Credit: Illustration by Steve Brodner

In January, on the opening day of the Outdoor Retailer trade show, where hundreds of brands, from The North Face to Woolrich, debut their latest goods, Black Diamond founder and former CEO Peter Metcalf published an editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune. In it he demanded that the show pack up and move out of the state, where it’s been held for the last 20 years. Metcalf ’s logic was simple: Utah’s governor and its legislators were in the midst of, as he characterized it, an “all-out assault” on public lands.

In 2012 the Utah State Legislature passed a bill demanding that 31 million acres of federally managed public land be transferred to the state, after which some of it would most likely be sold off to the highest bidder. Today, Utah lawmakers continue to push divestiture, and are pushing to shrink or scrap national monuments in the state, including the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument. And they’ve been unabashedly promoting the interests of mining and other extractive industries over outdoor recreation, the latter of which adds an estimated $12 billion per year to the state’s economy and supports some 120,000 jobs. The Outdoor Retailer show itself, held twice a year, brings in $50 million to Utah, and dozens of outdoor companies — including Metcalf’s Black Diamond, as well as Petzl, Gregory Mountain Products, and others — are based in the state. And the state’s largest industry, tech, relies on Utah’s recreational opportunities and quality of life to lure talent to the state. So why shouldn’t the outdoor industry, with a massive economic impact on the state, have a say in government policy that ultimately affects their customers and bottom line?

“Politicians in Utah don’t seem to get that the outdoor industry — and their own state economy — depends on access to public lands for recreation.” 

“Political officials,” Metcalf declared, “neglect the critical role public lands play in boosting Utah’s economy, making the state a great place to live, work, and play.”

Soon after Metcalf ’s salvo, other outdoor businesses followed suit. Yvon Chouinard, founder of apparel icon Patagonia, wrote his own op-ed titled “The Outdoor Industry Loves Utah; Does Utah Love the Outdoor Industry?” In it he threatened to pull his company’s participation from the show if Utah continued to push for rescinding Bears Ears, which Barack Obama designated before he left office. Indeed, a week later, after Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill requesting President Trump delist Bears Ears, Patagonia announced it was pulling out of Outdoor Retailer. Arc’teryx was the next domino to fall, and they agreed to donate the money they would have spent on the show to the Conservation Alliance’s new Public Lands Defense Fund. Polartec soon followed. 

“Politicians in Utah don’t seem to get that the outdoor industry — and their own state economy — depends on access to public lands for recreation,” says Ron Hunter, Patagonia’s environmental activism manager. “We are a huge industry. We should have a legitimate voice in how public lands are managed.”

For their part, Utah’s politicians see Patagonia’s decision as an ultimatum. “It feels like a tantrum rather than a chance to try to engage in something constructive,” says Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff for Herbert.

The outdoor industry, for much of its existence, has been careful not to take partisan sides and, perhaps as a result, has been dismissed by Washington insiders as a loose collection of dirtbag climbers and tree huggers, rather than the thriving, tech-driven sector of the economy that it is. But a recent bipartisan bill passed in Congress, the Outdoor Recreation, Jobs, and Economic Impact Act, or REC Act, tasked the budget office with separating statistics on outdoor businesses from other manufacturing and recreation figures and officially assessing the industry’s overall economic impact. The Outdoor Industry Association, the nonprofit that represents outdoor companies, has conservatively estimated that figure at $646 billion, and if the government tally comes in close to that, it will translate into massive influence.

“Having the support of our entire industry is crucial. It lets activists know that they’re not alone in this fight, and it lets lawmakers know that a large industry will not stand for efforts to compromise or threaten our public lands.”

Emboldened by their gripe with Utah, many outdoor companies are already taking their fight to the national stage, where a Republican Party in control of Congress and the White House has issued a blitz of orders and laws intent on radically changing public lands and environmental protections. Its platform calls for transferring public lands to states, rolling back environmental regulations, even doing away with the Environmental Protection Agency altogether. Suddenly the outdoor industry has found its values under threat like never before, while at the same time waking up to the fact that it’s a major player during one of the most politically fraught moments in U.S. history. So far, it seems they’re wiling to rise to the occasion.

