conservative who spent four years as counselor and senior policy advisor to former Governor Bob McDonnell, Eige considers himself “kind of a Teddy Roosevelt Republican when it comes to conservation and the outdoors.”
“I still feel like a bit of an outlier, especially among those that work in government,” Eige says, adding that he’s traveled to and explored enough outdoor-oriented mountain towns “to know that politically I’m probably not in the same boat as the people around me.”
But as far as Eige is concerned, it doesn’t matter who the guys up trail or in the next kayak voted for. That’s precisely why he teamed up with Dominion Energy lobbyist Jim Beamer and the Nature Conservancy’s director of legislative affairs Missy Neff Gould to create the outdoor recreation caucus.
“Virginia has some of the best outdoor recreational opportunities in the country,” says Beamer, a Republican and avid cyclist. “Hanging around the Capitol, you run into folks who, while they may advocate for different issues, share a passion for Virginia’s natural resources, and the caucus was a way to support, promote and advocate for outdoor recreation.”
For Neff Gould, a lobbyist who is “more on the Democratic end of the spectrum,” the caucus is an opportunity to educate and inform.
“I don’t think anybody’s politics precludes them from being a lover of nature and the outdoors,” says Neff Gould. “We thought this was something that would allow legislators to join together around a shared interest and really help them learn about outdoor recreation opportunities they didn’t know existed in Virginia. There are so many that, depending on what part of the state you’re from, you may not be aware of.”
The three organizers also recruited the help of two legislators: Senator Emmett Hanger, a Republican who visits state parks with his wife, and Delegate David Bulova, a Democrat who takes this three kids hiking and camping as often as possible.
“Appreciation for the outdoors cuts across party lines, and I was thrilled at the positive reaction we got when the caucus was first formed,” says Bulova. “One Republican legislator even sent me a picture of his well-worn hiking boots.”
Eige says he hopes even legislators who don’t consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts can still find value in the sessions. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Virginia generates $13.6 billion in revenue, $923 million in state and local tax revenue, and 138,000 direct Virginia jobs.
“Some legislators from the economic and tourism departments are starting to recognize it as a true viable industry,” Eige says. “Even if these legislators aren’t specifically interested in trail running, rock climbing or kayaking, they get that it’s good for their communities.”
Eige hopes it fosters thoughtful discussion and potential policy changes around things like roadside safety for cyclists and water rights issues for paddlers. At the end of the last legislative session, a group of caucus participants bundled up and spent a weekend afternoon together in the James River Park System in Richmond—they explored the trails, admired the water, enjoyed each other’s company, and talked about anything other than work and politics.
“I wanted this to be more fun and informative, and not just a hassle that they have to do,” Eige says. “The whole point is outdoor recreation, and having a bunch of meetings in the General Assembly building is not conducive to that.”