Last month, Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf had strong words regarding the relationship between Outdoor Retailer, the premier industry trade show that takes place twice a year in Salt Lake City, and their hosts in Utah.
“If they don’t want to change their policies,” said Metcalf, “we should respond with our dollars, our conventioneers, our money, and take this show to a state more aligned with our values.”
The rebuke came after Utah Governor Gary Herbert and other Utah Republicans laid out plans to challenge and hopefully overturn former President Barack Obama’s recent creation of the Bears’ Ears National Monument in southern Utah, as well as pass a measure to shrink the Escalante National Monument.
This past week, industry giant Patagonia joined the fight. Company spokeswoman Corley Kenna said that Gov. Herbert’s resolution to abolish the new National Monument was the “final straw” for Patagonia, who threatened to pull out of the last show when the plans were announced but not yet formalized.
With Patagonia and Black Diamond, two behemoths of the industry, taking a stand, the show’s organizers have already begun looking into new cities to host when their contract with Salt Lake City ends in 2018. OR director Maria Nichols said in a statement that “We’ve been listening to the concerns from the industry and agree that it’s time to explore our options,” but also reiterated that Utah has been a longtime host and partner and has often engaged in dialogue with the industry.
Since Patagonia’s announcement, several other major retailers have joined the fight. Canadian manufacturer Arc’Teryx, major fleece producer Polartec, and gadget gurus Peak Designs, among others, also announced plans to boycott Outdoor Retailer. Peak Designs CEO Peter Dering wrote in a blog post that “like oil and gas, the outdoor industry has a voice too…if we all band together, it’s actually going to sting.”
There is a divide between groups within the outdoor industry. While Nichols reiterated that they “respect that brands have to make decisions that reflect their values,” she also noted that “the expression of support for the show from exhibitors, large, medium and small, have far outweighed those choosing not to participate.“ Brands like REI, Adidas, and The North Face have come out in support of going to Outdoor Retailer as a way of speaking out.
REI CEO Jerry Strikze said in a statement that “it would be a mistake for us not to gather as an industry this July. Now more than ever, we need to act together to advocate and find a common voice to protect our most important asset — our public lands.”
Outdoor Retailer has been a huge economic boon to Utah since the city began hosting the show biannually in 1996. The show brings an estimated 45,000 visitors and $45 million in local spending. As Patagonia chief executive Rose Marcario told the Huffington Post in January: “what we have is our economic power and the ability to withdraw from it if we need to.” These tensions are not new; when the show’s previous contract needed renewal in 2013, organizers threatened to pull out of Salt Lake unless Utah showed a commitment to preserving public space. Governor Herbert responded by establishing an outdoor recreation department within the state government and promising to preserve Utah’s plethora of natural gems.
Herbert recently responded to the boycott by saying “Utah has always been a public lands state and always will be a public lands state,” arguing that it was the outgoing President’s executive measure, made without budgetary or staffing considerations, that he was challenging and not the importance of the continued existence of public lands.
While Bears Ears has become the focal point of the debate, the disagreement between the outdoor industry and the current political regime spans far beyond a few recently established pieces of the National Park System. In the wake of President Trump’s election, GOP senators announced plans to sell off massive amounts of public land, largely parcels operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Following his inauguration, they wasted no time submitting a proposal to immediately sell of 3.3m acres, in up to 10 different states, totaling a plot of land the size of Connecticut.
This is alarming for members of the outdoor industry in many respects. For starters, the entire purpose of outdoor recreation is predicated upon the ability to freely use wild open spaces. Public land generates billions of dollars in revenue annually, through both recreational tourism and the leasing of land for other use. The BLM makes significant revenue leasing pasture land to farmers, largely for cattle. Selling millions of acres of that land would negatively impact farmers and the environment, as the purchaser would be under no pressure to guarantee the continued preservation of the space and would likely seek more lucrative oil and mining options.
On a macro level, the outdoor industry has also taken up the mantle of championing environmental conservation and fighting climate change. Part of this is by necessity, but most people in the industry would argue that, despite these spaces representing jobs, vacations, and money on both sides, there is a societal value to conservation that outweighs even the industry itself. Most outdoor companies support environmental causes, whether it’s participating in “1% For the Planet” or by supporting organizations and projects, such as expeditions and films for a cause.
Amongst all the political jibber jabber in today’s society, it’s important not to lose focus on what outdoor companies have known for decades: climate change is real, and not only is preserving wild space important in terms of maintaining a pristine environment to offset pollution, but it also provides much needed soothing for the soul. Those that spend most of their lives outside do so for a reason: it makes them feel better. Selling off public land so that it can be ravaged for finite resources is not a palatable long-term gain compared to the enjoyment of millions of people and the support of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
No doubt, Patagonia, Black Diamond and others will continue their strong exchange of rhetoric with Governor Gary Herbert. There is equally little doubt that OR and its consumers will happily move elsewhere and be accepted with open arms; the money the show brings in would be a happy asset to any city with a convention center big enough to house it.
As members of the outdoor industry who have not attended Outdoor Retailer in a decade, we nonetheless find ourselves deeply emotionally involved with the issue. For companies, big and small, that make products designed for the outdoors, this becomes a suddenly personal issue. At RailRiders, we believe that there is a special emotion evoked by outdoor experiences that continues to drive us as a company, and we know that other companies feel the same. It is important to recognize that, for all of the moral obligation our industry feels to protect the land we work and play on, we are also a part of a multi-billion dollar industry that includes other clothing companies, hard good companies, resorts, restaurants, and many other sectors that rely on tourism and outdoor recreation.
If Utah did indeed start selling off its public land, what would it be left with? Even towns as big as Park City revolve around the industry. Without Arches and a huge swath of BLM land that is open for use, Moab likely wouldn’t exist. Salt Lake City itself is home to companies like Black Diamond, Backcountry.com, Kuhl, and Gregory Mountain Products. Peztl, RAMP, Skullcandy, and 4FRNT are nearby. Central location and excellent access to front and backcountry adventure makes the Salt Lake region an ideal hub for outdoor companies; it is a state literally filled with usable open space that provides easy access to every other Rocky Mountain state as well as the Pacific Northwest.
Utah has a conservative political history, one that is bubbling back to the surface after scores were settled in 2013. The reality that the state faces, however, is that the liberal hippies who moved in and brought business with them have created an industry directly at the core of Utah’s economic identity. Governor Herbert would be wise to remember that.