Care for nature and it will reward our state

We are fortunate that Washington state’s economy has a diverse array of strengths as we work to continue our recovery from the Great Recession.

We build the world’s best airplanes. We design software that’s changed the way we work and socialize. We grow some of the country’s best fruits and vegetables, producing, in fact, 92 percent of the nation’s red raspberries. But to keep our economy growing, we need to recognize all of our strengths and leverage them to our advantage.

One critical asset we have is our lands and natural resources. They provide us with spectacular outdoor recreational opportunities. From Mount Baker to Mount Rainer or Olympic National Park — our rivers, lakes, mountains and forests are some of the most pristine and breathtaking areas of the entire country. Too often, they are talked about as just an amenity for our residents. When in fact, our proximity to these places gives us an incredible economic opportunity that is uniquely Northwest. These lands represent an economic engine for our state, employing 227,000 people and generating $22.5 billion in consumer spending every year, according to a 2012 report by the Outdoor Industry Foundation.

From hiking, fishing, mountain biking, hunting and winter sports, outdoor recreation is big business, accounting for 6.1 million jobs nationwide. The jobs created from outdoor recreation range from outdoor touring companies to the retail clerks at your local fishing and tackle store. There are many rural areas, such as Concrete, Darrington, Monroe, Skykomish and Index in my district, where industries such as logging or mining have declined. In these areas and many others, outdoor recreation can have a dramatically positive effect, bringing in dollars and jobs.

More so than any other part of the country, our forests, mountains, rivers and lakes can simultaneously be both a source of economic revitalization and a way for people to enjoy nature’s respite from the bustle of the city.

What’s more, Washington is already a leader in the outdoor industry with a number of great companies that call our state home. Local companies like REI, Filson, Cascade Designs, Outdoor Research and Brooks are responsible for thousands of jobs in our state.

We also have companies such as K2 and Werner Paddles that manufacture equipment and gear used by people around the world. These businesses are an important part of ensuring we have manufacturing jobs here at home, which account for $7.1 billion in wages each year.

All this points to the need to have a strong focus on growing this sector of our economy, just like we do when it comes to our aerospace or agriculture.

The core of this strategy must be preserving our natural resources in a way that keeps them accessible for people to enjoy today and generations from now.

This is why I’ve sponsored several bills to protect lands and help grow our economy. Working with Congressman Dave Reichert and Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, we’ve introduced legislation to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Just a short drive outside of Seattle, the Alpine Lakes is a stretch of pristine nature that is enjoyed by thousands of people. I’ve also introduced legislation along with Congressman Rick Larsen to save a historic fire lookout on Green Mountain inside the Glacier Peak Wilderness that will be removed if Congress doesn’t act. Built in 1933, the beloved lookout is a popular day hike that includes panoramic views of Glacier Peak and Mount Baker. Finally, I’ve introduced legislation to protect 14 miles of Illabot Creek in Skagit county.

In addition to legislation that protects our natural resources, we must actively maintain our outdoor spaces and access to them. It is crucial that we invest in our existing parks, waterways and trails. Preserving access to these public lands helps the businesses and communities that depend on the tourism and activities that boost the regional economy. It’s another reason why Congress must pass a budget that makes investments where we will get returns that result in increased economic growth.

For Washington to have a vibrant, strong economy, we must remember that our outdoor recreation industry should play a starring role. Elected officials, civic and business leaders must come together to support the industry and protect the natural beauty that makes living and working in Washington so special.

Rep. Suzan DelBene represents Washington’s first congressional district.

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