Conservation Currents | Senator Ranker Talks Surfing, Bagels, and Championing Our Public Lands

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Washington State Senator Kevin Ranker discusses how to best protect our public lands - and his favorite surfing spot.
Peter Dunau Peter Dunau
Content and Communications Manager
November 20, 2018
Conservation Currents | Senator Ranker Talks Surfing, Bagels, and Championing Our Public Lands

Fresh off a trail run behind his house on Orcas Island, Washington State Senator Kevin Ranker hopped on the phone with The Mountaineers, exclaiming “I got outside this morning; everything’s good!” The senator joined us on the heels of a grueling legislative session in Olympia and was recharging as he always has: with a healthy dose of nature. Ranker has been bridging passion (for the outdoors) and policy, since taking office in 2008. He was instrumental in bringing our state its first policy advisor on outdoor recreation, implementing No Child Left Inside legislation, and establishing the San Juan Islands National Monument — all important issues to The Mountaineers.

What made you fall in love with the outdoors?

I grew up surfing with my father and grandfather. Some of my youngest memories are on the water watching bat rays swim under my feet. I just remember being in awe of these magical animals, swimming right through the kelp forest beneath me. Then I’d turn around and paddle into a beautiful wave. Getting to share that with my father and grandfather was so special. I was learning to surf at the same time I was learning to walk.

Then, my Grandma moved to Orcas Island in 1969, so I spent every summer on the island and just fell in love with it. I asked my mom if I could move there and live with my Grandma for a time, and she agreed. I lived on Orcas Island in fourth and fifth grade, and that’s when I really fell in love with the Northwest and everything about it.

You’re clearly passionate about our public lands. How has that passion influenced you professionally?

It doesn’t matter what title I’ve had, whether it’s senator or director of a nonprofit. I’ve pretty much done the same thing, which is look at the convergence between a thriving natural environment and thriving communities. Some of that comes from a conservation angle and some of that comes from a community and economic development angle.

As an elected official in Washington State, I recognized that outdoor recreation is one of our largest economic drivers. It generates $21.6 billion in annual spending and 198,000 jobs. Part of my mission as a lawmaker is to make sure my colleagues understand that economic impact. Recreational resources aren’t just fun - you don’t protect the environment just because it’s fun. You protect it because of all the benefits - and there are health benefits and economic benefits and environmental benefits. 

What do you see as the biggest threat to public lands?

Privatization, be it permanent or leasing. Four years ago, I put money in the budget to do a comprehensive economic analysis of outdoor recreation in Washington State. I had one motivation for that: protecting our public spaces. I want to make sure all my colleagues understand that the economic value of the land as a recreational resource dramatically outweighs its temporary value as a logging or mining area.

The study proves it. I can go to my colleagues and say, “Here’s the jobs in your district that directly rely on state parks and these other public places. If you shut them down, if you sell them, if you mine them, you will actually have a loss of economic drivers.” It’s not the environment versus jobs; it’s the environment equals jobs.

Biggest opportunity?

I believe the greatest opportunity we have before us is the millions of people who have woken up and are willing to take a stand for their public lands. They’re calling their state officials. They’re calling they’re federal officials. And they’re screaming that we take action. I think all of us, be it an organization like The Mountaineers or an elected official like myself, need to pay attention to that.

National Monuments have been a significant public lands issue of late. Your district is home to San Juan Islands National Monument, created in 2013. Can you speak to the process of establishing that monument and its effect on the community?

I was extremely lucky to have been a part of creating the San Juans National Monument. Even before I got involved, there was a group of citizens that came together on Lopez Island. What they realized is that we had all of these public places throughout the islands, and we thought of them as permanent recreational resources. We thought of them as parks. But if you looked at their actual designation under the Bureau of Land Management, some of them had the lowest forms of protection. In fact, islands like Patos, which we thought of as a park, could have been clear cut or mined.

This group started saying, “Jeez, what do we do about it?” They realized if the San Juan Islands were designated as a National Monument, it would be permanently protected. That group of people reached out to others, and we started momentum at the absolute grassroots level with bipartisan support.

From there it grew as a campaign. We worked with Senators Murray and Cantwell, Congressman Larson, and directly with the White House. It took a couple years: Maria Cantwell, Rick Larsen, and Patty Murray all held community meetings. And then Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior at the time, came out and held a couple community meetings. Based on that extensive process, it was designated as a National Monument, and now it’s permanently protected.

You introduced and played a key role in passing Senate Bill 5843, which established Washington State’s first Policy Advisor on Outdoor Recreation and Economic Development. Can you tell us more about what this means for Washingtonians?

It’s now part of our state statute! Forever we will have a policy adviser to the governor who will focus on three things: 1) Protecting and creating more opportunities for outdoor recreation; 2) Getting more people outdoors; and 3) Promoting and supporting jobs that depend upon the outdoor recreation economy.

We’ve worked with you on No Child Left Inside, a state grant program to provide under-served students with opportunities to experience the natural world. Why is this work important to you?

No Child Left Inside is a perfect example of what states should be doing, and I’m actually working with legislators in five states right now to replicate it. It creates a competitive grants program — totaling $1.5 million this year — to get kids outside. From downtown Tacoma to very rural Washington, grants go out to everything from outdoor learning to outdoor adventure camps to day programs to week long programs.

The program also aims to help our veterans. During the grant application process, priority is given to organizations that hire vets. That’s really important to me because outdoor recreation is physically and mentally proven to help many of our veterans coming home.

If we can promote outdoor recreation, while getting kids and veterans involved, that’s just as good as it gets. That legislation had massive bipartisan support, it continues to do so. It’s a really exciting concept.

What advice do you have for nonprofits like The Mountaineers to be even stronger advocates for our public lands?

I believe every politician, no matter a city council member or president, needs two factors to do the right thing: political cover and political pressure. That means I need a hundred people to come into my office and say, “This is the most important thing ever. Please do this. We got your back if you do this.” They’re giving me political cover. They’re saying, “Go for it. Be our champion.” But I also need political pressure. And what that means is I need those same 100 people to come in and scream and yell and kick me out of office if I don’t do the right thing. 

You’ve got to be willing to play hardball. You’ve got be very vocal about expressing what your desires are. You’ve got to make sure it’s perfectly clear what you need and why that’s important to my constituents. Tell the stories, and most importantly, have my constituents tell me those stories. If I go sideways you cannot let me off the hook. The lesson cannot be that I get a mulligan every time I vote against our recreational resources.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to outdoor recreationists wanting to #ProtectPublicLands?

They need to join organizations like yours; they need to come down to Olympia and reach out to me so that I hear their voices individually. Those individual voices are even more important than the organizations.

Favorite wild place in Washington?

Surfer in me: La Push. Runner in me: Turtleback Mountain, right behind my house on Orcas Island.

Are you the best surfer in the state legislature?

[Laughs…] I think I’m the only surfer.

Post-adventure meal of choice?

Toasted onion bagel with cream cheese and tomato. My Grandpa used to say, “Smells like bagels” when he was done surfing and ready to go in for breakfast. Now, all my friends and I say it when we're ready to call it quits on the water.

Hear more about Senator Ranker’s love for our wild places and how we can protect them at our annual breakfast on Wednesday, September 20, 2017. Senator Ranker will introduce Patagonia’s President and CEO Rose Marcario. For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2017 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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