Fishing kayaks, climbing gear, and a thousand types of boots. Rooftop carriers, every glove imaginable, featherweight cook stoves, and canine life preservers. A few hundred kinds of water bottles, incredible knives, and all of the latest stand-up paddleboards.

The exhibition floor of the 2016 Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City was a constant hum of deal-making, gear-testing, and product rollouts. An NFF colleague and I were there to meet with our organization’s retail partners and to continue peddling the message about the National Forests as America’s premiere playground.

The “summer show” indeed provides a feast for the eyes. It’s loud, colorful, boisterous, and big. I picked up on a distinct retro vibe: one display was built as a ramshackle fishing camp, another featured a classic Volkswagen microbus. The Stanley Company proudly displayed vintage thermos bottles that easily pre-dated modern, active, outdoor recreation in this country, and Patagonia’s small city was assembled from old corrugated metal panels and weathered boards. Of course, within that throwback aesthetic was the latest and greatest performance gear.

For three days, I saw an entire multi-billion-dollar industry distilled under one roof; well, okay, it also spilled out to surrounding blocks having outgrown the city’s largest venue. This concentration of manufacturers, wholesalers, and outdoor gear innovators are the heart and soul of a large and growing economic sector with $120 billion in product sales in 2012.

Two things impressed me. First, these businesses share a palpable sense of stewardship for public lands. They understand to their core that their long-term viability depends on the places people go to camp, bird-watch, paddle, and such.

Vendors proudly displayed their affiliations with nonprofit partners such as trail groups, wilderness advocates, and environmental causes. Employees of these retailers tend to be deeply involved with efforts to protect the outdoors, and their enthusiasm shows.

The second thing came into focus more slowly.

I began to understand that this industry—these businesses, many family owned – are really enablers of special outdoor experiences that we otherwise could not have.

I’m no gear-head, but I know you can’t standup paddle without a board. That the lighter the equipment, the farther you can go. That the warmer the clothing, the more weeks of the year you can get outside. Sure, at this trade show everyone is trying to make a buck. And they’re also making sure people can pursue the great outdoors (not at all a cliché in this community) in almost limitless ways.

This industry inspires people to get active, stay active and connect with others pursuing similar experiences. It’s an industry that passionately encourages people to explore, claim, and take care of the public lands that distinguish our nation.

National Forest Foundation