Presenter urges unity as cure for social ills

Luis Benitez has reached the top of the famed “Seven Summits” — the tallest peaks on all seven continents — a cumulative 32 times, including being a six-time summiteer of Mount Everest. Benitez gave a presentation for Hispanic Heritage Month on Monday at the Redlands Mesa Clubhouse.

The outdoor industry has great promise to shore up struggling economies, offer peace to overwrought individuals and help deal with a range of social ills, but only if it comes together, the director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office told the Western Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce on Monday.

Luis Benitez recounted an experience in the Himalayas that marked for him a political awakening and a realization of the complexity of the confluence of politics with the world of outdoor recreation that he knew.

The upshot, he told about 30 people at the chamber luncheon at Redlands Mesa Golf Course, was that there is much more to outdoor recreation than the chance to make a living in the outdoors.

“I truly believe that the outdoor industry can change the world,” Benitez said.

It was while he was camped in 2006 on Cho Oyu Pass in the Himalayas that he first dealt with the politics of a life that has taken him six times to the summit of Mount Everest, once with a blind climber.

At 26,000 feet on Cho Oyu, though, he witnessed a string of refugees from Tibet making their way over the pass into Nepal, from where they planned to go to India to see the Tibetan government in exile and pursue their educations.

The refugees, however, were fired on by troops under the Tibetan flag, Benitez said. The likelihood was that the troops were Chinese because Tibet is claimed by China, which exiled its government and the head of the Buddhist religion, the Dalai Lama.

“An international human-rights violation was going on right in front of us,” Benitez said, noting that he expected headlines and outrage about the incident.

What he found, however, was that his guiding friends and associations were strongly divided on whether to do anything about the attack. One side wanted to ignore it for fear of harming guides’ ability to gain the permits they needed to operate their businesses, and the other wanted to shine a light on the outrage.

He chose to write about it and that path led to his meeting with the Dalai Lama and now to heading the state’s efforts to promote and grow the outdoor recreation industry.

Nationally, that industry accounts for $800 billion in spending annually, including $23 billion in Colorado, Benitez said. That can give the industry a powerful, bipartisan voice on a variety of issues ranging from the management of public lands, national monuments and the U.S. Forest Service’s fire budget to the treatment of people who immigrated illegally to the United States as children.

“The days of thinking that we are not economically important or influential are done,” Benitez said. “The industry has to bring relationships to the point to where we can get along.”


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