America Outdoors with Aaron Bannon- leading the industry in public policy, innovation, and promoting outdoor recreational activities. [EP 222]

June 16, 2020

America Outdoors Executive Director Aaron Bannon is a Casper Wyoming native, spent two years in the Peace Corps and ten years in conservation advocacy before settling in Lander Wyoming to work with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Photo by Seth Cottle on Unsplash

My guest today is a Casper, Wyoming native. He spent two years in the Peace Corps and 10 years in conservation advocacy before settling in Lander, Wyoming to work with the National Outdoor Leadership School, America Outdoors executive Aaron Bannon.

Yeah, I've been in Lander for about 13 years. So a good chunk of life. Yeah. Yeah. Nice. It's a beautiful spot. A lot of people will hit it, like on their way to Grand Tetons or Yellowstone or something like that. But for those who hang out, uh, yeah, there's, it's kind of a climbing Mecca. So you'd find a lot of climbers who make their home here. There's a, you know, a lot of unique formations up in sinks Canyon and the wind river age that are a consistent draw. A lot of history there too.

How'd you get introduced to the outdoors must have been as a kid, right, growing up?

My dad would take us camping every year up in the Big Horn Mountains, which are just a couple of hours North of Casper. There was this annual camping trip. We'd always go to the same spot. I wanted to do a little bit more and I can recall in high school a couple of total junk show backpacking trips that I tried to do with my friends. We took cast iron pots, just ridiculous. But we knew enough to figure it out and certainly enough to still enjoy it.
You spent some time with the Peace Corps too. Where, where were you in the world during that time?
I was in Russia. It was an interesting time, right? It was from 1996 to 1998. And the Berlin wall had just recently fell. The iron curtain had just recently dissolved and I think we were only the second group, maybe the third group of peace Corps volunteers that Russia was even accepting. That program is over now. They don't feel like they need to be treated like a developing country basically. But lucky me, I got to go there when I did. I was teaching English in a small town of 150 people. Basically I taught all the grade levels and it was fairly remote.

You spent some time in DC and in San Francisco as a conference conservation consultant, how those experiences impacted your career?

I had no idea how helpful all that time would be to what I'm doing now. I was doing media work in DC and got to understand the news cycle, let's say you know what you need to do if you want to try to impact or change it. What a press release needs to look like and stuff for media. And training folks who are going to be in front of the camera. I was like a junior media officer. I don't mean to inflate what I was doing, but I learned a lot.
But I always wanted to work on campaigns. Conservation campaigns and as I carried into San Francisco, I was even doing it here in Wyoming. I started to get a sense of what it takes to sort of set the goal, strive for it and overcome, let's say more well-funded adversaries, uh, and, uh, and, and find, find those opportunities. And it's always about sort of grassroots organizing, working with partners. There's a lot of egos that people bring to it which is always challenging. It's all about trying to get the right voice, with the right concern, to the point of decision, whoever that is, right. Whoever you decide your target is, be it a governor or senator, or a company. In the case of that San Francisco role with we're doing a lot of market space campaigns and trying to influence people's shares. And that would be enough to a lot of times to change their corporate behavior.

What are you guys working on these days with America Outdoors?

Work has been all about just trying to protect the operational capabilities of our membership, which is all our guides and outfitters. We're not a huge association. There's three of us right now at America Outdoors. Let's say three paid staff that the membership engages with regularly and is incredibly helpful in everything. So we've been at a level of just trying to interpret what's coming down and how we can help folks sustain their businesses. There are tons of guides and outfitters who've been shut down are not going to operate at all this summer. Then there are other people who will work and try to pull it off. I would say probably 80 to 90% of our membership is going to try to pull it off in one fashion or another. A number of them are gonna try to do it and probably do it at a loss because they recognize the importance of connecting people with the outdoors.

How are you guys navigating the Covid environment specifically? Let's talk about America Outdoors first.

It's been a direct hit for sure. We're a lobbying organization in the eyes of the federal government. So some of the relief packages that have come through we have not been eligible for. The Payroll Protection Program doesn't work for lobbying organizations. And like I said, we're three people now, we were for a month and a half ago. I took a pay cut. We had to reduce a staff member from full time to quarter time. We had to lay off someone else with the hopes that we could bring them back if we have a high and successful membership renewal. Right now we're in the middle of the membership renewal. So yeah, it's been as hard on us
At the same time, we've still tried to perform. We've been pushing a ton of content out to our guides and outfitters really and to the entire industry. We've tried to break down those lines and make everything we have available to people. Whether it's working with them through the Payroll Protection Program, or whether it's, helping them understand their insurance, liability waivers, or trying to get leaders in the various public lands management agencies to connect with our membership and think about what the closures looked like or what reopening looks like.
I think there are a couple of folks who are going to have a really good year if they've got like a livery, right. If they're renting gear you can use to go kayak somewhere, you know? The river didn't shut down, those guys are gonna do okay. Maybe do really well. On the other hand, I mean, you look at grand Canyon. I think they just opened up last weekend, but not to boaters. So those guides and outfitters who were running commercial trips down Grand Canyon are waiting until I think Friday is when they get to start going. So they've already lost like six weeks out of their eighteen to twenty week season, something like that.

Have you heard from guides and outfitters about how they're changing their day to day operations?

