The Wilderness Act turns 50

(The following op-ed was authored by Tom Campion and originally published in The Hill on September 03, 2014.)

Later this month, I have the privilege to introduce Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which was signed into law September 3, 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. I have known Sally for many years and was thrilled when she was appointed Interior Secretary – and not only because it meant that I would no longer have to compete against her for market share. Sally was at the helm of outdoor gear and clothing giant Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) for 10 years, competing against my company, Zumiez, for action sports lifestyle customers.

Secretary Jewell knows that outdoor recreation based on access to wild places is big business, worth up to $646 billion a year to the U.S. economy. She knows that America’s great outdoors is a giant classroom, connecting today’s youth with nature and the value of stewardship at a time when economic disparities and technological obsessions are barriers to their development as engaged citizens. She knows these treasured American landscapes are a refuge, preserving remnants of the wild nature that came before us, while providing a playground for our collective imagination to run free.

I was one of those kids whose outlook was shaped by an early wilderness experience. In the summer of 1961 I strapped on a backpack and, along with my church group, stepped into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. It was the summer between 8th and 9th grades, and I was a blue-collar kid growing up in the suburbs south of Seattle. We wandered and explored the magnificent alpine meadows and ancient forests for 10 days. It was an incredible experience for me, the first of many to follow. I never forgot those early outdoor adventures – packed with lessons in self-reliance, innovation, and problem solving – especially as I entered the competitive world of business.

I co-founded Zumiez seventeen years after that first wilderness journey, in 1978. We’ve since grown into a chain with more than 550 stores in 49 states, employing thousands of young adults. And I can say without hesitation that America’s values and traditions tied to wilderness protection and access to public lands are part of what fueled the growth of my business.

Our business grew right along side the rise of the surf, skate and snowboard culture; three recreational pursuits that thrive on a foundation of public access to public places. Surfers flock to great breaks via public beaches. The explosive growth of skateboarding occurred when municipalities began constructing public skate parks across the United States. And nearly 60 percent of all downhill ski and snowboard runs are found at 122 resorts on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

What’s more, I run my company from Seattle, a city that is a world-class job engine. The companies headquartered here like Amazon, Microsoft and Costco can recruit top talent because of the “Mount Rainier factor,” access to wilderness within an hour of downtown.

I had another more recent wilderness experience that has shaped my civic engagement for the last twenty years. I took a rafting trip down the Hula Hula River in the Alaskan arctic; 120 miles over 10 days with no sign of human presence. I saw thousands of caribou in that one week. I have been back many times since, and am always amazed at the sheer wildness of the place. I realized just how important it is to know there are places that are so untouched; that look much as they did centuries ago.

That’s why I advocate for permanent wilderness protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I am not against so-called progress. Most of my stores are in shopping malls, in towns and cities that are growing every year. But in business we plan ahead; try to look over the next horizon. We need to do the same with our wilderness system by thinking about the places where our children will be able to find adventure, renewal and inspiration. I want to celebrate the first 50 years of wilderness protection by looking ahead to the next 50.

Our public lands and wilderness are part of America’s national character; part of the draw that brings people from all over the world to spend their time and their money here. I am grateful for the unique foresight of those who passed and supported the Wilderness Act, from both sides of the aisle. It continues to benefit my community and my business. And it continues to inspire and motivate me as an American citizen.