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Thousands of archaeological sites could be endangered if President Trump slashes the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.
Photo credit: Marc Toso, Earthjustice

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The Outdoor Apparel Industry Is Fighting for Public Lands

REI and Patagonia are using their platforms to speak out for national monuments.

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Patagonia Inc. had never run a television advertisement in its nearly 45-year history — until last month, when the Ventura, California, outdoor clothing company decided to spend nearly $700,000 on a TV and radio campaign in three Western states. Yet surprisingly, when the ads hit the airwaves in late August they had nothing to do with its popular fleece jackets, puffy vests, or waterproof duffel bags.

Instead, the 60-second commercials feature Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard fly-fishing on Wyoming’s Snake River, while warning that public lands have “never been more threatened than right now,” thanks to “a few self-serving politicians who want to sell them off and make money.” The ads urge viewers in Utah, Nevada, and Montana to tell U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke not to sell or shrink any of America’s national monuments.

Signs like these are common throughout Salt Lake City, where many residents support stronger protections for public lands.
Photo credit: Russ Arensman

For more than a century, U.S. presidents have used national monument status, authorized under the 1906 Antiquities Act, to protect areas of unique historic, scenic, or scientific interest from mining, logging, and other development. The current list of 157 monuments includes such iconic sites as George Washington’s birthplace, the Statue of Liberty, giant sequoia groves in California, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Yet critics contend that some recently designated sites are too big, too burdensome on nearby communities, and undeserving of national monument status.

Atop the critics’ list is Southern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a scenic but sprawling area the size of Delaware which President Barack Obama designated for protection before leaving office last year. Another leading target is the even-larger nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which then-President Bill Clinton established in 1996, despite concerns that it prevented access to valuable coal deposits. In April, President Donald Trump ordered Zinke’s department to review these and 25 other monuments created since 1996 to determine whether they should be reduced in size or eliminated altogether.

Trump’s executive order, however, has rekindled a long-simmering debate over how much of America’s public lands should be reserved for recreational and aesthetic purposes — and whether they’d be better used to produce valuable natural resources and jobs. It has also sparked a firestorm of opposition from hundreds of outdoor products companies — including well-known brands such as Patagonia, Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), and The North Face — that have enlisted millions of their customers to join them in voicing support for protecting public lands. And while it’s not clear how long it will last, some industry leaders see the resulting wave of political engagement and activism as part of a generational values shift, which could ultimately result in more socially and environmentally conscious companies — and consumers.

A formidable force

Americans spend $887 billion annually on outdoor-recreation products, trips, and related travel expenses, according to the Boulder, Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association. The industry also employs an estimated 7.6 million people, while generating almost $125 billion in yearly tax revenue.

U.S. consumers now spend nearly as much on outdoor recreation as they do on financial services and insurance, and as the popularity of hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits continues to grow, the industry is becoming an increasingly formidable economic and political force. Its members expect their views to be heard and respected, and when they are not — as Utah’s governor learned recently when the state’s largest trade show decided to relocate to Colorado — they are perfectly willing to take their business elsewhere (more on that later).

Yet despite the industry’s growing influence, it’s not yet clear whether it has enough clout to protect existing national monuments from presidential cutbacks. The controversial Bears Ears National Monument, for instance, appears headed for a drastic size reduction, despite the protection it offers to more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites.

President Obama overrode Utah politicians’ objections to create the monument last December. But the monument’s status is in doubt since Interior Secretary Zinke submitted his national monuments review to the president on August 24th. While the secretary’s detailed recommendations have not yet been made public, the New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reports that Zinke is urging the president to remove nearly 90 percent of the original 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears monument — all but 160,000 acres — from its protected status.

Meanwhile, Patagonia officials are cautiously awaiting President Trump’s final decision and have vowed to file suit, if necessary, to prevent millions of acres of public lands from being stripped of federal protection. “We’re ready to take that action,” says Hans Cole, Patagonia’s director of environmental campaigns and advocacy. “We’re absolutely ready to do whatever it takes to push back on this unprecedented threat.”