Yeah, I would say they're rising to the occasion. I think for operators who have dispersed operations doing a lot of different kinds of trips across the country and have a lot of different bases, they've sort of not been able to pull that off because you know, every agency, every site, every forest has a different protocol, every County. And sometimes the forest is saying you have to comply with all the counties that overlap.
So I think the guides and outfitters that we're doing at best are setting expectations for people too. So when people show up, they know what they're getting, they're sort of constraining their operation in a way that they can manage it. You know, shuttles are real pickle trying to turn people around in a 15 passenger van and still respect social distancing or whatever. So they're either fogging their buses after every trip or let's say like having people wear face masks. Maybe setting up partitions between the seats. Going to all these lengths and just trying to actively clean and maybe push some of their operation outside. Maybe the registration desk is moved from the retail shop to the front porch or something. And also like posting all these protocols, that's a key part of it.

Packraft Camp in Alaska, Photo by Paxson Woelber on Unsplash

There are some significant changes in the world ahead of us. What have you seen or heard in the last few weeks that are inspiring to you?

You know Rick, it feels like we're just moving from one big societal wake-up call to the next doesn't it? Cause we certainly not through the coronavirus. Like we are in the middle of it. I expect a second wave. I don't know when that's going to come, but with all those folks close together and all those protests sites.
George Floyd's death and everything that's come from that, the global movement for equality has been remarkable to watch. And for me in this position has been a wake-up call that we have been probably slow to evolve as an industry, you know? It's a predominantly white industry, at least the parts that I see. Certainly, you don't have to go that far South to see that there's plenty of people who love the outdoors who are black or Brown. And I think it's kind of presumptuous to categorize like towards this white space, but when you go to an America Outdoors conference that's what it looks like. So I think we have our work cut out for us to be relevant from now on

You mentioned you were out outside with your kids recently. What other activities do you participate in these days?

I have a six-year-old and a 10-year-old. So you know, we visit the state parks, Wyoming State Parks has put up a number of yurts all across their system. There's a really nice Canyon just outside of Lander called Sinks Canyon. We were going up there and spent a few days. It's literally a 20-minute drive, which is nice. And you're really in it, we found a walk-in yurt that's really close to the river. It's the Little Porosia River that runs through there. And we went on hikes, went looking for wildflowers. And do you know about that Forrest Fen poem, you know what I'm talking about? Forrest Fen is a guy out of Santa Fe who wrote a poem, he had cancer I think. I thought it was like 98. It could have been, it could have been the early oughts. He's like a rare goods collector and he hit a treasure in the Rockies somewhere. So we were looking for it. I wanted to sort of get the kids excited, so nothing like a treasure hunt. And he had landed here. He flew into Lander like back in 2003 and people would conjecture that he may have even possibly buried his treasure up Sinks, Canyon. So I was said, let's go find it. I’m curious where they found it, they haven't said where they found it. It was like off the Yellowstone River, just outside of the park in Northern Montana. But we'll see.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks that might want to get into the outdoor adventure biz?

Yeah. let's think about folks who have been in an urban environment for a long time and are trying to find a connection. Because I think the paths are a little bit more clear for folks who've had had that. So you know, if you want to be a guide and outfitter, you sorta gotta be a grunt for a while. You gotta get into the ground level. You gotta paddle the supply boat for awhile. But you don't need stuff, you know? Stuff is fun and it's easy to collect and I have more stuff than I need, but I think what you really need is that, you know, a desire for adventure. Look at a map, find that outdoor space that's nearby and go explore it. I remember a time I was living in DC and I got a pair of pants for Christmas that were lined, I think they were these thin polyester pants that had sort of this mesh lining. I was like, Oh, look, these are winter camping pants. I drove into the Shenandoah and went camping because I had these pants. Well, the pants didn't do anything. They were not the equipment that I needed. But it was still just like being inadequately supplied and surviving. Your first time is always a disaster.

Do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear under a hundred dollars?

Yea, this is a little bit of metaphorical, I guess, but it's going to be like a Brunton compass. It's a company that manufactured these things for years, just out of Riverton, Wyoming, 30 minutes North of here. Get a quality compass, figure out how to use it, get a map, like USGS map at $8 a pop or a few of them. So you got a few quads, then you can figure out where you're going. That's my favorite piece of equipment.
If you could have a huge banner to hang at the entrance to the outdoor retailer show, what would it say?
I've been to the Outdoor Retailer show. The America Outdoors doesn't usually have booth there, which is funny, but yeah, good question. Um, gosh, it's like, “we are still here” is almost what I think the banner should say. And I really hope that's the case. I'll tell you what, we've done a number of surveys of the guides and outfitters, just to see how things were going. And when this first sort of kicked off people were saying that if things were shut down for three months or more that they would be out of work, 35% of guides and outfitters were saying that. 60% of guides and outfitters were saying that if they were shut down for six months or more that their businesses wouldn't survive. So, this has all been about survival, right?

So as we wrap up, is there anything else you want to say or ask our listeners?

I just want to appreciate everybody who tunes into your show and tries to find ways to get outdoors and find good gear. It's a great thing that you're doing. I think we both understand that gear is a means to an end. It's great to have good stuff. But it's not necessary to have a great experience. So whatever it takes to facilitate people's ability to find some time in nature. Chill out, get your head together, get your boat in the water, whatever it takes it's invaluable.
If people want to follow up with you, what's the best way?
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