Legislative Forum: Not What I Expected

By Danielle Taylor | Posted on March 7, 2013

Tags: Advocacy

As a first-year employee with NRPA, I attended Legislative Forum this week as a novice, a little wide-eyed at the thought of meeting members of Congress in person and asking for their support on legislation important to the future of parks and recreation. I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly 10 years but have never made a direct connection with any legislators who serve at the federal level, so I didn’t really know what to expect out of this week. Looking back, I’m extremely glad I went, and I think our delegation made some solid progress in advocating for parks and recreation.

The Forum began on Tuesday morning, which was filled with NRPA network and committee meetings, but the afternoon was dedicated to informational and training sessions to help prepare attendees for their day of advocating on Capitol Hill. NRPA’s public policy team did a fantastic job of covering the legislation critical to parks and recreation today, including MAP-21, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Community Parks Revitalization Act, the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, and others. All of these pieces of legislation have the potential to make a huge difference for park and recreation agencies on the state and local levels, and the session leaders gave plenty of insight on how to talk about each item. Namely, supporting these bills and laws will stimulate job growth, economic prosperity, community health and wellness, increased property values, and more, so the public policy team stressed how members of Congress are more likely to respond positively when they see how legislation will improve their jurisdiction. After these sessions, I felt well equipped for the following day, and I enjoyed that evening’s networking reception, confident about my upcoming trip to the Hill.

On Wednesday morning, my group got an early start in order to be first in line for our first appointment with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). I grew up in North Carolina and spent my youth exploring Tarheel parks, so Stacey Pine, NRPA’s vice president of government affairs, had arranged for me to join the 11 N.C. attendees for the day on Capitol Hill. Hagan has long been a champion for parks and recreation, so our group went to her 9 a.m. “Carolina Coffee” session to present her with an award for her support over the years.

While we were waiting, I spoke with Stephen Poulos, director of N.C.’s Watauga County Parks & Recreation Department, who was planning to visit with Rep. Virginia Foxx later that morning. Turns out her grandson plays on one of his department’s basketball teams, and when Stephen had trouble arranging a meeting through Foxx’s staff, her grandson gave her a call and got a meeting set up by the following day. That’s a pretty great connection! Michelle Wells, executive director for the North Carolina Recreation & Park Association, told me a story later that day about how Foxx ran late to a meeting with the North Carolina delegation of NRPA members one year and didn’t make it to the office until right after they had left. When she realized she had just missed the group, she ran down the hall chasing after them because she was so excited to meet and learn what she could do to help support parks and recreation. It’s not every day that a congressperson will run after a group of “lobbyists,” but hey, parks get people excited!

In Hagan’s office, we snacked on Krispy Kreme doughnuts (a North Carolina staple) while waiting for our turn to meet. She was very gracious when we presented her with her award, and she seemed genuinely interested in learning what other ways she could continue to represent the needs of parks and recreation in North Carolina. There was a long line of constituents waiting to meet with her, so our visit was short, but the N.C. delegation of NRPA members easily refreshed the connection they’ve cultivated with the senator over her years in office.

After this visit, the group split up to go to visit different representatives, and I stayed with Larry Bailey, recreation director for the Town of Clayton, N.C., and Michelle to visit the office of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). The senator wasn’t available, but we met with his legislative assistant, who seemed very receptive to Larry’s advocacy for LWCF. While we were there, Larry also mentioned a trail opening happening soon in Clayton and requested the senator’s presence, and Michelle put in a request for help getting a significant Washingtonian to speak at the NCRPA annual conference. Both possibilities sounded very promising!

Our last meeting of the day was with Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C. 7th District), who received NRPA’s National Congressional Award in 2006 in recognition for his commitment to expand and improve upon youth sports opportunities. Larry, who has advocated for parks and recreation with Leg Forum for more than a decade, reiterated the need for continuing support from the congressman on LWCF, MAP-21, and more, and McIntyre agreed to do his best. He also expressed interest in attending the Clayton trail opening, and I know Larry is looking forward to seeing him there. They laughed about an event they both attended last summer where the congressman was up to his elbows in ice cream serving his constituents, and we left feeling good about our visit.

On Thursday morning, three program managers from the National Park Service held a talk where they discussed some youth conservation initiatives that can cross over from national to state and local parks. Overall, our goals are the same—exposing the next generation to nature so they’ll protect what they learn to love. Afterward, a few dozen attendees went out on an NPS tour of the D.C. monuments, but most others who hadn’t already left the previous evening started heading home. I got back to the office early in the afternoon, tired from a full trip but excited about the progress I heard about from other people and their Hill visits.

The last session on Tuesday was about continuing advocacy from home, which I saw firsthand how important that was on my day on the Hill. Some of the legislators remembered members of the N.C. group by name and chatted about their shared history before getting down to business, and it was clear they were much more engaged in the conversation if that personal connection was there. Although the meetings I attended were largely geared toward refreshing the memories of congresspeople who already support parks and recreation, other advocates made first contact with some new legislators who had no idea of the wide-reaching significance and relevance of this field but are now fully on our side.

Not every congressperson is going to run down the hall chasing after us like Rep. Foxx did at a previous Leg Forum, so it’s up to us to keep parks and recreation on their minds and agendas. This means regular contact and sustained relationships with the legislators and their staffs. NRPA’s public policy staff advocates for this field day in and day out and does a phenomenal job, but they’re a staff of three compared to our membership of 30,000. Imagine what we could do if every member made it a priority to stay informed about new legislation and appropriations related to the field and advocated regularly.

Danielle Taylor is the Senior Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine. Follow her at https://twitter.com/AdventureEdit.