Broad industry support

As the debate rages on, outdoor products companies large and small are coming together to voice concern over US public lands policy. Last month, the CEOs of more than 350 American outdoor businesses signed a joint letter urging Secretary Zinke to maintain existing national monuments and to “defend the integrity of the monument-making process.”

Outdoor products companies are also encouraging their customers to speak out in support of public lands. Seattle-based REI, the nation’s largest consumer cooperative, emailed its 6 million active members urging them to submit public comments about the national monuments review. Patagonia and The North Face issued similar appeals, and the Interior Department eventually received more than 2.4 million comments.

“The industry is galvanized,” says Alex Thompson, REI’s vice president of brand stewardship and impact. “It’s more united than ever by what it perceives to be an unprecedented threat to the infrastructure of the outdoors economy.”

Farewell to Utah

The most convincing demonstration of the outdoor products industry’s commitment to public lands occurred earlier this year when organizers of the immensely popular Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show decided to move the event from Salt Lake City, its home for the past 21 years, to Denver starting in 2018.

Outdoor industry companies gave Utah Gov. Gary Herbert an ultimatum to be more supportive of public lands.
Photo: Utah Governor’s Office

The loss of the twice-yearly show, which brought nearly 50,000 visitors and an estimated $45 million each year to Salt Lake City, was a blow to Utah’s economy. Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Herbert, calls it “a lose lose situation” for the state, and for the outdoor products industry, which will probably spend more to host the show in Denver.

But the departure is hardly a surprise. Relations have grown increasingly strained between the outdoor industry and Utah’s political leadership, which has long argued against what it sees as an overly restrictive federal approach to public lands management.

The relationship worsened last December, after Obama ordered the creation of Bears Ears, which was quickly endorsed by the industry’s largest trade group, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).

Utah officials were furious, and responded by quickly passing state resolutions urging Trump to rescind Bears Ears’ monument status and to slash the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. That, in turn, led Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Polartec, and several other outdoor companies to announce their refusal to participate in future OR shows, unless they were held somewhere other than Utah.

With the OR show’s Salt Lake City convention center lease due to expire in 2018, and increasing talk of a larger show boycott, the OIA put Utah officials on notice. In a February 14th letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the CEOs of more than 200 outdoor industry companies warned that if the state refused to halt its “all-out assault against Utah’s public lands,” they would withdraw support for keeping the trade show in Utah.

After 21 years in Salt Lake City, the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade show will be moving to Colorado in 2018.
Photo credit: Outdoor Industries Association

The dispute came to a head during a conference call two days later, when OIA officials demanded the governor drop his opposition to Bears Ears and other public lands. Gov. Herbert replied that he had no authority to rescind resolutions or positions taken by the state’s other elected leaders, and added: “if you’re giving me an ultimatum … I guess we’re going to have to part ways.” Within hours, the OIA officials issued a statement announcing their intent to find a new home for the trade show.

“It became clear that we really needed to move the show,” recalls OIA executive director Amy Roberts. “It just wasn’t appropriate to keep our show, and all its economic impact, in a state where we fundamentally disagreed on public-lands issues.”

Finding a political voice

The OIA’s decision set off a flurry of activity around finding a new home for the show, which ultimately landed in Denver, where city and state agencies agreed to contribute $3.4 million toward relocation costs. It also prompted some to reflect upon the outdoor industry’s evolving values and public-policy role.

“The outdoor industry is waking up to the fact that it has a political voice,” says Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. He contends, however, that the industry would benefit from setting aside partisan differences and focusing instead on how outdoor recreation can create jobs and a stronger economy.

Casey Sheahan, CEO of Portland, Oregon-based outdoor footwear and clothing maker Keen Inc., says that today’s consumers expect more from companies, and gravitate toward those that operate sustainably, treat employees fairly, and give back to their communities. “Companies that have a strong sense of purpose have a stronger cachet,” he says.

Matt Powell, sports industry analyst with The NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, New York, says that younger generations in particular expect companies to take visible stances on social issues. “They really are insisting that brands and retailers not stay neutral on key issues, but really step up and take a strong position,” he says.

His advice to the outdoor products industry: “They need to understand what their mission is, express that mission clearly, and demonstrate their commitment to that mission.”

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