Most Americans – and certainly many in the boating community – don’t know the full extent of our 41 President’s involvement in boating and outdoor recreation matters. Shortly after his death, ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol, Washington Cathedral and in Houston honored George H.W. Bush’s leadership, his patriotism and his remarkable circle of friends. His twin loves of boating and fishing were referenced multiple times – including talk of his boats, Fidelity I-IV, which were high-powered offshore rides.
The president was called “a natural-born fisherman” and others cited his love for going “flat out on the ocean” in his boats.
George H.W. Bush grew up spending time outdoors – hunting, fishing, and more. He realized early on that his intense style of life needed balance. When he became Vice President in 1981, he found himself needing time outdoors – and eager to champion time outdoors to the nation. He wrote a famous article that ended with:
Spurred the response to his article, the Vice President invited recreation leaders to help him use trips to build awareness of the healthy benefits of time outdoors and the shared legacy of America’s outdoor spaces. His first adventure was to Glacier National Park in Montana in the summer of 1983. Visits to more than a dozen recreation sites occurred during George Bush’s tenure as Vice President and President.
When President Ronald Reagan created the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors in 1985, George Bush recruited important recreation industry leaders like Sheldon Coleman (Coleman then owned Hobie, MasterCraft and other boat brands) and Stu Northrup, CEO of Huffy Corporation, to serve on the panel. He aided PCAO leaders (now-U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and then-National Geographic Society CEO Gil Grosvenor) as they crafted a blueprint for expanding and modernizing America’s outdoor infrastructure.
His role in signature conservation efforts included key support of the Wallop-Breaux Amendments to the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act in 1984, adding hundreds of millions of dollars annually in recreational boating fuel taxes to a then-small federal assistance program.
As President, he acted to create new and expanded public-private partnerships, including concessioner operation of national forest campsites; and led efforts establishing the National Scenic Byways System and the Recreational Trails Program in 1991 legislation that also boosted funding for national park roads. He was honored in 1990 with the industry’s Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award.
Bush also signed the “luxury tax” into law in 1991, which levied a 10 percent tax on boat purchases over $100,000. For the boating industry, the tax was a disaster. It is generally credited by many builders with extending the downturn in new boat sales for several years. It was eventually repealed in 1993.
“One of the most vivid memories I have of growing up involves a boat trip Dad and I took …when Dad was in Congress. We had a boat moored in the Potomac and Dad wanted to move the boat to Annapolis where we had access to the entire Chesapeake Bay. We were talking over dinner Friday evening … when Dad suggested we leave right away and spend the night on the river. [The] fog grew thicker and thicker. I was at the wheel … [and] suddenly, a big barge emerged from the fog only feet away from our boat … Almost instantly, Dad’s hands were next to mine on the wheel and together we turned the boat and avoided what seemed to be an inescapable crash. We pulled into a cove, anchored and bedded down for the night … We completed the trip comparatively smoothly the next day, but I’ll remember those 24 hours of shared adventure and talk the rest of my life.”
That boat was succeeded by Fidelity in 1973. After that, followed a series of fast ocean runners capped by Fidelity IV, an offshore fishing boat produced by Fountain Powerboats. Says the company’s CEO, Joe Curran:
“George Bush personally called to buy Fidelity IV. I discovered he shared something in common with tens of millions of us who love boating – the spirit of freedom being on the water with friends and family. And like many boaters, he loved talking about boating – going flat out on the ocean, casting for bonefish in Florida, even about taking his world leader friends out from his Walker Point family home, where conversations were just a bit different than you would have sitting around a conference table!”
For those of us who spent time outdoors with Bush 41, memories include passionate conversations over early coffee around campfires and his joy as a grandfather when Jeb’s son, George P., stepped out of an RV on the drive through Grand Teton National Park and the 8-year-old Florida boy saw his first big mountains.
Bass Pro Founder Johnny Morris shared memories with his millions of customers, saying: “On behalf of all your fellow sportsmen and women, we thank you, President Bush, for being such a genuine ambassador for the great sport of fishing and for your steadfast commitment to fish and wildlife conservation.”
America needs more great champions of the great outdoors like George H.W. Bush in Washington, D.C. As an industry, we need to help make that happen.
Derrick A. Crandall is President of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable in Washington, D.C.