Our outdoor industry needs our support now.

Mark McKnight © Doug Strickland,  Chattanooga Times Free Press

Mark McKnight © Doug Strickland, Chattanooga Times Free Press

The outdoors is my life.

I grew up with a magnifying glass in hand studying bugs and fungi in the woods surrounding our home in North Carolina. In college I stumbled into the outdoor industry, working as a camp counselor and photographer at Alpine Camp in Mentone, Alabama, every summer. Getting kids outside and inspiring them to enjoy the land taught me that I would never be able to take a "normal" job.

As I grew in my career, I channeled my love for the outdoors and active recreation into work with a specialty outdoor retailer, Rock/Creek Outfitters. There, we operated on the mantra that "the outdoors is for everyone" and that it wasn't our business to quantify adventure. A leisurely walk outside was valued as much as a first ascent; the point was simply to get off the couch and out from behind our many screens.

Later, I co-founded a company just to answer the question we heard so often from our customers: "where do I go outdoors around here?" Today I'm fortunate to work to help people across the tri-state region to reconnect with nature and discover the magic of this incredibly biodiverse ecosystem in which we live.

I'm passionate about reconnecting Chattanoogans with nature and our wealth of natural resources — mountains for trail running and rock climbing, lakes and riverfront for fishing, kayaking and paddle boarding — make it an easy sell.

But few of us who cherish our special natural places even know about the benefits provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The fund was established by a bipartisan act of Congress in 1965 to provide funds and matching grants to federal, state and local governments enhancing parks and wild places as well as ensuring America's battlefields and cultural heritage are preserved for future generations. Importantly, no public tax dollars are used. It is funded with revenues paid to the government from offshore oil and gas drilling.

The fund is a huge driver of our recreation economy. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation contributes more than $21.6 billion annually to Tennessee's economy and supports 188,000 jobs across the state. But you can't recreate without publicly-accessible land.

Locally, the fund has provided resources for many parks, including Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, Falling Water Falls natural area and Harrison Bay State Park.

Organizations like Thrive Regional Partnership have identified our natural treasures as one of the main draws for talent and industry. Landing the next big private investment for our community requires that we care for our public lands. I can tell you from my recent experience as a land manager that stewardship isn't free. Far from it. Simply maintaining the Tennessee way of life — in other words, a life enriched by free access to the outdoors — requires smart management of our natural resources. The fund has been working in the background to not only maintain but also improve all of our access to land for outdoor recreation.

Shockingly, continuing to protect public access to the outdoors, supporting working forests and funding our state and local parks aren't sure things anymore. Congress let the fund expire in 2015 but signed a three-year extension. Without permanent reauthorization, the fund expires on Sept. 30. That's only a few weeks from now.

I encourage Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker to champion efforts to save the fund before it expires. Securing permanent funding and reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund is one sure way we can enhance and protect our parks and public lands for future generations of Tennesseans.

Mark McKnight is the executive director of the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, a 317-acre nature park in Chattanooga. He serves as co-chair of Thrive’s CORe Committee for Outdoor Recreation.

Originally published on September 10, 2018 in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. View the article.