George H. W. Bush – A Champion of America’s Great Outdoors

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During recent ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Cathedral and in Houston George H.W. Bush was honored for his leadership, his patriotism and his remarkable circle of friends.  His love of boating and fishing and the great outdoors was referenced multiple times – including talk of his boat, Fidelity, a not-too-traditional fishing boat – a high powered Cigarette-class offshore ride. Not discussed was another anomaly – the lefthanded President typically used fishing rods for righthanders simply inverted.

Most Americans – and certainly many in the RV community – don’t know the full extent of our 41st President’s involvement in parks and outdoor recreation matters. It is a good time both to stop and appreciate what a strong friend in the White House can mean for our industry – and to commit to gaining that support again in the days ahead.

George H.W. Bush grew up spending time outdoors – hunting, fishing, and more.  He realized early on that his intense style of life needed balance.  When he became Vice President in 1981, he found himself needing time outdoors – and eager to champion time outdoors to the nation.  He chose to share his championship of outdoor recreation in an article entitled “The Importance of Recreation in America.”  His article appeared as a guest editorial in nearly a dozen magazines – reaching millions of recreation enthusiasts, recreation industry leaders and even frequent flyers.  Publications carrying the article ranged from Snow Goer to Passages, Northwest Airlines’ inflight magazine.  His article ended with these words:

“…we have an opportunity as never before to create innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors.  For recreationalists like you and me, that’s good news indeed.”

The Vice President, spurred by response to his article, then invited the American Recreation Coalition and The Coleman Company to help him use trips to build awareness of the healthy benefits of time outdoors and the shared legacy of America’s parks and outdoor spaces with trips.  His first adventure was to Glacier National Park in Montana in the summer of 1983.  U.S. Senator Alan Simpson and his wife accompanied the Bushes on that multi-day trip, which produced great pictures that appeared in many publications including the cover of Trailer Life.  George Bush signed the tent he and his wife used … the air mattresses in that tent, by the way, were replaced after the first night by Barbara Bush with mattresses taken from a nearby Western RV fifth wheeler!

Visits to more than a dozen recreation sites took place during George Bush’s tenure as Vice President and President. He visited Grand Teton NP several times – including to unveil his Clean Air Act initiative.  He went to Mount Rushmore and the adjacent Black Hills National Forest.  He hiked the Grand Canyon, boated in Everglades National Park.  He visited Sequoia National Forest and signed an order protecting the giant trees – one of which now bears his name.  He visited the National Elk Refuge and the Jackson National Fish Hatchery.  He floated and jetboated rivers including Oregon’s Rogue River, and even led volunteer efforts at urban units like D.C.’s Anacostia Park where he worked alongside industry leaders from KOA to Brunswick, Disney to Huffy, L.L. Bean to Bass Pro and more.

When President Ronald Reagan created the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors (PCAO) in 1985, Vice President George Bush recruited important recreation industry leaders like Sheldon Coleman and Stu Northrup, CEO of Huffy Corporation, to serve on the panel.  He aided PCAO leaders (now-US Senator Lamar Alexander and then-National Geographic Society CEO Gil Grosvenor) as they crafted a blueprint for expanding and modernizing America’s outdoor infrastructure.

His role in signature conservation efforts included key support of the Wallop-Breaux Amendments to the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act in 1984, adding hundreds of millions of dollars annually in recreational boating fuel taxes to a then-small federal assistance program.  And he helped us back down OMB Director David Stockman who quickly sought to handcuff this giant achievement.

As President, he acted to create new and expanded public-private partnerships, including concessioner operation of national forest campsites; and led efforts establishing the  National Scenic Byways System and the Recreational Trails Program in 1991 legislation that also boosted funding for national park roads.

He played a role in expanding the Reagan-era Take Pride in America (TPIA) program fighting vandalism with allies like Clint Eastwood and honoring outdoor volunteers with TPIA and Points of Light recognition.

His support for outdoor recreation earned a full-page story in USA Today featuring a wonderful caricature. He was honored in 1990 with the industry’s Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award.

For those of us who spent time outdoors with Bush 41, though, the most intense memories include passionate conversations over early coffee around campfires.  I recall his joy as a grandfather when Jeb’s son, George P., stepped out of an RV on the drive through Grand Teton National Park and the 8-year-old Florida boy saw his first big mountains.

Bass Pro Founder Johnny Morris shared memories with his millions of customers:

“On behalf of all your fellow sportsmen and women, we thank you, President Bush, for being such a genuine ambassador for the great sport of fishing and for your steadfast commitment to fish and wildlife conservation!”

America needs more great champions of the Great Outdoors like George H.W. Bush in Washington, D.C.  We can help make that happen.

This guest column originally appeared in RV Business 12/11/2018