When asked about the single biggest obstacle to Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) public policy agenda this year, Todd Keller responds without hesitation.

“The election,” says the OIA’s new director of recreation policy from his new digs at Sorini, Samet and Associates, the Washington, DC-based lobbying firm that has advised OIA on trade issues in recent years. “That’s the biggest thing we are up against. Four years ago, everything pretty much shut down by mid-summer.”

Keller expects the same thing to happen this year. “We won’t see development on all of these bills until after the election,” he says.

That’s the political reality facing OIA as it bulks up its public policy arm to become more assertive on public land and trade issues. The organization represents more than 4,000 manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, sales reps and retailers in the outdoor industry.

OIA’s recreational agenda promotes federal funding for programs that maintain or develop outdoor recreational amenities. In recent years, the Bush administration has steadily decreased funding for the National Forest Service, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). Democrats are viewed as more friendly to these initiatives.

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the LWCF has provided $3.6 billion in grants for 40,000 federal, state, county and local government projects. Roughly 75 percent of that money went toward the “close to home” parks that OIA deems critical to encouraging outdoor activities. Federal funding for LWCF matching grants has steadily declined in the last seven years, from $144 million in 2002 to $30 million in 2007. OIA is pushing Congress to boost state matching grants to $125 million in fiscal year 2009.

OIA has also fought for an increase of roughly $20 million for the NLCS, to $70 million. The NLCS was created in 2000 to permanently protect 26 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management for recreational uses. The system, which includes such popular features as the Pacific Crest Scenic Trail, generates half of the recreation fees collected by the BLM, but gets less than 4 percent back.

On the other hand, many conservation groups praise the Bush administration for the proposed National Park Service Centennial Challenge. The initiative seeks to provide $100 million a year for 10 years, matched by private donations, to raise $2 billion for the NPS in time for its 100th anniversary in 2016. Bush secured $25 million for the current fiscal year, but Congress has yet to establish the fund. OIA is also lobbying for $161 million in funding for NPS operations for 2009.

In the second aspect of its public policy agenda, OIA seeks to reduce tariffs on several categories of imported products. In all instances, reports the association, an outdated tariff system still taxes items that are no longer produced in the United States and can only be imported. OIA has also found itself engaged in a perennial battle to beat back a number of Chinese trade bills, including one that proposes slapping tariffs on Chinese imports to compensate for that country’s undervalued currency.

Keller will play a key role in these efforts. As a veteran beltway operative, Keller became OIA’s first Washington-based staffer earlier this year. A self-professed political junkie and former bike and ski mechanic who rides with a DC-based road cycling team, he has lobbied or handled public relations on behalf of conservationists, environmentalists, hunters and fishermen, and even kidney patients. He helped the Environmental Trust reform a century-old mining law and has worked on global warming, forestry and health care issues.

As an industry group, OIA can gain access to executives that other advocacy groups cannot, notes Keller. Getting an executive to pick up the phone and call a representative or senator on a key issue will give OIA valuable currency in Washington’s world of constantly shifting coalitions.

Having a set of feet on the ground will also provide a necessary constant presence in DC.

“In Washington, it’s referred to as ‘being in the room,’” explains Keller. “A lot of environmental groups work on these issues from an ideological perspective. But OIA represents, indirectly, the user groups. We want to protect these places so we can fish, rock climb, hike and whatever”.

One of Keller’s first tasks was to help develop a reception at OIA’s annual Capitol Summit in April, kicking off fundraising for a newly minted political action committee.

OIA’s three-member public policy team will also put together a white paper recommending policies for the next administration. It will be handed off to those on that administration’s transition team responsible for Interior Department appointments.

Even as OIA becomes more sophisticated in its public policy efforts, Keller points out that member involvement forms the solid base. Moreover, when it comes to swaying a senator or representative, there is no substitute for phone calls, e-mails and letters from constituents.