After a bill was introduced to repeal oil- and gas-drilling bans in national parks, Seattle-based Outdoor Research posted instructions on how customers could contact lawmakers to fight the legislation. REI CEO Jerry Stritzke published a pointed letter criticizing the Trump administration’s policies. “Over the course of the first week alone,” Stritzke wrote, “we’ve witnessed actions that conflict with our values on issues including climate, the environment, women’s rights, and the singling out of individuals based on nationality and belief. These issues are core to the health of the outdoors and the ideals of our nation.”

On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, the OIA even published an open letter to lawmakers with the signatures of the CEOs of 100 outdoor businesses, which it then ran as a full-page ad in the Washington Post. “We do not often unite as an industry in the way we are today but we are compelled to make clear our collective view on a vitally important issue that affects the economic health of our industry, our local communities, and the lives of all Americans,” the letter stated. A hundred more companies have signed on since it ran in the Post.

“Having the support of our entire industry is crucial,” says Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. “It lets activists know that they’re not alone in this fight, and it lets lawmakers know that a large industry will not stand for efforts to compromise or threaten our public lands.”

Since Trump came to power, there has been renewed interest from consumers in voting with their wallets, essentially boycotting companies that support the current administration. Uber, L.L.Bean, and New Balance all have had run-ins with angry consumers. But those boycotts are largely mobs of individuals deciding, sometimes effectively, sometimes not, to make personal spending decisions. The outdoor industry’s collective pushback against government policy may have a much more dramatic impact, considering the amount of money at stake and its uniform, almost universally appealing message: protection of public lands and getting Americans outdoors.

Of course, outdoor companies aren’t doing this entirely out of altruism. Consumers support brands that take a stand, and according to a study by Montana-based creative agency MercuryCSC, they will rally behind brands that fight for environmental and social causes. “The customers want to see that the brand’s purpose or principle is more important than profits at some level,” says Mike Geraci, MercuryCSC’s chief strategy officer. “If you are asking your consumers to stick their necks out, you need to as well.”

So far the results are promising, if mixed, for the outdoor industry. In January, after Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, introduced a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public lands across the West, outdoor groups and businesses, including normally conservative hunters and anglers, inundated social media feeds with their outrage, sparking rallies in Montana and New Mexico. The outpouring was so strong that Chaffetz announced he was withdrawing his bill just a week later, posting on Instagram: “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter, and love our public lands . . .  but groups I support and care about fear [the bill] sends the wrong message.” Outdoor Retailer, shortly after Utah’s governor signed the Bears Ears resolution, said it will not automatically renew the show’s Salt Lake City contract in 2018, as it has for years, and will instead open a bidding process for other cities that would better fulfill its needs and values. But on other fronts — drilling in some national parks, a bill eliminating law enforcement privileges of the Bureau of  Land Management and the Forest Service to protect those lands — legislators are moving full steam ahead.

Despite the challenges, OIA’s executive director, Amy Roberts, is determined that a united voice and the sheer economic power of the outdoor industry will prevail. “Nothing is more impactful to a member of Congress than hearing from the retail shop owner on their hometown Main Street or the CEO of an outdoor company employing several hundred people in their community,” she says.

That impact will certainly be helped by the official government numbers that come out of the REC Act. The law counts outdoor recreation as a component of national GDP, essentially listing it on legislators’ spreadsheets on a level playing field with extractive industries like mining and logging. Depending on the final figures, due in the next 18 to 21 months, it may prove that outdoor recreation has an even bigger impact on the U.S. economy than the pharmaceutical industry. The REC Act may also prove that the outdoor industry, and the huge, sustainable windfall associated with it, is the dominant economic force when it comes to public lands, rather than drilling and other extractive uses.

“We don’t need fewer public lands. We need more,” says Luis Benitez, head of Colorado’s new Outdoor Recreation Industry office. “We need to utilize outdoor recreation as a driver of the economy.”

More troublesome to politicians, recreation also accounts for growing numbers of voters willing to speak with both the ballot and their bank accounts. The REC Act may make that problem painfully obvious. “We have some economic muscle, especially since the REC Act passed,” says Patagonia’s Hunter. “The government now has to recognize that recreation has a legitimate voice.”