Two generations ago, they were often written off as a bunch of hippies making backpacks and climbing gear for niche markets. But in recent decades, companies such as Patagonia and REI have become consumer powerhouses and political players, increasingly eager to influence decisions over public lands.
A sign of that clout came this year, when the outdoor industry decided to pull its twice-yearly trade show from Salt Lake City, where it been based since 1996. The shows injected tens of millions of dollars into the Utah economy, but industry leaders decided to pull out after Gov. Gary Herbert and other Utah Republicans started lobbying President Donald Trump to roll back the Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35-million-acre conservation area in south Utah that Native Americans and environmentalists have championed for years.
Industry leaders said they had mixed feelings about leaving Salt Lake but felt compelled to make a move after Herbert refused to reconsider his position.
“Outdoor recreation is a huge economic driver in Utah and Colorado, and we felt it wasn’t being respected,” said Sam Mix, outdoor marketing manager for Osprey Packs, which is headquartered in southwest Colorado. “Public lands are where our customers go to recreate. Without these big wide-open spaces, we’d have no business and no reason to exist.”
Made up of 1,200 companies, the Outdoor Industry Association is based in Boulder, Colorado, with an outreach office in Washington, D.C. The group estimates that consumers spend about $120 billion on outdoor recreation products each year, ranging from apparel to tents, bicycles and camping gear.
Since 1989, dozens of leading outdoor companies have paid into a mechanism to support public lands and environmental causes. With membership dues based on a company’s annual revenues, the industry’s Conservation Alliance has doled out more than $15 million in grants.
Public lands are where our customers go to recreate. Without these big wide-open spaces, we’d have no business and no reason to exist
Sam Mix, Osprey Packs
Compared with oil companies and others with a commercial interest in public lands, the outdoor industry isn’t much of a lobbying force. Recreational Equipment Inc. – REI – spent $210,000 on lobbying last year. Patagonia spent $90,000. By contrast, Exxon spent more than $11 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Yet because of its unique customer base, the industry has learned it can mobilize thousands of dedicated outdoors people through digital campaigns. Over the last three years, for instance, Patagonia alone says it has invested $1.7 million in grants and videos to promote Bears Ears, an expanse of red rock canyons, forests and Native American antiquities spread out south of Canyonlands National Park.
Patagonia, a private company with roughly $800 million in annual sales, has a long history of supporting conservation causes. In recent years, Bears Ears has been its signature issue. In 2015, it produced a lavish video – “Defined by the Line” – that introduced many outdoors enthusiasts to this region. If you click now on the company’s main website, the first image that pops up is a photo of the area’s red-rock mesas, superimposed with a message, “Defend Bears Ears.”
Top Patagonia executives became interested in Bears Ears because of their rock-climbing employees, according to Hans Cole, whose company title is “director of environmental campaigns and advocacy.” Patagonia employees, he said, brought back stories of challenging, picturesque climbing sites such as those at Indian Creek. It was only later that Patagonia learned about the cultural significance of the area, which is filled with ancient rock art and cliff dwellings considered sacred by local tribes.
When Cole paid his first visit to Bears Ears in the fall of 2014, he recalls hiking to the top of Comb Ridge and “standing on the lip of this mind-blowing landscape” while meeting tribal elders worried about the future of the area.
“We were at a point at Patagonia where we wanted to encourage our audience to get even more involved,” said Cole, who has worked eight years at the company. “We were looking for a place where there was an overlap – incredible climbing and yet a need for conservation and land protection. . . . Bears Ears was it.”
In late December, President Barack Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears a national monument. In announcing the decision, the White House noted the inability of Utah’s U.S. lawmakers to protect the area’s artifacts and habitats through public lands legislation.
Even so, the Utah delegation lashed out at what they called Obama’s “midnight monument.” By February, the state legislature passed a resolution asking Trump to undo the new national monument. Herbert signed it, along with a resolution asking Trump also to rescind the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Outdoor industry officials had warned Utah leaders not to take such action. Days after Herbert signed the resolution, Outdoor Retailer announced it would move its trade shows out of Utah after its contract with Salt Lake City ended in 2018. “We’ve been listening to the concerns from the industry and agree that it’s time to explore our options,” said Marisa Nicholson, show director for the trade group.
Some Utah opponents of the Bears Ears monument say they couldn’t care less about the trade show’s exit. Leaders of livestock and mining businesses oppose the monument, fearing that such designations will limit how and where they can earn their livelihoods in the future.
“Let them go!” said Sandy Johnson, a rancher whose family has raised cattle on federal land near Bears Ears since the 1920s. “You start bending to those kind of people and you become a hostage.”
For Salt Lake City, though, the industry’s announcement was a bombshell. According to a University of Utah economic report, nearly 32,000 people visited Salt Lake County because of Outdoor Retailer’s summer show last year, spending $32 million and generating $3.1 million in local taxes. Another 21,000 visitors and $20 million in economic impact was expected from January’s winter show.
In addition, Outdoor Retailer had recently signed a nonbinding letter of intent to expand from two to five shows yearly.
Salt Lake City and Gov. Herbert urged the industry to stay in town. But top executives at REI, the North Face and Patagonia were disappointed in Herbert’s overtures during a Feb. 16 telephone call. The outdoor industry says it continues to seek a home outside Utah for the shows in 2019, with possible bids coming from Denver, Portland, Oregon, and other cities.
In a recent interview with McClatchy, Herbert acknowledged the industry has “had a great run in Utah” and made a case for the trade shows staying in the state.
“We have 15 million more acres of public land” than Colorado, he said. “I still hope we have opportunities to reconcile some differences and let them understand we have spent hundreds of millions of dollar on providing the best outdoor recreational opportunities in America.”
Industry officials say the decision is done. “Utah is a great outdoor state,” said Mix, the Osprey Packs executive. But too many of the state’s elected leaders “are representing a vocal, small minority – the sagebrush rebellion contingent.”
Mix said Osprey and others in the industry would continue to support land conservation efforts in Utah, even with the trade show’s departure.
The industry is gearing up for whatever decision Trump might make on Bears Ears, said Corley Kenna, communications director for Patagonia. If Trump tries to rescind the monument, something the law makes no provision for, “We will use every tool available to speak out and fight it,” she said.